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NELSON Love & Fame
By Edgar Vincent
Yale University Press Copyright © 2003 Edgar Vincent
All right reserved.
Foundations for Life
The Child is father of the Man
William Wordsworth, 1807
`Jump!' shouted the boatman and on a chilly March morning in 1771 little Horatio Nelson leaped from the boat which had brought him out into the Medway, clutched at the gangway's hanging side ropes, so thick that his childish hands could not close round them, and began an agile and eager assault on the towering side of the Raisonnable. Up he scrambled, past the lower deck gun ports and an instant stink of stale humanity and bilge water, past the main deck ports, until at last he hauled himself on to the upper deck which suddenly appeared, smooth and shining white under its great banded masts and filigree rigging, the air heavy with the mingled aromas of wood, rope, tar, paint and metal. At twelve and a half years old he had entered the theatre of his life.
Horatio Nelson is variously reputed to have been born in a coach (not an unlikely possibility, given the state of eighteenth-century roads and the likely obstetrical fluency of a sixth child) or at a neighbouring farm because the family home was under repair, or indeed at Burnham Thorpe Rectory where his father Edmund Nelson was rector. But whether in coach, farm or rectory, he was born on Michaelmas Day, 29 September 1758. His mother Catherine, now thirty-three, was a statuesque, determined woman who had already borne the rector five children. Her firstborn Edmund had died soon after he took his first steps. Her next, the first Horatio, died even sooner, a babe in arms. Happily her next three, Maurice, now five, Susannah, now three and William now one and a half, all survived to be Horatio's elder brothers and sister. His own arrival was quickly followed by that of Ann, a second Edmund, then Suckling, then George (who lived for only six months) and then Catherine or 'Kitty', the baby of the family. In eighteen years of marriage Catherine Nelson had eleven children. Being part of such a family, with motherly attention at a premium, overshadowed by his elders and quickly supplanted by new babies, Horatio had to behave like a puppy in a litter or a chick in a brood. If he wanted or needed more attention than was available he had to compete for it successfully. He went on competing for it, and getting it, for the rest of his life.
But on Boxing Day in 1767 his mother died when he was nine, an event which was to resonate throughout his life. Nothing is recorded of how he coped, whether and how he grieved, with anger and hot tears or childish stoicism; what his own imaginings, fears and desolations were when the candles were put out and he went down to sleep. Whatever may have been the case, it is striking that only twice in his voluminous papers and correspondence did he refer to his mother, and even then only indirectly. He used to say that he had learned his hatred of the French at his mother's knee. In the penultimate year of his life he wrote, 'the thought of former days [at Burnham] brings all my Mother into my heart which shows itself in my eyes'. This deep silence may have been an unconscious rebuke to his mother for so abruptly leaving his life or he may have held himself to be profoundly at fault: in either case a memory suppressed, because too painful to recall. The results of childhood bereavement are now too well understood for there to be doubt about the impact of this traumatic event. Its resonances are found in his lifelong search for love and affection, his constant thirst for approval, his periodic bouts of emotional distress, and his acute anxiety that others he loved might, in their turn, desert him. These, to a greater or lesser degree are among the inheritance of all bereaved children. It is pitifully ironic that such childhood loss seems to provide an added and powerful motive force for those who have the capacity and opportunity for great achievement, so that an apparent handicap in life becomes an advantage.
Edmund Nelson was among the kindest, most considerate and most easygoing of men and fathers. It is easy to see where his son's own good nature came from. And so the young Nelson grew up with servants, 'Will indoors' and 'aide de camp' Peter Black's who were treated in a friendly, jocular and whimsical way as unofficial members of the family. He also absorbed the ambiguity of a father who was a man in uniform, a man of the cloth, set apart in authority, in the pulpit or study, a man who combined a kind and considerate nature with a veritable litany of official 'musts', 'shalts', 'must nots' and 'shalt nots'-an interestingly appropriate model for a future naval officer. More important was the fact that although like any other paterfamilias Edmund Nelson had his sticking points-the children had to sit up straight and he was quirky and arbitrary in forbidding the use of spectacles-there is never a hint of rigid control, of authoritarianism or of excessive ambition for his children. Horatio had plenty of room in which to develop his own personality and follow his own star. His father, preoccupied with the weight of parish duties, might well have been inadequately attentive but no dark shadows were placed on Horatio's childish psyche by the parental domination, coldness, over-high expectations or ill treatment which have produced fatal flaws in so many leaders.
There was however another side to the paternal coin. Edmund Nelson was to a degree ineffectual, unambitious, something of a hypochondriac, 'easily put in a fuss', 'tremulous over trifles', not a practical person either about his land and garden or his children's futures. Widowed at the early age of forty-six he seems not to have had either the energy or the inclination to find himself a new wife, an obviously practical and sensible step for a widower left with eight children aged between fourteen years and ten months-although for the same reason it would be a considerable challenge to find another woman to take them on. Whatever his motivation, he decided 'to take upon the care and affection of double parent'. His father's unheroic sides did not appeal to the young Nelson and produced an ambivalent response in him. He would always regard his father with respect and affection; he would always be generous to him; but he always treated him protectively, as a person to be sheltered from reality, not someone to look to for help or advice. Except to the extent that he might have mimicked certain eccentricities of dress or turns of phrase, he did not identify with him. There does not seem to have been closeness between them. His young life, indeed his whole life, was to be wide open to other influential father figures. Such was this ambivalence that he neither visited his father in the days preceding his death nor did he attend his funeral.
As Nelson grew up, William, the brother closest to him in age, inevitably became his playmate and schoolfellow. Supplanted by Horatio, he had at first tried bullying as a means of expressing his feelings. Horatio had an instinctive sense of how to deal with bullies. His early biographer Harrison tells how Catherine Nelson said to those who would intervene on Horatio's behalf during one of these ill-matched bouts, 'let them alone, little Horace will beat him; let Horace alone'. For small boys, fisticuffs are generally a route to reconciliation. Anyway, when the boys went off as exiles from home, to board first at the Royal Grammar School at Norwich and later at the Paston School at North Walsham, they had to stand shoulder to shoulder against the naturally occurring assaults and cruelties of other small boys. Horatio seems to have emerged as the leader and William the follower. Yet it is very noticeable that Horatio developed a habit of humouring his elder brother. He was never able to resist the demands which William never ceased making.
Nelson's schooling was chiefly remarkable for making little impression on him. He was not aroused by learning. His formal education, like his father's literate example, left few marks on him. Culture, in the wider sense of books, music, art, architecture, antiquities, seems never to have had the slightest effect on him. He recalled little, apart from a handful of half-remembered shadows of quotations from Shakespeare and surprisingly even fewer biblical allusions. His syntax, punctuation and spelling were always idiosyncratic, his arithmetic unreliable. He left school with his native powers of mind and expression intact but with a potentially limited range of interests. Boarding-school itself was a mixed blessing. It did for him what it does for all who have the capacity to survive: it strengthened his resilience, self-reliance, independence and capacity to mix with others; shipboard life would be less of a shock for him than for some others, for example his friend and future Admiral, Cuthbert Collingwood. It also added to the disruption of his early family life.
Insight into Nelson's childhood is based mainly on deduction from behaviour in his adult life and from what is known of his family. If anecdotes are by definition untrustworthy, the three most commonly related are repeated here only because of a characteristic common element. It is said that as a five- or six-year-old he wandered off with a companion near his grandmother's home at Hillborough and went missing. When a search party brought little Horatio home to his grandmother, she scolded him in her relieved anxiety, 'I wonder that fear did not drive you home' and he replied, 'Fear Grandmother I never saw Fear, what is it. It never came near me'. And at the Paston School, where he was lowered from a dormitory window, to harvest the Headmaster, John Price Jones's pears in dead of night, he did it, not for the fruit, but 'because every other boy was afraid'. And then when snowdrifts looked like blocking their way to the coach which would take them back to school after Christmas and to turn back offered an unexpectedly extended holiday, Horatio urged William on, 'Remember brother it was left to our honour'. It is the voice of these anecdotes that is so interesting. They sound like the first flowering of his capacity for histrionics, his tendency in later life to singularize himself with utterances which surprise, command and always take the moral high ground. A certain grandiosity and priggishness may have been fully fledged in him from the beginning. Conceit, a sense of difference and a certain self-righteousness are supposed to be characteristic of parsons' children, but such attributes are not greatly admired by other small boys so they must have been counterbalanced by some very winning ways, as they were in later life. Alternatively, if we ask what sort of boy would have grown to be a man like Nelson we should think especially of his headlong aggression as a naval officer. Then we can readily imagine how this shrimp of a lad would have flown at his first tormentor and with a tornado of flailing fists, established credibility among his schoolfellows.
Nelson's mother had clearly been a good catch for his father but it is less clear why she married him, given her family's position in the county and their grand connections. Catherine's grandmother was Mary Walpole, sister of Sir Robert, 'every man has his price,' Walpole, for twenty years Prime Minister of England and as first Earl of Orford founder of an influential dynasty. Catherine's mother, daughter of Mary Walpole and Sir Charles Turner, had married Maurice Suckling, Rector of Barsham in Suffolk, Woodton in Norfolk and Prebendary of Westminster. Catherine's eldest brother, Maurice, a post captain in the Navy, had strengthened the Walpole connection by marrying Mary Walpole, sister of Lord Walpole who was the son of the second Earl of Orford. Maurice lived at Woodton Hall in south Norfolk. Catherine's other brother, William, became a commissioner in the Excise Office and lived in fine style in Kentish Town. Against this, Edmund Nelson came from a family of parsons albeit with a land-owning grandfather. His own father, also an Edmund, had been at Eton and Cambridge and had married Mary Bland, the daughter of a Cambridge baker, a man of considerable fortune and property, including the rectory of Hillborough, where Nelson's father had become incumbent.
When Edmund and Catherine married on 11 May 1749 she was twenty-four. Her portrait suggests she was rather plain. But clearly her family regarded Edmund as of sufficient substance to be considered an acceptable match. Then, owing to the Walpole influence, he secured the Burnham living and the Earl of Orford's younger brother the second Lord Wolterton became Horatio's godfather and namesake. Socially speaking, the Nelsons were not invited to Houghton Hall, the great house of the senior Walpoles the Earls of Orford, but they were from time to time invited by the Walpoles of Wolterton Hall. As is often the case, the least well connected partner, in this instance Edmund, took a somewhat excessive pride in these grand connections. And certainly it would seem that Catherine was in most senses the dominant partner. Decency demanded that one son be named after his father and so there was an Edmund, but the rest of the boys, Maurice, William, Suckling, Horatio and two of the three girls, Anne and Catherine, were given names which exemplified their Suckling connection. On the Nelson side Horatio had three aunts, Mary who died a spinster, Alice who married Robert Rolfe the Rector of Hillborough, and Thomazine who married John Goulty, a Norwich gentleman. None of these names were perpetuated in their brother's family and although Nelson spent exeats with the Goultys when at school in Norwich, these relations were less significant in his life. Otherwise, the Nelsons mixed with the local gentry, their neighbour Sir Mordaunt Martin, ex-Marshal of the Vice-Admiralty Court in Jamaica, the Malets and the Crowes at the Hall and Kitty's godfather Dr Charles Pointz, parson of North Creake, whose sister became first Countess Spencer. Socially speaking, Horatio's beginnings were neither humble nor poor and very characteristic of eighteenth-century naval officers. There were important connections, some 'interest' and enough money to employ servants, educate sons, live comfortably, take trips to Bath and identify with the gentry. On the other hand they were relatively poor relations; the higher social ladder was there to climb, serious money to be made.
In spite of their Walpole and Suckling ancestors the Nelson-Suckling alliance brought no striking genetic benefits. With the startling exception of Horatio, his parents produced a totally undistinguished and untalented set of children. Maurice was amiable but very modestly endowed. William made his way almost totally on his brother Horatio's back and would otherwise have finished his days as a thoroughly boring, unlikeable and undistinguished rector of Hillborough.
Excerpted from NELSON Love & Fame by Edgar Vincent Copyright © 2003 by Edgar Vincent
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.