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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1371

First published: 1877

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Adventure romance

Time of work: Nineteenth century

Locale: The Atlantic Ocean

Principal Characters:

Mr. Royle, the second mate of the Grosvenor

Mr. Coxon, the captain

Mr. Duckling, the first mate

Mary Robertson , a survivor from a...

(The entire section contains 1371 words.)

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First published: 1877

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Adventure romance

Time of work: Nineteenth century

Locale: The Atlantic Ocean

Principal Characters:

Mr. Royle, the second mate of the Grosvenor

Mr. Coxon, the captain

Mr. Duckling, the first mate

Mary Robertson, a survivor from a shipwreck

The Story:

As the Grosvenor was preparing to leave its British port, the wind died and the ship lay anchored in the Downs. The crew aboard grew increasingly discontented; at last, the cook stopped Mr. Royle, the second mate, and showed him a biscuit from the ship’s store. This biscuit, as well as the other food served to the crew, was crawling with vermin and inedible. When Mr. Royle brought the matter to the attention of Captain Coxon, that officer was indignant; the food was good enough for sailors who, he insisted, had eaten much worse food. Furthermore, he did not want Mr. Royle to fraternize with the crew. It was apparent, however, that the crew was likely to mutiny once the ship was on the high seas, and so the Captain and Mr. Duckling, the first mate, went ashore and came back with an entirely new crew.

After the ship had been a few days at sea, the new crew approached Mr. Royle to complain of the rations. The Captain had the food brought to his table, where he tasted it without flinching, but he hinted that he would put in at some convenient port and take aboard new stores. When he made no attempt to change the ship’s course, however, the crew became even more resentful. Mr. Royle tried to remain neutral. If he so much as spoke to any of the crew, the Captain would consider him mutinous. It he sided with the Captain and Mr. Duckling, the crew, in the event of a mutiny, would probably kill him. Nevertheless his anger mounted, and his disgust reached a high point when the Captain refused to rescue survivors from a shipwrecked vessel.

Some time later, another wrecked vessel was sighted, and the crew insisted that Mr. Royle be permitted to bring the the survivors aboard. The survivors were Mr. Robertson, the owner of a shipping firm, his daughter Mary, and a man who had gone mad from the terrifying experience of shipwreck at sea. Mr. Royle did everything he could for the Robertsons; the third survivor died. For his part in the rescue, Mr. Royle was confined to his cabin and put in irons.

One night, the crew mutinied. The Captain and Mr. Duckling were killed, and Mr. Royle was set free. He promised to steer as the crew wished if they in turn would promise not to kill the steward, whom they especially hated because he was in charge of ship stores.

It was the plan of the mutineers to anchor off the coast of the United States, and then, after they had reached shore, pass themselves off as shipwrecked sailors. After a while, however, Mr. Royle discovered that the real intention was to scuttle the ship and leave him and the Robertsons aboard to die. With the help of the loyal boatswain, he hoped to foil the scuttling attempt.

Mr. Royle had become very fond of Mary Robertson and told her frankly of the situation. They decided to say nothing to her father, who was losing his memory. Mr. Royle planned to steer the ship close to Bermuda instead of the Florida coast. Since none of the crew knew anything about navigation, he was able to set his own course. The boatswain planned to hide himself below decks and kill the man who went below to bore the holes in the ship’s bottom.

One dark night, Mr. Royle threw a box of nails over the rail, and everyone thought that the boatswain had fallen overboard. In reality, he had gone into hiding. When the time for the scuttling drew near, Stevens, the leader of the mutineers, went down to do the work, instead of another member of the crew. Mr. Royle was frightened; if Stevens were killed, the crew would soon discover his death. The leader, however, came back and ordered the lowered longboat to pull out. As the crew rowed away from the ship, the boatswain appeared to tell that he had merely plugged in the holes as fast as Stevens bored them. When the crew in the longboat saw what had occurred, they attempted to board the vessel. All, except one, were unsuccessful, and that sailor was put to work.

When a storm arose, those on board were unable to handle the ship. The ship began to leak, and Mr. Royle realized that the water could not be pumped out. During the storm, Mr. Robertson died. A Russian steamer passed by and refused to save them. The mutineer lost his mind and died. Then the longboat, pushed toward them by the storm, collided with the ship. Mr. Royle decided to abandon the Grosvenor. Before they left the sinking ship, he and Mary Robertson pledged their love to each other.

Mr. Royle, Mary, the boatswain, and the steward pushed off in the longboat. At last, they sighted a steamer that answered their signals. After Mr. Royle got Mary Robertson aboard, he collapsed. When he awoke, he found himself in bed, attended by a Scottish doctor. Mary came in with the boatswain. They told him that the steward had gone completely mad.

Mary reminded Mr. Royle of his promise of marriage, but he said that he could not marry her before he had made his fortune. She insisted that he would not be a poor man if he were married to her. She said that she loved him for himself, and she knew that he loved her for herself, not for her money. Mr. Royle finally agreed. They were married, and Mary provided handsomely for both the boatswain and the steward for the remainder of their lives.

Critical Evaluation:

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.”

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