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Nicholas Monsarrat (1910-1979)

 

Nicholas Monsarrat is chiefly remembered for The Cruel Sea (1951), an international bestseller about the battle of the Atlantic during the Second World War. The 500-page and 200,000 word novel was awarded the Heinemann Foundation Prize for Literature. Until then, Monsarrat had already published several books, fiction and non-fiction, but had made only £1 647 out of them.

"He loved the sea, though not blindly: it was the cynical, self-contemptuous love of a man for a mistress whom he distrusts profoundly but cannot do without." (from The Cruel Sea)

Nicholas John Turney Monsarrat was born in Liverpool, the son of Keith Waldegrave Monsarrat, an eminent surgeon, and Ada Marguerite, the daughter of Sir John Turney, a prosperous tradesman. Because his mother preferred the spelling Montserrat, it was incorrectly registred at his birth. The discrepancy between spellings was to embrass him for decades. Monsarrat was educated at Winshester, where he spent five frustrating years, and Trinity College, Cambridge. For Monsarrat, Cambridge was a "golden age of privilege allied to laziness, a dreamlike progress". After graduating in law in 1931, Monsarrat worked two years in Nottingham. Bored with the solicitor's office routine, he moved to London, and began a new career as a freelance writer. Monsarrat's first novel was Think of Tomorrow (1934). He wrote also a play, The Visitors, about a poor young socialist playwright, and contributed to the Yachting World and London Week. His first book to receive significant critical acclaim was the largely autobiographical This is the Schoolroom (1939).

As a young man, Monsarrat participated in left-wing politics. "We were like the young of all the world, since the world began," he recalled in his autobiography, Life Is a Four-Letter Word (1966-1970). "Everything was wrong: things could not go on like this; the universe was rightly doomed; war was on the way; freedom was denied, greed and lust for power still ruled our lives shamelessly." However, he never joined the Communist Party, and after visiting Spain on the eve of the Civil War, he began to grow disillusioned with Socialism.

In 1939, four days after the outbreak of World War II, Monsarrat married Eileen Rowland. They had one son. During the war, Monsarrat sailed on more than a hundred long and short convoys in the North Atlantic and wrote four nonfiction works. He served in 1940-41 on HMS Campanula, a corvette, and then on HMS Guillemot. In 1943, was appointed Commaning Officer of HMS Shearwater, a sloop.

After the war, Monsarrat worked in Johannesburg, South Africa, as the director on Britain's information office. "It was like the Navy," Monsarrat later said, "except that now the ranks were vague, and the uniform non-existent. The uniform, in fact, was the civil uniform of service." In a memo from 1946, Monsarrat outlined a plan for a full black-white parnership and warned that South Africa is heading "for a political repression of the worst short".

Monsarrat's most famous novel, The Cruel Sea, was published in 1951 by Cassell in London and Alfred Knopf in New York. That same year saw the publication of Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny. Alongside with Alistair MacLean's H.M.S. Ulysses (1955), these works marked the new beginning in sea war stories, in which ships and the sea play a major role. The story was about two British ships, H.M.S. Compass Rose, a tiny corvette which is eventually torpedoed, and H.M.S. Saltash, a frigate, and their crews. "The only heroines are the ships," Monsarrat wrote in his foreword, "and the only villain the cruel sea itself."

The film version of the book, which was shot in the middle of summer in the English Channel, was relatively faithful to the original story, although the important brothel scenes were omitted. Eric Ambler was nominated for the Best Screenplay Academy Award. Jack Hawkins, who played the experienced officer, the Royal Navy Lieutenant-Commander George Eastwood Ericson, suffered from sea-sickness during the storm scenes. The first lieutenant Keith Lockhart, played by Donald Sinden, represented the author himself. Compass Rose in the movie was actually The Coreopsis from Malta, formely used by the Greek navy, and Saltash was a Royal Navy vessel, the frigate Porchester Castle.

In 1952, Monsarrart married Philippa Crosby, a South African journalist; they had two sons. Upon working three years as the director of the United Kingdom Information Office in Ottawa, Monsarrat retired from government service in 1956 to devote himself entirely to writing. Monsarrat's next novel after The Cruel Sea was The Story of Esther Costello (1953), often characterized as an upside-down story of Helen Keller. In Hollywood, the director Samuel Fuller wrote in 1955 a script based on the book, but eventually the film version, directed by David Miller and starring Joan Crawford, Rossano Brazzi, and Hather Sears, was produced in 1957 by Columbia Pictures. The central character is a deaf, dumb, and blind Irish girl, named Esther, who is destroyed by her closest friends. Esther's disabilities have a psychological origin – she was traumatized in early childhood by the loss of her parents in an explosion. In his author's note Monsarrat stated that the book is "the story of a monstruous fraud in philantrophy", and emphasized that it is wholly fictional. However, it was banned in South Africa, where Keller traveled on a fund-rising tour in 1951. Possibly Monsarrat saw her at that time.

The Tribe That Lost Its Head (1956), which Monsarrat wrote in Canada, and its sequel, Richer Than All His Tribe (1968), were set in an imaginary island called Pharamaul, off the south-west coast of Africa. The outbreak of violent conflict ("the Mau-Mau uprising") is described in bloody detail. Monsarrat concluded that Britain rule had been beneficial to the colonies and much of Africa was "far from ready for emancipation". This was not seriously challenged by critics: "Mr. Monsarrat's praise of the Colonial service is rendered worthless through lack of sensitivity in his characters, and failure to endow their speech with significance or wit", said one reviewer.

Monsarrat's second marriage dissolved in 1961. He then married Ann Griffiths, a journalist. During the last period of his life, Monsarrat lived on the mediterranean island of Gozo, Malta, which he described in the historical novel The Kappillan of Malta (1973). In 1973, he was made Chevalier of the Sovereign Order of St John of Jerusalem. Monsarrat died of cander on August 7, 1979, in London. By his own wish, Monsarrat was buried at sea, off the English coast.

Monsarrat considered his major work the projected three-volume novel The Master Mariner, about the British naval history from the Armada to modern day nuclear-powered tankers. Matthew Lawe, the protagonist, is a Flying Duchman figure and like Conrad's Lord Jim, he haunted by a single act of cowardice. Monsarrat finished only the first volume, Running Proud (1978), which covered the period from Francis Drake to Samuel Pepys. The second, Darken Ship (1981), appeared after his death.

For further reading: Life Is a Four-Letter Word: Breaking In by Nicholas Monsarrat (1966); Life Is a Four-Letter Word: Breaking Out by Nicholas Monsarrat (1970); World Authors 1900-1950, vol. 3, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996)

Selected works:

  • Think of Tomorrow, 1934
  • At First Sight, 1935
  • The Whipping Boy, 1937
  • This is the Schoolroom, 1939
  • H.M. Corvette, 1942
  • East Coast Corvette, 1943
  • Corvette Command, 1944
  • Three Corvettes, 1945 (includes H.M. Corvette, East Coast Corvette, Corvette Command)
  • Leave Cancelled, 1945
  • H.M. Frigate, 1946
  • Depends on What You Mean by Love, 1947
  • Hms Marlborough Will Enter Harbour, 1947 - Suuntana kaakko: HMS Malboroughin voitto ja vaiheikas kotiinpaluu (suom. Jaakko Lavanne, 1958) - TV film 1956: H.M.S. Marlborough Will Enter Port, narrated by Ronald Reagan, prod. Revue Studios. Teleplay by George Bruce.
  • My Brother Denys, 1948
  • The Cruel Sea, 1951 - Julma meri (suom. K. Killinen, 1951) - film: 1953, dir. by Charles Frend, starring Jack Hawkins, Donald Sinden, Denholm Elliott, Stanley Baker, John Stratton, Virginia McKenna. Screenplay by Eric Ambler.
  • The Story of Esther Costello, 1953 - Esther Costellon tarina (suom. Ena Kontuniemi, 1954) - film: 1957 (also known as The Golden Virgin), dir. by David Miller, starring Joan Crawford, Rossano Brazzi, Heather Sears, Lee Patterson. Screenplay by Charles Kaufman.
  • ed.: The Boy's Book of the Sea, 1954
  • Canada from Coast to Coast, 1955
  • Castle Garac, 1955 - television film: Bait for the Tiger, 1957, dir. by Paul Nickell, starring Anna Maria Alberghertti, Corinne Calvet, Carl Esmond, Peter Lawford. Adaptation by Whitfield Cook.
  • The Tribe That Lost Its Head, 1956 - Heimo joka menetti päällikkönsä (suom. Jaakko Lavanne, 1958)
  • ed.: The Boy's Book of the Commonwealth, 1957
  • The Ship That Died of Shame: And Other Stories, 1959 (The Ship That Died of Shame; Oh To Be In England!; The Reconciliation; The List; The Thousand Islands Snatch; Up The Garden Path; The Man Who Wanted a Mark IX; I Was There; The Dinner Party; Licensed To Kill; Postscript) - films: 1955: The Ship That Died of Shame, dir. by Basil Dearden, starring Richard Attenborough, George Baker, Bill Owen, Virginia McKenna, Roland Culver, screenplay by Basil Dearden, Michael Relph, John Whiting; TV film 1984: The Reconciliation, dir. John Jacobs, starring Roger Rees, John Castle, Jim Norton, Meq Davies, teleplay by Roy Russell.
  • The Nylon Pirates, 1960
  • The White Rajah, 1962 - Valkoinen valtias (suom. Jaakko Lavanne, 1964)
  • The Time Before This, 1962
  • To Stratford with Love, 1963
  • Smith and Jones, 1963
  • A Fair Day's Work, 1964
  • The Pillow Fight, 1965
  • Something to Hide, 1965 - film: 1972 (also known as Shattered), prod. Avton Films, dir. by Alastair Reid, starring Peter Finch, Shelley Winters, Colin Blakely, John Stride, Linda Hayden. Screenplay by Alastair Reid.
  • Life Is a Four-Letter Word (vol. 1): Breaking In, 1966
  • Richer Than All His Tribe, 1968
  • Life Is a Four-Letter Word (volume two): Breaking Out, 1970
  • The Kappillan of Malta, 1973
  • Monsarrat at Sea, 1975
  • The Master Marine, Book 1: Running Proud, 1978 - Merenkulkija 1 (suom. Aarne Valpola, 1980)
  • The Master Mariner, Book 2: Darken Ship: The Unfinished Novel, 1981 - Merenkulkija 2 (suom. Aarne Valpola, 1982)

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