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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1537

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First published: 1834

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Adventure romance

Time of work: Early nineteenth century

Locale: England, France, and various ships at sea

Principal Characters:

Peter Simple, a naval officer

Ellen Simple, his sister

Terence O’Brien, a fellow officer

Lord Privilege, Peter’s rascally uncle

Captain Hawkins, Lord Privilege’s illegitimate son

Celeste O’Brien, Peter’s beloved

Colonel O’Brien, her father and a French army officer

The Story:

Peter Simple was the younger son of the younger son of Lord Privilege, an English viscount. Because there was apparently no chance of the lad’s inheriting any money, he was sent to sea at the age of fifteen as a midshipman so that he could earn a living for himself.

Coming from a country home, Peter knew almost nothing of the world; fortunately, however, he had served at first under a very gentlemanly captain. He was also befriended by an older midshipman, Terence O’Brien. During his first days aboard the Diomede, a British man-of-war, Peter was hazed by his fellow midshipmen because he seemed at times as simple as his surname, but under the tutelage of the crew in general, and O’Brien in particular, he soon learned to become a good sailor. Before many months had passed, he became fairly proficient in seagoing matters and earned the approval of his officers.

At every opportunity, Peter went where there was trouble and excitement. He had no fears; consequently, he got into tight places several times, but serious trouble did not occur until he stowed away in a boat that was sent ashore to spike a gun battery on the French coast. French infantry surprised the raiding party, and Peter and his friend O’Brien were captured; they had remained behind to finish the spiking of the guns while the rest of the sailors made their escape.

Peter had been wounded in the escapade, and the colonel of the regiment and his young daughter nursed him back to health before he was sent to prison. The daughter, Celeste O’Brien, was devoted in her attentions to Peter, although he was an enemy. After his recovery, Peter and his friend O’Brien, who was no relation to the French colonel, were sent to a prison at Givet. Although the military prison was the stoutest in France, they finally made their escape, thanks to O’Brien’s ingenuity, and they crossed France in two sets of disguises. At first, O’Brien dressed as a policeman and escorted Peter as his prisoner. When that ruse was discovered, they disguised themselves as traveling performers. As they passed through one town, they accidentally met Celeste O’Brien and the colonel, who not only kept their secret but gave them a purseful of money. After some difficulty, the two fugitives made their way to England. Peter’s grandfather, Lord Privilege, invited the boy to visit him. Several deaths had occurred in the family, and Peter was now third in line for the title, after his father and uncle, and the latter had no legal male heir. Thanks to his grandfather’s assistance, O’Brien was commissioned a lieutenant. The two were assigned to a frigate and went on a cruise to the West Indies.

During the second cruise, word came to Peter that his uncle was very unhappy over the grandfather’s patronage and help for the young man; Peter, busy at sea, paid little attention to the news. At last, his sea duty ended, and Peter returned to England. There he studied for examinations that would lead to his own commission as a lieutenant. He almost failed to pass, however, because he appeared at his examination dressed in a very unmilitary fashion. He was excused, however, when the military examiners learned that his appearance was the result of saving a soldier from drowning.

Thanks to a deception passed upon his now senile grandfather, Peter was given his commission. While Peter was still home on leave, the old man died. When his will was read, it was discovered that Peter and his father had not been left any money because of the interference of Peter’s rascally uncle, who now succeeded to the title of Lord Privilege. The shock made Peter’s father partially insane. Peter was forced to return immediately to duty.

On his third tour of duty, Peter was separated from his friend O’Brien, who now commanded a ship of his own. Peter’s new captain was a man named Hawkins, who was, as it turned out, the illegitimate son of Peter’s uncle. At his father’s request, Captain Hawkins made life miserable for Peter. Lord Privilege wanted to discredit Peter because he had discovered that his uncle, anxious to keep the family fortune for his own children, had replaced his fourth daughter with a male infant at the time of her birth. Fearful that Peter’s investigations might bring the truth to light, the uncle hoped to discredit Peter so that any charges the young man might bring against him would be scornfully rejected.

When the troublesome voyage was over and Peter’s ship was back in an English port, Captain Hawkins had Peter court-martialed on a series of counts, and Peter was relieved of his duties, although the court-martial board sympathized with him. Peter was not sorry. After learning of his father’s death, he wished to help his sister. On his way home across England, Peter was robbed and taken ill. Lord Privilege went to get him, and while Peter was still delirious, the uncle had him committed to Bedlam asylum.

For twenty months, Peter was an inmate in the asylum. One day, Celeste O’Brien and her father happened to visit the place and recognized him; with the help of an English nobleman, they had him released. Peter immediately started a suit against his uncle for false imprisonment. While the suit was pending, his friend O’Brien arrived back in England, bringing with him the wife of the soldier whose life Peter had saved years before. It turned out that the woman was the mother of the child whom Peter’s uncle had substituted for his own daughter.

A short time later, Lord Privilege was exclaiming to his lawyer that he hated his nephew and wished to see him dead. At that moment, the uncle’s substitute son fell from a window and was killed. The shock of the event was so great that the uncle had a fit of apoplexy from which he never recovered. Within a matter of hours, he too died. The title along with a large fortune and vast estate then passed to Peter.

Peter’s happiness at his good luck was increased when he and his friend O’Brien found Peter’s sister Ellen a few days later. She had been left penniless at her father’s death and had gone through great troubles. When they found her, however, she had become a singer on the stage.

A few weeks later Peter, firmly entrenched in his new title and fortune, married Celeste O’Brien, the girl who had befriended him on several occasions. Peter’s sister married his friend O’Brien, who had been made a baronet for his outstanding services as a naval officer. They lived quietly thereafter, satisfied to exchange family life for the rigors of the service.

Critical Evaluation:

Frederick Marryat is a spinner of yarns. Unafraid of coincidence, sentimental or wildly improbable actions, he wrote a “few million” words that still live despite the puerility of his stories of the contrivance of his plots. His secret is energy, the indefatigable energy of a man who had experienced most of the incredible adventures he recorded in his fiction.

Like Conrad (the writer of the sea who eventually eclipsed Marryat’s reputation), Marryat spent twenty years at sea before he took to fiction. Largely because of the range of his actual naval experiences, Marryat’s work has an even greater ring of authenticity than Conrad’s for Conrad had never tasted the warfare and violence that Marryat had known intimately in the Napoleonic Wars. Marryat’s realism established the robust, humorous, and “steel-nerved” themes and tones associated with fiction about the sea. Conrad himself credited Marryat with the creation of the modern myth of the sea; for example, the sea as a test of man’s courage, virtue, and endurance. Certainly the works of Kipling and even Hemingway attest the justice of Conrad’s judgment.

One of the most engaging traits of Marryat’s fiction is its readability. The limpid style keeps action alive from page to page despite the contrivance of the plotting. Without relying on arcane mariners’ terminology, Marryat succeeds in depicting with unusual clarity the most intricate actions involving ships, the sea, and men in struggle. He is a master of verisimilitude: readers see in detail, as well as with panoramic scope, all the things he wants them to see. The real measure of his achievement is the fact that illustrations to his works are superfluous. Even young readers, and they have always been his principal audience, will not complain of the lack of pictures. They are there in the words.

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