PETER SIMPLE by Captain Frederick Marryat, J. Ayton Symington
* Includes 40 Illustrations by J. Ayton Symington
* An Introduction by David Hannay
An excerpt from the Introduction:
It was not by a mere whim of the general opinion of his time that Captain Marryat was so commonly described as the author of Peter Simple, He was a popular writer when it appeared. The Naval Officer, The King's Own, and Newton Forster had already been published. The. first of these three books in order of publication, though the second in order of composition, had achieved immediate popularity. The King's Own and Newton Forster had been well received, but Peter Simple eclipsed all three, and it was not displaced by any of its successors. There is more good fun in Mr. Midshipman Easy, due to the admirable comic situation. The figure of Mesty in this, and individual scenes in other stories, have more melodramatic force than anything in Peter Simple, This is notably the case with the Phantom Ship, which, because of this virtue, has always had a firm and select body of admirers. But the general estimate which chose Peter Simple among all Marryat's tales as his best was right. All the qualities for which his work is loved are shown in this book, and it is, on the whole, more free from his weaknesses than any other.
The conditions in which it was written were in favour of success. His three earlier stories had given him practice. He was stimulated also to exertion by the desire to make money, while he had not yet begun to feel the exhaustion which came of writing from mere necessity. His fund of experience was not used up. Later on he had to draw on other books for matter. In 1835, when he wrote The Pacha of many Tales, he was already beginning to annex and transfer. It was a kind of legitimate literary free-booting, which he did very well. His plagiarisms were always buccaneering beyond the line, and not mere pilfering in the street corner, to apply the distinction drawn by Chamfort between the robbery of ancient, and modern authors. The Inquisition scenes in the Phantom Ship, which Mr. Louis Stevenson admired, owe some part of their merit to the free use made by Marryat of Dellon's Rélation de l'Inquisition de Goa. But however fully a writer may be entitled to take his goods where he finds them, there is a difference between drawing on others, and on experience. When Marryat composed Peter Simple in 1834, he had no need to do more than look back on his recollections of service in the Imperieuse and other ships during the great war. It is true that he did probably, or indeed certainly, draw to some slight extent on The Narrative of his brother officer Captain O'Brien for the scenes of the escape from France. In this case, however, what he read was only what he must have heard from messmates who had either themselves broken out of French or Spanish prisons, or knew those who had. The adventure, if not exactly common, was not altogether rare, and must have formed the staple of many yarns. In short, he wrote Peter Simple because he was full of the subject, while in later times he was compelled to get up the subject because he wanted to write the book.
The combination of practice with a still fresh faculty and a not yet exhausted experience is enough to account for the superior quality of Peter Simple, It will never be allowed by sound criticism that his knowledge of the sea-life was Marryat's merit, and not merely his, and our, good fortunes. Yet his greatest admirer will hardly claim for him that he belonged to that highest class of novelists who can create characters which live by their mere human truth. By no possible exercise of good-will can we class him with Fielding or Thackeray. He could weave his material into possible personages, but he needed something more to work on than the average of mankind. 'A passion, and four boards,' which are enough for the novelist or dramatist of the first order, were too little for Marryat. His recollections supplied him with a great deal more when he wrote Peter Simple, They came spontaneously, and in abundance. It is impossible not to believe that he must have enjoyed the writing of the book almost as much as three generations of men and boys have enjoyed the reading. Mr. and Mrs. Trotter, Swinburne and Mr. Muddle, Terence O'Brien and Mr. Chucks, Captain To and Captain Kearney, were all old friends. He drew them because he had seen them. We see them because he was a born story-teller. If luck had provided him with a writership in the East India Company's service, we would have seen another gallery, perhaps equally true and comic. Fortune took him to the sea, and so we have the figures, which we would be loth indeed to change for any others.
This gallery of types and oddities is not only vivid, but it is extraordinarily rich. Gentleman Chucks, who by common consent is Marryat's masterpiece — the one of his characters who is certainly as good as Mr. Micawber, and not much less...