W. Clark Russell’s numerous sea novels continue that colorful breed of sea literature in the tradition of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pilot and The Red Rover. The Wrick of the “Grosvenor” helped to slake the thirst of the English-speaking public on both sides of the Atlantic for sea yarns. Unlike Cooper, however, Russell specialized in tales of the sea; and his novels were popular in the days when “Britannia ruled the waves.” The Wreck of the “Grosvenor” is still one of the most popular of Russell’s many novels. Russell wanted the novel to teach a lesson by exposing the meanness of shipowners who turned good sailors bad, bad sailors outrageous, and harmless sailors into criminals. Russell attempted to expose the rascals who sent rotten ships to sea, ships with rotten food as well as rotten timbers. He believed that since the wrongs done to English sailors were not understood ashore, sailors had few champions. One would have to live, work, and suffer with sailors to appreciate their misery—to go aloft, man pumps, eat salt pork and sea biscuit, drink wormy water, and experience shore temptations, such as the harpies who drug and fleece sailors.
Few sea stories are as stirring as The Wreck of the “Grosvenor,” and Russell’s works are said almost to comprise a mariner’s encyclopedia. It is almost as if Russell communed with the illimitable ocean and took some of its power for his descriptions; the reader sails and lives with the good, bad, and indifferent crew members of the Grosvenor. From first page to last, the reader suffers the suspense, violence, storm, shipwreck, mutiny, cruelty, pathos, and tragedy that were the lot of the crew and cannot help but admire the blue-water sailors of the days of “iron men and wooden ships.”
Reforms aboard vessels that flew “the red ensign” (traditional bunting of the Merchant Navy as compared to “the white ensign” of the Royal Navy) were indirectly implemented by Russell’s novel. Russell closed his book by lamenting that the battlefield of Waterloo had monuments for officers but not privates, while naval expeditions to the North Pole bred plaques commemorating naval commanders. “But we have little to say about Poor Jack, who dies by scurvy on the North Pole.”