This rather curious novel shows Harris moving off his home ground: it is a historical novel set in England around the time of the French revolution. Presumably he was aiming for popular success by writing a ripping yarn in the Stevenson or Scott vein, but it did not come off. One reason is that his story is uninvolving, another is that his treatment almost wilfully limits his readership to mature men with immature tastes - he assumes an open-minded attitude to sex and drinking but his tale is basically unsophisticated in its appeal.
His hero is a young chap, one Jack Morgan, whose father keeps a pub and does a spot of smuggling on the side. The father is fairly obviously based on Harris' own, and the relationship between the two is one of the few successes of the novel, with the hero alternating between dislike and admiration for his father as he grows in understanding.
The story, such as it is, is of a young man's growing up and his adventures in a turbulent time. Along the way he sails the English Channel, is involved in sea battles, is captured by the French, makes an unwise marriage, meets Charles James Fox and Napoleon, and ends up with his true love Margaret - his first wife Suzanne having conveniently died (rather as Harris' own first wife did).
This material could have made an enjoyable, if lightweight, novel, but Harris does not seem at home with it. There is not the same passion nor pace that makes The Bomb such a cracking read, it flags, rather, and at times there is the sense that one is reading an essay about the French Revolution rather than a novel. Really it should have had a couple of rewrites to tighten it up.
Harris clearly wanted to deal with a number of issues - the father-son relationship, the Revolution and English perception of it, Napoleon's strengths and weaknesses, but he did not construct a strong enough frame for all this weight. There is little sense of forward propulsion from one incident to the next, the only real unresolved element being Jack's relationship with Margaret, but this is too formulaic in its on-offness to create much excitement in the reader. Harris, it goes without saying, is no Jane Austen -his characters are poorly evoked, their natures described rather than shown.
For the Harrisian its greatest interest - as so often with his weaker work - is the light it throws on its author. In particular, the way he give his hero an ill-advised marriage which ends with the death of his young wife, and the peculiarly heartless way this is portrayed, almost as though it is some mere rite of passage, smacks of retrospective self-justification. Did Harris, too, quickly tire of his wife? Did she, like Suzanne become bored - and boring - once wed? Was it with relief that he found that illness and death had given him his freedom? Jack weeps when he learns that Suzanne has died, but he does not grieve for long.
(A minor curiosity is that one of the characters is named "Frederick Carrol" which is so near to that of the author of John Johns, Frederic Carrel, as to be beyond coincidence. The character Carrol is portrayed as a good man, but of a milk-and-water nature, which is an unexpectedly kind assessment given how Carrel painted Harris. Perhaps this was Harris 'turning the other cheek'?)
Jack Morgan is really a sort of anti-hero. When he is unhappy he takes refuge in drink, his morality is pragmatic, his loyalty to his country is far from absolute. But an anti-hero has to be larger than life, more exciting a personality than a conventional hero. Jack is too self-pitying and self-centered for us to care very much for him.
Overall, an opportunity missed through lack of concentration, I feel.
Scribbled by Alfred Armstrong 11 years 5 months ago