Some time ago Ian Hislop made a documentary examining the change in national character brought about the by the Great War (until WW1 the Napoleonic war was known as the Great War). He did this in part by examining the attitudes and character of two people. Nelson, the son of a country parson with a familial connection to the navy. A flamboyant romantic, almost an adventurer. And the Duke of Wellington, the dour aristocratic son of the Irish Protestant Ascendancy. Having read the first part of this massively detailed biography of a man who had at his death a world wide renown to the extent that a Russian naval flotilla passed their respects at sea upon hearing of his death, I would now only agree in part with Hislop's interpretation. Nelson had many facets to his character. Romantic, impulsive, hot-headed but also at times taciturn, rigid, pious and punctilious when applying the rules in the Caribbean under the Navigation Acts. In a world where advancement was by contact and influence, he was unerring in cultivating superiors pushing himself forward and securing where possible places and money for his family and those he supported within the Navy. He was loyal to his crews and had a paternalistic, hugely patriotic and god-fearing belief in the rightness of the world as he saw it. He disciplined his crews to keep order and to improve the efficiency of his ship, not as a form of cruelty.
As we watch his career develop with its inevitable highs and lows, his poor judgement when entrusted with the Prince Regent highlighted his immaturity and susceptibility to flattery and his outrageous and utterly courageous action at the battle of Cape St. Vincent showed his love of action and quest for glory that would make his name, you see a man grow who has the look of destiny about him. There were many fine captains in the navy at this time but Nelson managed to distinguish himself even then. He constantly looked for action a chance to take on the enemy both at sea and on land. It is an irony of his service that he was blinded in one eye Corsica, and lost him arm Tenerife while fighting on land rather than at sea. His constant commitment even at the beginning of his career in Nicaragua, his fighting spirit and politicing in Naples and Genoa trying to get the Austrians, Neapolitans and indeed his own British army superiors to confront Napoleon's armies with more vigour reveal a man devoted to his calling and his country, even if they also reveal a lack of political awareness and enthusiam for impractical schemes that can only be described as reckless.
His marriage to Fanny was unfortunate for both of them, even though he maintained his stepson Josiah with him and wrote faithfully to his wife. His view of her was perhaps more that of an idealised wife and he must take the lions share of the blame for its failure. She remained loyal and loving throughout, spending many years caring for his ailing father.
His favourite ship the Agamemnon gave him the command he sought and he took full advantage of it. He made it with some hard working officers and men a fine fighting vessel. The navy really was his life and until Emma Hamilton his obssession.
I thought given the size of this volume (part 2 is bigger) I might be confronted with the occasional turgid shallow, but this is really a consummate piece of research, writing and development of the character of Nelson. It will not give you an overarching view of the way the navy operated in this period (see N.A.M Rodgers 'The Command of the Ocean') for that. But as a biography of one of the key figures in British history I would not look for anything better. perhaps only Marianne Czisnik's 'Horatio Nelson: A Controversial Hero' can offer a really different perspective.
As we leave Nelson in this volume. A man twice seriously, almost terminally ill from tropical disease, half blinded, with a stomach problem and hernia gained during the battle at Cape St. Vincent and with only one good arm, we see a man bereft thinking his time is over. He is hardly to know that his most momentous days are yet to come.
I am equally sure that John Sugden, he busts the myths but clearly loves his subject, will carry him forward into battle as brilliantly as he carried himself.