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Book Review: Nelson – The Sword of Albion

By (July 9, 2013) 2 Comments

Nelson: The Sword of Albionnelson sword of albion

by John Sugden

Henry Holt, 2013


Readers under the impression that in his overweening ambition, insatiable vanity, diminutive chubbiness, and persistent admixture of two-tenths tactical skill and eight-tenths opportunism Napoleon Bonaparte himself was the most Napoleonic figure of the era which bears his name have likely never made the acquaintance of Admiral Horatio Nelson, hero of the Battle of the Nile and martyr of the Battle of Trafalgar, and they have a splendid opportunity to do so, since John Sugden’s massive and utterly definitive two-volume biography of the man is now at last complete, with the publication of Nelson: The Sword of Albion by Henry Holt. Sugden’s previous volume from nearly a decade ago, Nelson: A Dream of Glory, 1758-1797, followed its famous charge from his days of callow youth to his days of callow adulthood as he wheedled and flattered and backstabbed and occasionally merited his way to one gradual promotion after another in the naval service, eventually rejoicing in the outbreak of war with the French in 1793, gaining international fame (and a rear admiral’s rank) for his extremely equivocal bravery at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent in 1797 and losing his right arm and very nearly his active career as a result of the attack on Tenerife.

Nelson: A Dream of Glory was nothing short of a revelation in the tattered and heavily marzipanned field of Nelson studies. Sugden dug through mountains of original records, great tranches of which had been blithely ignored by previous biographers in their rush to reclaim the glow of Horatio Hornblower’s heroism for his real-life avatar; the book was long but read with superb ease; although companionable and unassuming in his prose style, Sugden was clearly aware throughout that he was embarked on a life of Nelson that would, when finished, be a landmark of biographical study. The Nelson who emerged from the pages of that opening volume was something of a revelation too: at once more and less repulsive than all previous versions by virtue of a far greater and more plausible humanity. The knowingly pithy verdict of one contempoary, “Poor man, he’s devoured with vanity, weakness and folly,” was still intensely merited, but Sugden was able patiently to coax from the mass of evidence – the letters, dispatches, and contemporary characterizations – another side of Nelson, a more vulnerable, more cross-grained, and very much more knowable side. And Sugden’s own sympathies were refreshingly bare-knuckled: it was clear he liked Nelson and seconded the slavish iconography of his memory, but it was also clear – miraculously so – that this was the stern, even-handed affection of a long-time friend, not the misty emotional glaucoma of the sycophant.

It was an amazing performance, and it’s equalled and surpassed in Nelson: The Sword of Albion despite far greater temptations to stray. The vivid but still fairly conventional Georgian sea-career chronicled in the first volume is the stuff of a Patrick O’Brian novel, but the events of Nelson’s life from 1797 to 1805 are something out of Tolstoy, or perhaps Puccini. It’s in these years that we find our hero besotted with Lady Emma Hamilton; it’s in these years that we see him participating (or not, as the mood struck him) in the great naval blockades of Toulon and Cadiz; it’s in these years that we see both his pattern of rampant insubordination (once he became a celebrity, he took the orders of his superior officers as faint suggestions rather than explicit commands) and his tight little victory at the Battle of Copenhagen – and his far sloppier and more pivotal success at the Battle of the Nile. This is all very familiar ground, and Sugden pays it the supreme compliment of writing about it as if nobody had ever written about it before.

From the viewpoint of unmerited sympathy, he has perhaps his trickiest task detailing the long period Nelson spent in the kingdom of Naples in the summer of 1799 as what some onlookers considered “the dupe of a venal court,” preening under the endless (and lucrative) fawning of the king and queen of Naples and, as always, disobeying direct orders to conclude business and sail away. Sugden doesn’t flinch from the barbaric, illegal cruelties Nelson authorized against the Neapolitan Jacobins, nor does he turn a blind eye toward the slushy, self-absorbed, helplessly inert creature his subject became in those months of perpetual hosannas to his name. Our valiant biographer, noting that it was the logistical support Naples had given Nelson’s fleet at Syracuse in 1798 that made the victory at the Nile possible, tries to weigh the evidence in his hero’s favor:

Many Britons, then and since, saw Nelson as a weak man, allowing the Neapolitans to manipulate him, not always to his country’s advantage. But looked at another way, he was a strong man. The government of the Two Sicilies, and indeed a few other Italian states, saw him as almost their one dependable support. In every crisis – the disastrous war of 1798, the defence of Sicily, the reclamation o Naples and the papal territory, and the threat from Bruix – he had stood staunch and strong. Even those final distressing squabbles with [his commanding officer, Lord] Keith arose from an iron adherence to the safety of the royal family.

And as inevitable as Calvary, the climax of the book is also the climax of the war, and of Nelson’s life: “the greatest test of naval power in living memory,” the Battle of Trafalgar, whose singular qualities Sugden assesses perfectly:

If the Nile and Copenhagen had been smaller victories they had been more complete, but they were fought in enclosed spaces from which the enemy had no ready escape. That so decisive a victory as Trafalgar could have been won in open water was almost incredible.

Just as victory is assured, a French sniper shoots Nelson in the back, and a few hours later the hero of England is dead, his body preserved in a cask of brandy until it can be brought back to a funeral pomp worthy of a fallen king, by which point the sirens of his renown were already singing. That song had rolled over a great mass of Nelson-writing in the last two centuries, drowning out controversies, flattening polyphony into one enormous oratorio of perfect valor. A work of massive and largely impartial scholarship such as Sugden’s in these two volumes calls for a new and hugely more satisfying tune, something far more demotic and less ostentatious. Readers shouldn’t miss the opportunity to read a biography so consummate that it relieves them from ever reading another word about Nelson as long as they live.