Something for Summer Reading: ‘Mr. Midshipman Easy’ by Captain Frederick Marryat

Something for Summer Reading: ‘Mr. Midshipman Easy’ by Captain Frederick Marryat
"The Bombardment of Sveaborg," 1855, by James Wilson Carmiichael. National Maritime Museum. (Public Domain)

Most readers appreciate a thoroughly entertaining read, and such books can especially delight during the long, hot days of summer. If, as you’re sitting on the beach or near a pool or just in your backyard, you come across a nautical page-turner that includes a little scintillating satire, fantastic farce, and daredevil heroes too dashing to be dashed on the rocks of disaster, all the better.

Most books that make up the seafaring category are unable to deliver on all of these levels, but there is one in particular that does deliver, and with aplomb. “Mr. Midshipman Easy” (1836) by Capt. Frederick Marryat is one of these swashbuckling few, brandishing bright prose, tremendous spirit, and sharp humor, with a penetrating yet hilarious look at human nature.

This unique naval novel is a rollicking comedy set in the context of a British man-of-war in 1836, a vessel that the author captained himself and saw considerable action at sea. His hero, Mr. Midshipman Jack Easy, is a young officer of nobility serving in the Royal Navy, having taken advantage of the navy’s attempt to make its officers more genteel by allowing any young man of aristocratic birth to become a ranking officer on a battleship.

This effort often meant that the most unusual and unfit gentlemen would take charge of a crew of weathered old salts. Mr. Midshipman Easy is in this unlikely position. He cuts a most endearing figure and strikes quite a pose among the heroes in the log of seafaring stories.

Mr. Jack Easy’s Story

Jack Easy is sent off to sea in order to be righted of the social sophistries embedded in his brain by his eccentric father. Jack must navigate the brutal and beautiful realities of sailors, ships, and skirmishes with a philosophic fortitude that is hilarious to behold. He is a bold mixture of the innocent inquirer and the cunning conspirator, who always lands on his feet and claims the last laugh.
"Off the Dutch Coast," 1858, by John Wilson Carmichael. (Public Domain)
"Off the Dutch Coast," 1858, by John Wilson Carmichael. (Public Domain)

“Mr. Midshipman Easy” is one of those impossible stories with an unbelievability makes it irresistible. There is no shortage of exotic and exciting marvels, such as African curses, duels involving three men, ships struck by lightning, and musket balls and powder kegs peppering the air with fire and brimstone. The reader will also encounter petticoats for flags, death-defying cruises, heart-pounding elopement campaigns, conniving cloak-and-dagger clerics, an army of escaped convicts, mad philosophers, and murderous mutinies.

There’s more: shark attacks, violent family feuds, carousing mishaps, and a thousand other delectable wonders and intrigues too numerous to mention.

The work is clearly satirical. Capt. Marryat takes every opportunity to point out flaws in the regimented systems and traditions of the British navy, the abuses in society, and the absurdities of certain accepted opinions regarding what makes a proper education or a good man.

Yet it is a pity to limit the captain’s jolly story to simply being a satire. “Mr. Midshipman Easy” does more than point at human flaws. The Romantic poet John Keats famously said, “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us,” and the same can be said of literature. Much of literature inflicts a palpable design upon its readers, imposing moralist medicines that can more often than not nauseate readers; we have little appetite for being lectured.

The whole point of literature, therefore, is not to force any design on its audience but to allow readers to encounter things as they are and on their own in a pleasant way, or as American author Flannery O’Connor liked to put it, “to show, not tell.”

In its style, delivery, and instruction, “Mr. Midshipman Easy” excels in this strategy. And, while it shows us everything from cannons to capers, it actually teaches some pretty hard lessons in the most delightful fashion.

The book is magnificently silly and serious at the same time, embodied by the gentleman-rogue at the helm of Capt. Marryat’s indomitable little book. It teems with laughs, lessons, and life, which is why it should hold a place of honor in the ranks of summertime reading.

Sean Fitzpatrick serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy, a boarding school in Elmhurst, Pa., where he teaches humanities. His writings on education, literature, and culture have appeared in a number of journals, including Crisis Magazine, Catholic Exchange, and the Imaginative Conservative.