Casuals of the Sea

by William McFee

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1376

First published: 1916

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Domestic realism

Time of work: Early twentieth century

Locale: England

Principal Characters:

Bert Gooderich, a machinist

Mary, his wife

Young Bert, his son

Hannibal, another son

Minnie, Mary’s daughter

Briscoe, a ship’s captain

Nellie, Hannibal’s wife

The Story:

Mary fell in love with the baker’s boy. When he deserted her, she went home, with country-bred fortitude, to bear her child. After Minnie was born, Mary received a proposal from Bert Gooderich, a stolid machinist. Bert offered nothing in the way of romance, but Mary accepted him thankfully. They settled in suburban London. In time Bert Junior was born, and later Hannibal.

Young Bert early showed a talent for fighting. He was big and strong and led the graders against the boarder pupils and the parochial boys. Noting his carefully planned skirmishes, the school inspector, an old army man, resolved to keep the boy in mind. His resolution was strengthened when Bert blurted out in school that he hoped to be a soldier. A few years later, the inspector encouraged the boy to enlist. Young Bert’s career in the army, however, was short. He was killed at Pretoria.

Minnie was difficult. She was thin and reserved, and her mother, feeling powerless to mold her, finally let her go her own way. Minnie became engaged to a coal clerk but broke the engagement publicly when her fiance asked her if she smoked.

Minnie worked at a shop where she retouched photographs. One day an American firm took over the place and introduced machines. Let out for a time, she refused to go back on the usual terms. Mary begged her to take back the coal clerk, but Minnie was adamant.

Next to the Gooderich family lived an American woman, Mrs. Gaynor, and her small son Hiram. Mrs. Gaynor wrote an odd letter of reference for Minnie, which stated that the girl was proud, stubborn, and conceited. She sent the girl with the letter to Mrs. Wilfley, who was having a party when Minnie arrived at the door. Despite her assurance, the girl was afraid to go in, but middle-aged Anthony Gilfillan helped her to overcome her shyness. Minnie attended the party, listened to Spanish music, and ate cucumber sandwiches. She kept close to Anthony.

After the company had left, Mrs. Wilfley engaged Minnie as her secretary. When Bert Gooderich fell off a bridge one night and was drowned, Mrs. Wilfley promptly arranged a benefit for the family, a musicale which grossed seventy-four pounds. Mrs. Wilfley’s fee was sixty-seven pounds; the bereaved family got only seven, and Minnie was bitter on the subject.

One day Anthony Gilfillan sent a telegram to Minnie and asked her to meet him at his office. He offered her a way to escape from the life she hated. They went away to the Continent.

Five years later Minnie, now known as Mabel, was staying in a little hotel in Rouen. The mistress of Captain Briscoe, she was respected and even envied by the world of occasional light ladies in Rouen. Minnie was nonetheless apprehensive; the ship captain had been gone three weeks, and he had promised to be back in one. When Captain Briscoe finally did return, he came only to say good-bye, explaining that he no longer dared to keep her because his first mate was from his hometown. They parted without a scene. Minnie went into the dressmaking profession in London. Soon, however, her smitten captain sought her out and offered to marry her. A little amused at the idea, she consented.

Eighteen-year-old Hannibal had grown into a big lout. He was troublesome to his mother, who often had to get him out of foolish scrapes, and he had lost his factory job. One day Hiram, in his merchant marine uniform, and Mrs. Gaynor came to call. Hannibal, inarticulate and bungling, was attracted by the idea of going to sea and even went so far as to visit Hiram’s ship. Later he heard that the S.S. Caryatid needed a mess boy, and so he signed on.

On shore, meanwhile, Minnie had asked her mother to come and live with her during Captain Briscoe’s long absences. Satisfied with this arrangement, Briscoe joined his ship at Swansea, the S.S. Caryatid.

In port, Hannibal was spreading his wings. Quite by chance he met Nellie, a plump, merry girl who had come to town to work for her uncle, a tavern keeper. Never understanding quite how it happened, Hannibal became an engaged man before his ship sailed. He adapted himself easily to life at sea. In time, he grew tired of his job in the mess room, and at Panama he became a trimmer. Wheeling coal was hard work, but after a while, Hannibal felt proud of his physical prowess.

In Japan, he met Hiram, and they went ashore together. Soon after the ship pulled out on the long trip home, Hannibal was stricken with fever.

Captain Briscoe wanted to look after his young brother-in-law, but he had other matters to worry him. He had picked up an English paper in port and had learned that Minnie was in jail, arrested for taking part in a suffragette demonstration. To add to his confusion, Minnie’s letters were short and disappointing. The ship then piled up on a coral reef near the Dutch East Indies and was refloated only after long delay. The ship barely reached England in time for Christmas.

Captain Briscoe met Hannibal on the dock and persuaded him to go to the hotel where Minnie was waiting. Reluctant to go because of Nellie, Hannibal found both his mother and Minnie at the hotel. During her husband’s absence, Minnie had earned fat fees by writing advertisements for a cough syrup. She and her mother urged Hannibal to stay with them, but he refused.

At Swansea he learned that Nellie, now the licensee of the tavern, still wished to marry him. Hannibal settled down in the pub, secure and well-loved by a capable wife.

His cough kept bothering him. Finally, after trying a patent cough syrup to no avail, Nellie called the doctor. Hannibal had lobar pneumonia. The coal dust had settled in his lungs and the cough syrup, which Nellie had bought after seeing an ad written by Minnie, had nearly killed him. Hannibal rallied a little, but he died within a few days. Death seemed as casual as life had always been.

Critical Evaluation:

William McFee’s CASUALS OF THE SEA is an example of one of the hundreds of novels that come out each year, receive good but not spectacular reviews, and then fall into obscurity after a year or so. The reason for the disappearance of such novels is not necessarily that they were not good pieces of literature, but that another set of novels were written to take their place on the reading tables of the general public.

CASUALS OF THE SEA could not be considered a modern classic in the sense of THE GRAPES OF WRATH or OF HUMAN BONDAGE, because it is not being continually read and criticized; but still it has merits, which rank it as a fine novel. One of the elements which made it a success and which continues to make it pleasant reading today is its treatment of the sea scenes. McFee had spent considerable time at sea and, in fact, had written much of the novel aboard ship, although it was completed while he was living in the United States. His experience with the common seaman made his characters and their adventures at sea seem quite real to the landlocked reader. The characterizations of ordinary seamen and the English common man gave substance to a story whose plot alone might not have held the reader’s interest.

An interesting sidelight of the book is McFee’s treatment of the advertising world when Minnie takes to writing slogans for cough medicine. It amuses the modern reader, familiar as he is with anti-Madison Avenue literature, to find that advertising could have produced ill effects apparent enough to make the field a source of scorn in a work written in the early part of the twentieth century.

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