‘Bartimeus’ before the War

Bartimeus Pre-War

The ‘Bartimeus’ Omnibus (1933) is divided into three sections – Pre-War 1909-1913, War 1914-1918 and Post-War 1919-1925. The sections refer to when the stories are set rather than when they were written, though, as one or two of the Pre-War section explicitly look forward to more testing times.
It’s not hard, though to work out which were the earlier stories; the differences between these and the ones written in wartime are quite interesting.
The best of the pre-war stories are hardly stories at all, but plotless sketches of life at sea (I think that many were originally published in the Pall Mall Gazette). There are descriptions of daily routine, of gunroom conversation, of a shipboard Sunday, and events like the arrival of the mail or a trip ashore in a foreign port.

The most resonant of the stories is ‘That Which Remained’, about a young Signal Midshipman, ‘The Periwinkle’:

‘small for his years, skinny as a weasel, with straight black hair, and grey eyes set wide apart in a brown face’

This young man loves his work, but is struck down suddenly by the brucellosis (or Malta Fever) that ruined the eyesight of ‘Bartimeus’ himself.

After a while he closed his left eye and looked cautiously round the room. The tops of objects appeared indistinctly out of a grey mist. It was like looking at a partly fogged negative. He closed his right eye and repeated the process with the other. His field of vision was clear then, except for a speck of grey fog that hung threateningly in the upper left-hand corner.
By dinner-time he could see nothing with the right eye, and the fog had closed on half the left eye’s vision.

‘The Periwinkle’ is left totally blind; ‘Bartimeus’ himself was robbed of the sight of only one eye, but that was enough to end his naval career.
One suspects that these stories were written as a kind of therapy, a way of dealing with his nostalgia for the seaboard life in which he could no longer directly share. The author’s love of the service is evident on every page, especially those dealing with the young officer’s training, at Dartmouth and at sea. Like many texts of the period (from Stalky and Co. to Tell England) these stories lovingly present institutions whose tough discipline turn boys into men, an endorse even the corporal punishment that seems barbaric to tastes a century later.

‘Bartimeus’ is definitely happiest when writing of the midshipmen, or of the officer’s mess. The one story about an ordinary seaman and his passions is the only one that reads gratingly; the language takes on an arch, condescending tone that one doesn’t find elsewhere.
These pre-War stories have a real charm. The collection Naval Occasions was published in September 1914, after which ‘Bartimeus’ felt compelled to use his talent to describe and explain the War at sea to general readers. This led him into writing rather different kinds of story, which I’ll write about next week.

3 Comments

  1. Posted April 28, 2013 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    Are you familiar with Orwell’s brief review of Naval Occasions, published in the New English Weekly in May 1936?

    “I suppose I ought not to be rude to Naval Occasions, which I much enjoyed when I was a little boy just before the war (sic). Those were the great days of the Navy’s popularity. Small boys wore sailor suits, and everyone belonged to something called the Navy League and had a bronze medal which cost a shilling, and the popular slogan was ‘we want eight and we won’t wait!’ Bartimeus, I fancy, aspired to be the Kipling of the Navy and merely succeeded in being a rather more naïve and likeable Ian Hay.”

    • Posted April 28, 2013 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

      Many thanks for this. Orwell probably got it about right.
      Which doesn’t mean that Bartimeus isn’t worth reading. I’m a big fan of Patrick O’Brien’a sea stories, and one of the pleasures of Bartimeus is that one sees the same essential structures in place, and the same culture and customs that were there a century before.
      Does anyone write sea stories today? Or has the British reading public totally lost its love for the Senior Service?

      • janevsw
        Posted April 29, 2013 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

        I can’t think of any modern-day writers of /contemporary/ sea stories although the British reading public devours Alexander Kent / O’Brien / naval history with gusto. Charles Causley in his collection “Hands to Dance & Skylark” wrote some sea stories, fiction and fact, about his service in WW2, and I know a SBA who fictionalised his Suez experience: but these days, I don’t think the RN afloat or ashore has time to write…


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