|Jul/Aug 2003 Book Reviews|
Picador, Macmillan (June 2003) 316 pages
ISBN: 1 330 37465 6
It was not long after my arrival at my new abode that I was plunged into the midst of a fearful scene of the terrors of the sea.
Such, was the beginning of the Rev. R.S. Hawker's account of the wreck of the Caledonia. And in many ways it describes Jeremy Seal's experiences in writing this book. It is full of the terrors of the sea and (after a slow start) it is gripping reading, but it is an odd book, definitely and delightfully odd. It is a mixture of mystery, detective story, history, memoir, travelogue, and imaginative fiction, and all this works so well that by the end of the book one can hardly tell fact from fiction—which is exactly what Seal discovered as he was writing it.
On the cover of the book is a photograph of the woman who started the whole thing off. "She stood in the graveyard and stared at the sea, as if to understand the hurt it had once done her," Seal writes. But the woman is Scotia, "national emblem of Burns and Scott," and she is an old wooden figurehead, salvaged from the Caledonia, which was wrecked in 1843 on the rocks below this graveyard at Morwenstow in Cornwall.
Seal's interest is aroused. This Scottish ship had been wrecked on a coast notorious for shipwrecks, but also notorious, in local lore, for wreckers who deliberately lured ships onto the rocks in order to steal their cargoes. And when the famous (or infamous) Reverend Hawker turned out to have been vicar of this Morwenstow church at the time of the wreck and to have written an account of somewhat questionable accuracy, Seal sets out to discover the truth.
His quest takes him around Great Britain; he encounters some unusually interesting characters, living and dead, and he discovers (or rather fails to rediscover) a mysterious letter in a bottle, which for years has been linked to the Caledonia. Occasionally, as he gets to know the ship's crew and more of the ship's history, he invents imaginary scenes from her journey from Rio de Janeiro to her terrifying destruction on the rocks, where the crew clung onto the main rigging until all but one of them were swept to their deaths. Little bits of social, maritime and political history become important to the story. Odd facts, which clearly fascinated Seal, are dropped in (like the death of William Huskins, who was knocked down and killed by Stevenson's Rocket on its first public appearance). And Seal's evocation of the Elizabeth and the St. Agnes making a run for Bude harbour in the storm which wrecked the Caledonia on that same coast is riveting.
Seal has used a large range of sources: letters, broadsides, public records, historical accounts, local gossip, and much much more, all of which he carefully documents at the end of the book. But he also lets his imagination range freely, only restricting it when facts and common sense make it necessary. By the end of the book, I was so immersed in his quirky quest, so convinced by his smooth combination of facts and imaginative reconstructions, that the historical documents reproduced in the Appendix read like another adventure story, and I had to remind myself that they did really exist.
Altogether, Wreck at Sharpnose Point is a great read.