5 September 2012

Setting sail for the HNS Conference with nautical author J.D. Davies

Today's HNS 
Conference Guest :
J.D. Davies
Historian, author of fiction 
('the journals of Matthew Quinton', series of naval historical fiction) 
and non-fiction, including the award winning Pepys's Navy 
and the forthcoming Britannia's Dragon: A Naval History of Wales

When I tell people that I write naval fiction set in the Restoration era, I tend to get one of two reactions. The first can be defined as chronological inexactitude: ‘So…that’s before Nelson, then?’ The second comes from those with a better grasp of seventeenth century history: ‘Ah yes, the Restoration. Pepys and whores’. So in a way, I suppose my series, ‘the journals of Matthew Quinton’, is contending against not just one genre straitjacket, but two. Or maybe even more: the original publisher’s blurb for the series was ‘Hornblower meets the Three Musketeers’
Journals of Matthew Quinton: 1
Let’s first consider how my work fits into the genre of naval historical fiction. The great majority of novels of the sailing navy era have been set in roughly a sixty year period from about 1756 to 1815. It’s easy to see why this should be the case: it’s a fascinating period, there’s a huge amount of source material readily available, and there are the examples of global success and fame provided by the giants of the genre, C S Forester and Patrick O’Brian.

The period also has easily identifiable ‘baddies’ – usually the French, or in the case of some of the books from the States, we Brits – and the wars have satisfying, clear cut outcomes (namely, we win, whoever ‘we’ are).

None of this applies in the late seventeenth century, the era of the Anglo-Dutch wars. For one thing, it’s very difficult to present the Dutch as murderous, Machiavellian villains – indeed, contemporary propaganda had the same problem, as demonstrated by the fact that about the worst insulting nickname that people could think of for the Dutch was the rather jolly ‘butterboxes’.

The Dutch were present in numbers throughout the British Isles, and the influence of their architecture can be seen throughout East Anglia: one of King Charles II’s principal ministers was married to a Dutch woman, and even at the height of the second Anglo-Dutch war, the mayor of Limerick was a Dutchman.

I’ve tried to reflect this ambivalence by having my hero, Captain Matthew Quinton, married to a Dutch woman whose brother is a captain in the Dutch fleet, thus creating some complex ambiguous loyalties for all of them. Fortunately, the period also witnessed the rise of France, the expansionist, militantly Catholic France of King Louis XIV, so Matthew’s ‘Moriarty’/’Voldemort’ is a fanatical French Knight of Malta!

Journals of Matthew Quinton: 2
The other contrast with the later period is that, of course, we don’t win. The second and third Anglo-Dutch wars contain several of the largest and most brutal battles of the entire sailing era, but the fact is that the Dutch generally came off better in them; and in 1667 they humiliated Charles II’s England by sailing into the Medway and sailing out again with the fleet flagship, a defeat generally regarded as one of the worst, if not the worst, in the whole of British history.

But the fact that the Royal Navy was perceived as seriously under-performing gave rise to all sorts of conspiracy theories (relatively few people were willing to accept the simple fact that the Dutch were just better), and they in turn provide rich material for an author. 

For example, the third Quinton novel, The Blast That Tears The Skies, culminates in the Battle of Lowestoft on 3 June 1665, one of the few clear-cut British victories of the wars. It would have been even more decisive but for the fact that during the night after the battle, a mysterious order to shorten sail slowed down the fleet’s pursuit of the fleeing enemy. Contemporaries immediately suspected a nefarious scheme hatched by dark forces at Charles II’s court, so I was able to have Matthew investigating those rumours of conspiracy.

Then again, the heroes of many of the series set in the ‘Nelsonian’ age tend to have quite similar careers: they rise either from the lower deck or from a midshipman’s berth to become highly competent seamen, who are often fully formed when a series begins (as with O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey, for example). That’s certainly not true of Matthew. He’s one of the ‘gentlemen captains’ of Charles II’s age, members of the aristocracy or gentry who were given command to enhance the political reliability of the navy despite the fact that they often had no, or very little, experience of the sea.

My first novel, Gentleman Captain, opens with Matthew’s first command being wrecked, partly because of his own ignorance, and his career is shaped by some of the deep-rooted social and political conventions of the age: for instance, there was a widespread belief that captains did not need to, and should not, master seamanship, which was seen as the preserve of the ship’s master. Influenced by his unlikely mentor, a bluff young seaman named Kit Farrell, Matthew attempts to reconcile his own aspirations with such prejudices. I wanted my readers to learn about the navy of Charles II’s time through Matthew’s eyes; he becomes a better seaman from one book to another, but there’s always a sense in which he’s learning as he goes along, rather than being a ‘natural’ who was born to the sea.

Journals of Matthew Quinton: 3

There also tends to be a certain perception of what ‘the Restoration novel’ should be, probably dating from Forever Amber and with both a long and illustrious tradition running through the likes of Rose Tremain’s Restoration and Gillian Bagwell’s The Darling Strumpet, as well as a rather less illustrious tradition of countless steamy bodice-rippers.

I’ve followed some of the conventions of this genre by placing Matthew at the heart of the court; he’s the brother and heir to the Earl of Ravensden, one of Charles II’s oldest friends and a man privy to some of the king’s darkest secrets, despite also possessing many of his own. Thus the king appears as a character, as does Samuel Pepys, but having spent over 25 years working on the naval history of the period as an academic historian before I began to write fiction set in it, I wanted to present the two men in their proper historical contexts. So Pepys doesn’t appear either as a voyeur hastily scribbling in his diary all the naughty goings-on around him or as a rather smutty participant in those goings-on; he appears to Matthew as he would have been to any captain of the age, as one of the most prominent figures in the naval administration.

Having said that, the intrigues and sexual politics of Charles II’s court provide an irresistible canvas for any author, as do some of the great events that happened to coincide with the naval war in which Matthew participates – notably the plague of 1665, which provides one of the backdrops to The Blast That Tears The Skies, and the Great Fire of London in 1666. Thus there’s plenty of material for future ‘journals of Matthew Quinton’, and as long as readers and publishers continue to like them, I can’t see me stopping writing them any time soon!
(Helen: Huzzah to that last sentence!)

J.D's HNS  Banquet Guests

Samuel Pepys – A must, given that he’s effectively been a part of my life for the last 30 years! I think his wide range of interests and boundless curiosity would make him a great guest. Probably best not to mention diaries, though.

Lady Florence Dixie – I wrote an article on the Dixie family a couple of years ago and was fascinated by this Victorian lady – poet, inveterate traveller, keen sportswoman, campaigner for women’s rights (she was pushing for the eldest female child of a monarch to have the right of succession a century ago!) and the first female war correspondent. She also had a pet jaguar!

Patrick O’Brian – A huge role model for most, if not all, writers of naval fiction, so I’d love to be able to talk to him about his craft, how he developed the characters of Aubrey and Maturin, etc. Plus there’s the mystery of his own life, where he effectively reinvented himself as a completely different person.

Greta Garbo – Just why did she want to be alone? It would be fun to try and find out! I watched ‘Queen Christina’ again not so long ago and had forgotten just what a tantalising combination of charisma and mystery she possessed.

Ray Gravell – A rugby legend for both Llanelli (my home town team) and Wales in my younger days, then a TV commentator and film actor, the late, great Ray Gravell was a tremendously warm and witty man. A very brave one, too, whose determination in the face of serious illness was inspiring.

The Dowager Countess from ‘Downton Abbey’ – A glorious fictional creation! I’d definitely want to sit next to her to hear her catty one-liners about the other guests.

Athos from ‘The Three Musketeers’ – Another larger-than-life fictional character who’s always been a particular favourite of mine. It might be difficult to stop him over-indulging in the wine and getting too morose, though!

Shami Chakrabarti – I don’t necessarily agree with all of the positions she takes as head of Liberty, but most of the time she speaks with common sense and passion about issues that really matter. I’d sit her by my next guest and have fun watching the sparks fly

Boris Johnson – Say no more!

Author website - jddavies.com

J.D. Davies is co-host of the Conference talk
'Ships Ahoy! The challenges and joy 
of writing nautical HF'
with Linda Collison, Helen Hollick,
Margaret Muir & Richard Spilman 

Saturday from 11.50 - 12.50 
those attending the Conference can 
Book HERE to join this nautical flavoured session.


  1. Such fun! Off to sea we go. My dad was an engineer for Electric Boat, loved old boats as well as new, and designed missile tube covers/hatches (among other things) for submarines. He'd have loved these stories.

  2. My Dad would also have loved all this :-( - thanks for your support Kathryn


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