Books: “A Fine Old English Gentleman” by William Davies (1875)

5 July, 2008 at 11:56 pm Leave a comment

I have three reviews of books about Collingwood in the pipeline; let me start with the oldest one. Legally available for download on the internet, it makes an excellent resource for those of us who live on a tight budget. Being the geek that I am, I’ve made a colour print-out with ring-binding. Yes, I know. Don’t mention it.

A FINE OLD ENGLISH GENTLEMAN,
EXEMPLIFIED IN THE LIFE AND CHARACTER OF
LORD COLLINGWOOD.

A Biographical Study by William Davies

The book is available as DjVu, PDF, TXT and, very handy, flip book

“(…) The writer of this just declination has seen him [Collingwood] upon deck without his hat, and his grey hair floating in the wind, whilst torrents of rain poured down through the shrouds, and his eye, like the eagle’s, on the watch. Personal exposure, colds, rheumatism, ague – all seemed nothing to him when his duty called. (…)”

“(…) I’m an unhappy creature, old and worn out. I wish to come to England, but some objection is ever made to it. (…)”

“A Fine Old English Gentleman” dates back to 1875. Oddly enough, reading Collingwood’s letters, most of them written 70 years before the publication, are far easier to read and understand than William Davies’ narration. It’s not only because I’ve become familiar with Collingwood’s style by now; I also admit that I’ve always had problems enjoying Victorian writing style and language. Davies uses Collingwood’s life to teach his readers a lesson. A moral one, a religious one, a patriotic one. I do see his point, I even agree with him on many of his statements, but as a person living in the 21st century, I find it very, very hard not to roll my eyes and groan when finding a marathon sentence like

“(…) Emancipated from the burdensome shackles and trammels of speculative generations, we shall meet the Great Captain and Example of all that a good and noble life ought to be face to face, clear in the fullness of that spiritual light by means of which we discern that rectitude and goodness have an intrinsic value far, far above anything to which they can lead us, or anything which they can bestow upon us, lovely and precious in and for themselves alone, and beggaring every other kind of wealth and happiness. (…)”

Eh – quoi? Let’s rather stick to his statement that

“(…) About the necessity for, and value of, an earnest and upright life in all our affairs, thoughts, and actions, there can be no manner of doubt. Its value is never depreciated. Its elements never change. They were the same two thousand or ten thousand years ago as they are now. Time cannot alter or lessen their importance in the least degree. (…)”

I guess I could sign that.

Davies’ way of expressing himself is pompous, yes, but that was the style of his days, and so you shouldn’t let it keep you away from reading the book. If the author gets lost in his own sentences and exclamations of praise, then the reason is his great admiration and respect for Collingwood. It’s an admiration and respect most people who try and study this great man’s life will eventually share and find justified. Despite the cruel times he lived in, despite all the hardships and the horrors of war, Collingwood always kept his humanity; something which becomes once again very clear from his letters, some of which I have found for the first time in “A Fine Old English Gentleman”.

We can read his thoughts on everything, from love to life to king to family; how to raise children, how to make midshipmen do some decent work, how to deal with unpleasant relatives – while some of his thoughts wouldn’t sit well with our modern way of thinking, it’s not difficult to see how “modern” his views were for the time he lived in.

Each of Collingwood’s letters, be it about state affairs, war, his family or the gossip he loved so much are tiny pieces in a puzzle that can show us what kind of man Collingwood was. The puzzle will never be complete, we’ll never know everything. Let’s be grateful there is so much we do know; Collingwood gives the overused term “hero” some of its original meaning and value back. He’s not ashamed of his fears; he admits and tries to overcome them. So he writes in a letter to his wife on 8 November 1808 that she “(…) cannot conceive how I am worried by the French (…)”; and he also adds:

“(…) Perhaps you might think I am grown very conceited in my old age, and fancy myself a mighty politician; but indeed it is not so. However lofty a tone the subject may require and my language assume, I assure you it is in great humility of heart that I utter it, and often in fear and trembling; lest I should exceed my bounds. (…)”

In this connection, I’d like to recommend the excellent article about Brutes, Wimps And Heroes” by Alex Beecroft over on the Macaroni-blog. Quite obviously, the “hero” dragging his hands on the ground is not as popular as many authors and movie makers seem to think. Manly men can be old gossips and show weaknesses as well!

I don’t know where to start pointing out the little gems in this book, so here’s just a small, random collection.

Collingwood’s “Blue Peter” to bringing up your kids:

“(…) Your measures must be systematic: when they do wrong, never omit to reprove them firmly, but with gentleness. Always speak to them in a style and a language rather superior to their years. Proper words are as easily learned as improper ones. And when they do well, when they deserve commendation, bestow it lavishly. Let the feelings of your heart flow from your eyes and tongue (…)”

Collingwood about his health and age:

“(…) I’m pretty well pleased and thankful when I am not in pain, which, between the head-ache by day, and cramps by night, is no often the case. This mortal body of ours is but a crazy sort of machine at the best of times; and when old, it is always wanting repair; but I must keep it going as long as I can. (…)”

Collingwood about his request to the Admiralty to allow him to return to England, due to his poor health:

“(…) This was not a feigned case. It is true I had not a fever or a dyspepsy. Do you know what a dyspepsy is? I’ll tell you. It is the disease of officers who have grown tired, and then they get invalided for dyspepsy. (…)”

“(…) Tough as I have been, I cannot last much longer. I have seen all the ships and men out two or three times. Bounce and I seem to be the only personages who stand our ground.” (…)

Collingwood about Nelson:

“(…) Oh, had Nelson lived, how complete had been my happiness, how perfect my joy! Now, whatever I have felt like pleasure has been so mixed with the bitterness of woe, that I cannot exult in our success as it would be pardonable to do. (…)”

“(…) All the praise and acclamations of joy for our victory only bring to my mind what it has cost. (…)”

Collingwood’s words of wisdom about fame:

“(…) Fame’s trumpet makes a great noise but the notes do not dwell long on the ear. (…)”

Memorable also his statements about the King and Queen of Prussia, who had been driven from their throne and had to seek shelter – in an apothecary’s shop:

“(…) The poor King and Queen of Prussia in an apothecary’s shop! How reduced! And unable to get their breakfast until the bed is made! (…)”

And no book about Collingwood would be complete without at least one tale about his loyal dog Bounce, whom he obviously even sang to sleep…

“(…) Tell the children that Bounce is very well, and very fat, yet he seems not to be content, and sighs so piteously these long evenings that I am obliged to sing him to sleep (…)”

Of course all that might not be very interesting for those whose focus is on warfare and battle strategies. But for me, as a writer, it’s essential to know how people work, how they think, how they feel, how they interact with each other. I observe, watch, notice all those little aspects of different personalities, and eventually, combine them to form a character.

Villains? They come twelve a dozen. Honourable men, on the other hand, are hard to find, but well – here is one. Enjoy the book.

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Entry filed under: books, cuthbert collingwood, nelson, royal navy. Tags: , , , .

Another review of “Lieutenant Samuel Blackwood (deceased)” Books: “Napoleon’s Privates” by Tony Perrottet

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