Nicholas Monsarrat, now and then

By Chris Hopkins, Professor of English Studies and Head of the Humanities Research Centre, Sheffield Hallam University

Nicholas Monsarrat, his naval books are extremely good … Oh yes, yes, one could get the impression with them that you were there.  He expressed the feeling and he kind of gave graphic descriptions of the way the sea rules, whoever’s on the sea, no matter whether you’re a little skiff or a big destroyer or a battleship of whatever it is, the sea at the end of the day is in charge and you get that impression with Monsarrat that whilst we, and his men, did very well, the sea inevitably won.

Peter Mason (b. 1929)

In May 2019 the reading groups from our sister project, Reading 1900-1950, read popular authors or books read by our Sheffield interviewees years earlier and still remembered by them. We wanted to discuss ‘then and now’ – why an author or book was popular in the mid-20th century and why he or it remains well-known today, or has been forgotten. Here, in the first of a short series of posts, is guest blogger Chris Hopkins, writing about Nicholas Monsarrat.

Monsarrat was born in Liverpool in 1910. He studied law but decided early on to become a writer. In World War II he served in the Royal Navy, and drew on his experiences for his books. After the war, he continued to write, and also became a diplomat. Many of his books are in print, but he is not well-known today.

Plaque commemorating Nicholas Monsarrat at his birthplace, 11 Rodney Street, Liverpool. (image by Rodhullandemu, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Nicholas Monsarrat (1910-1979) and his novels are referred to quite often in the Reading Sheffield interviews (in fact by nine readers, three male and six female).[i] His most famous novel is The Cruel Sea (Cassell, 1951), a best-seller in its own right, the popularity of which was further magnified by a successful film (made at Ealing Studios and directed by Charles Freund, 1953). The film made stars of a number of the actors in its cast, including Jack Hawkins, Donald Sinden, Denholm Elliott, and Stanley Baker. Monsarrat had published a number of novels before the war, but it was his post-war naval novel which first made him a best-seller. He went on to have a very successful writing career, publishing novels on quite a broad variety of topics (not all maritime).

During the war, Monsarrat had been commissioned directly into the RNVR (Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve) solely on the basis of pre-war yachting experience, which gave him sufficient navigational skills. He earned steady promotion from postings on relatively small ships carrying out hazardous convoy escort work, rising from the rank of sub-lieutenant to lieutenant-commander by 1945. During the war he published with Cassell a number of short and more-or-less documentary accounts of his experiences. These included HM Corvette (1943), East Coast Corvette (1943), Corvette Command (1944) and HM Frigate (1946). The three corvette books were reissued in one volume as Three Corvettes in 1945. Monsarrat then revisited this material and worked it up into a fully novelistic form (with many additions) to create The Cruel Sea.

I had read all these books over the last few years, so for this reading group I decided to buy another post-war Monsarrat which I hadn’t read: HMS Marlborough Will Enter Harbour (1947). This turned out to be not a full-length novel, but three long short stories, which had originally been published under the title Depends What You Mean by Love (the title was amended to the title of the first story in 1956 – which I suspect will have more effectively attracted Monsarrat fans than the less naval and less informative original title).

HMS Marlborough Will Enter Harbour

The three short stories are called HMS Marlborough Will Enter Harbour, Leave Cancelled and Heavy Rescue. I enjoyed the HMS Marlborough story best and will mainly focus on it as it seems most typical of Monsarrat’s work of the nineteen-forties, but will also report on the two accompanying stories. Marlborough is a sloop – a small ship class from early in the war intended for escort duties, and later reclassified as corvettes. Returning from Atlantic escort duty independently (that is, alone), she is a day or so away from her British port. The very first sentence of the story reports that she is hit by a torpedo and severely damaged. The captain (I don’t think he is ever named) and the bridge-crew try to assess the damage, establish casualty numbers and bring some order. It becomes clear that many men below deck are dead or missing, that the hull is holed in the bow, and that the ship is so far off an even keel that the screws are out of the water. Soon more men below decks drown as they try to shore up a collapsing bulkhead. The captain knows that the ship is likely to sink and without power, it is adrift and at the mercy of enemy ships, and perhaps immediately threatened by the undetected U-boat which fired the fatal torpedo. The captain also knows that he should give the order to abandon ship since though very risky, it is probably safer than staying aboard.

But here a factor kicks in which the captain fully knows is not really part of his naval training and experience: he feels such affection and attachment for Marlborough that he simply does not want to abandon her and cannot quite believe she will not bring him and the surviving crew home (hence the story being included in the original Depends What You Mean by Love volume). He sets about leading the crew and the surviving chief engineering officer in an attempt to keep the ship afloat, get the bows up and the stern down, and to get one of the engines working. If they can succeed in all of these tasks then they may be able to make it back to a British port. The entire remaining narrative is about the heroic efforts captain and crew make to see if they can achieve this quest … (I won’t spoil the ending). It is, from my point of view, entirely gripping until the end.

I think readers of this post can probably detect the kind of enjoyment this novel is offering me from the way I’m writing about it. It allows some access to a world of dogged (and I guess ‘masculine’) heroism, but in an authentic and perhaps plausible setting. This is a story based in recent history, against the back-drop of the Battle of the Atlantic – the only campaign which post-war Churchill said he thought might lead to a British defeat. That history is linked to several underpinning myths about British national identity and a moment of (final?) greatness in World War Two. The story also offers access to a world of specialised knowledge – of ships, of the sea, of navigation, of engine rooms, of warfare, of sailors – command of which may ensure personal and, in the larger picture, national survival. I may have spent a certain proportion of my life teaching high modernism and post-modernism, but have, it seems, not entirely lost my earlier childhood satisfactions in narratives from a somewhat boy’s own adventure tradition. I suspect that Reading Sheffield readers may have derived similar reading pleasures to these (and some may have been much closer to these experiences than I am, of course), though I note that equally a number of female readers refer to Monsarrat or The Cruel Sea, so perhaps my sense of a specifically gendered reading pleasure is far from adequate.

The Cruel Sea has remained continuously in print in edition after edition, and is now in a Penguin World War Two collection series, so neither it nor Monsarrat have been forgotten. If you like that kind of thing (and many clearly do), it is still very much a good read. HMS Marlborough Will Enter Harbour went through quite a number of editions in the Panther paperback edition in the nineteen-fifties, but then went out of print, though there is now an edition on sale again. It is in many ways a miniature version of The Cruel Sea, offering similar reading pleasures.

The Other Two Stories

Neither of these seem so characteristic of Monsarrat – which is perhaps merely to say that I associate him so strongly with Royal Navy stories that I am surprised to find he used other settings during the nineteen-forties. Maybe that association also pre-determines the following judgement: I do not think these two stories are of the same quality as the HMS Marlborough one, though both do have virtues.

Leave Cancelled concerns a wartime army officer and his wife (who is also in the services, but which service is disappointingly unspecified). It takes the form of a highly personal first-person reflection addressed to his wife by the unnamed officer. They had married at the beginning of the war, but their honeymoon was prevented by their having to report for duty urgently. Both have long been anticipating a period of three weeks’ leave when they can put this war-time interruption to their lives right. The story begins with the male character waiting in a hotel foyer for his wife to arrive from her posting. But he has just had bad news: due to wartime exigencies his three weeks’ leave has been cut to twenty-four hours’ leave – hence the story’s title. He breaks this news to his wife when she arrives, and though both are disappointed they decide to make the best of the twenty-four hours they do have available. This generates the story’s main content – which is of course about how they can best enjoy sex and love given the artificial pressure of this time-constraint. This must, of course, have been quite a common experience of the war, producing high expectations, but also clearly potentially uncomfortable pressures in intimate relationships.

Monsarrat’s publishers, Cassell, were unwilling to publish the story as a self-contained piece in 1947, arguing that it might damage their and his reputation. Their view prevailed, though they did publish the three stories together a little later. I should be clear that there is absolutely nothing sexually explicit in the story, either by nineteen-forties or contemporary standards. It is much more about emotions and the difficulty of talking about sex in a way which recognises its importance within love, than it is about sex itself. Nevertheless, the story is in a sense wholly centred on sex (and an American newspaper review was titled Briton Slave To Sex, quoted in the author’s foreword). I think Monsarrat has set himself a serious and sincere writing task in taking this on, but I find the story pretty embarrassing and also lacking in variety or tension. I think the problem is that in the end the story tries to share an intimacy the value of which is usually preserved precisely by it being privately shared rather than publicly expressed. However, this is a very different Monsarrat from the one we usually expect (indeed, for his male characters love of ships often trumps love of women). What would Reading Sheffield readers have made of this story? I speculate that though they might have read it with a certain interest, many might have preferred Monsarrat’s more usual naval concerns.

I liked Heavy Rescue more than Leave Cancelled. It is set in the first two years of the Second World War and its central character is George. He had been a private in the trenches in Flanders in World War One and was awarded a medal for bravery. But the post-war world has not been kind to him: he has been unemployed for much of the time and consequently his wife and teenage daughter look down on him and treat him with complete disregard since he does not supply they income they would like (they are one-dimensionally selfish – picking up a strand of misogyny which surfaces from time to time in Monsarrat’s novels). George has lost his self-respect and at times he wonders why the country which was apparently so grateful to him and fellow-servicemen in 1918 has done so little for them in the peace-time crisis of the Depression. George, though not in top condition because of his recent living conditions, is powerfully built, and when he has been able to get work, he has often been employed as a navvy. When war is declared again in 1939 he sees a call for volunteers for Civil Defence work and immediately joins the relevant queue at the town-hall. There is a choice of roles – stretcher bearers, first aid, light rescue and heavy rescue. Without really knowing what the words actually mean George feels that he may be cut out for heavy rescue and is very pleased to be accepted.

As it turns out, both kinds of rescue squad are charged with digging survivors out of the ruins of bombed buildings, and are distinguished not by the physical strength of their crews, but by the gauge of the equipment they use (mainly shoring and lifting gear). Nevertheless, George feels he is meeting a kind of destiny – at last someone needs him and he has the right skills and personal characteristics to serve his country. Not only that, but he is even to be paid – the welcome sum of three pounds a week (his wife and daughter remain unimpressed). However, the phoney war of September 1939 to May 1940 undermines morale in Civil Defence as they wait and wait with nothing in fact to do. For George, heavy rescue has indeed rescued his life and he retains his faith in the necessity of standing by and constant training and is eventually vindicated by the blitz on London in September 1940. He shows extreme courage, along with the rest of his squad, in tunnelling into a cellar beneath a collapsed building to save a child and her grandmother. However, his refusal to leave the probably already dead grandfather leads to George’s own death: he has over-fulfilled his sense of destiny. The story is interesting in picking up Monsarrat’s interwar interests in social inequality and the possible solutions of state intervention – something not always so obvious in his naval stories which see things very much from the officerly perspective of the bridge. I was however disappointed by George’s unnecessary death – I was not sure that the narrative logic or the story’s clear context in ‘the people’s war’ did necessarily demand that his commitment be seen as morbidly excessive.

Conclusion

I can certainly see what attracted some Reading Sheffield readers to Monsarrat’s novels. While his work as a whole is quite varied in focus, the reinforcement of particular kinds of British (masculine?) national identities in the post-war period, as well as the narrative pleasures of his naval novels, provided understandable reading satisfaction.

[i] Peter Mason, Christine W, Diane Howell, Judith G, David Flather, Chris F, Dorothy Latham, Dorothy H, Irene H.

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