Character-building…the boy

I spent some time today reading a fine book–Young Nelsons ~ Boy Sailors during the Napoleonic Wars–about the education of Francis Austen, brother of the novelist, Jane, who entered the Naval Academy at Portsmouth in 1788, when he was aged 11. 

And listed among the required subjects which he would study and master during his two to three years there were, writing, arithmetic, drawing, Navigation, Gunnery, Fortification and other noteful parts of Mathematics, as well as French, Dancing, Fencing and the use of the Flintlock.  Furthermore, his education was expected to encompass Geography, Chronology, Navigation, Spherics, Astronomy, Latitude, Longitude and Marine Surveying. 

And let’s just remind ourselves, Francis Austen was eleven.  And he was to learn all this within three years maximum.  At which point, he would be assigned to a ship and go to sea. 

The expectation that children, boys in particular, would be set up or set out upon their lives’ endeavours by such a young age was the norm two hundred years ago. 

The provision for boys within the military makes this clear. 

The Naval Academy had been set up for the sons of the gentry and aristocracy, and they were unambiguous about it being exclusive.  But there was also the Marine Society, founded in London in 1756, a philanthropic society, as it were, which essentially took boys from the streets–scape gallowses as they were called–and provided them with kit and sent them to sea as well.  (This was seen as preferable to begging, thieving, hanging, or transportation.)

And in the army, of course, there is the constant requirement for drummer boys and cornets.

Childhood, such as we understand it, didn’t exist.  Not when in 1750 some 45-50% of children born in London died by the age of five.   

Equally, across the continent from 1792-1815, children were far more involved in the war than we might like to believe.  They couldn’t escape it. 

It was, after all, being fought across their landscape, every day present, and with it going on for so long, most young men by 1812 could not remember a time when they had not been at war. 

And it was with this background of knowledge that Boy Tirrell–who I’m told is the most interesting character I’ve created thus far–came to be. 

To be honest, he was always there. 

In my mind. 

The opening vision of him in that Paris garret, preparing to escape to England, that was always hauntingly present–it was the beginning of the whole encompassing world that became Of Honest Fame

From there emerges the revelation that he was a spy.  Though always, I intended to keep loyalties unclear for as long as possible, just as Le Carre does.  (If you’re going to model your work on someone’s, at least go for the best, say I.)

And he just grew and grew. 

I would like to say that I had some hand in this, that I had his character plotted and the plot-line nailed down so that I knew exactly how he would develop.  But that would be telling porkies.  I didn’t.  I don’t.  He evolved. 

Based on all that I knew of the period, all that he encountered, those with whom he had to deal, all that he saw and endured, his ties to Germany–his multi-ligualism–he grew and transformed and deepened. 

And though his is only one of several threads running through the novel, I hope readers will find him as intriguing, guileless and guileful as I have done, during the writing of the novel, and will come to appreciate the many facets of his character which I discovered as I wrote him.

A final ironic note:  it was not intended that he or an impression of him would grace the cover of the novel.  Not at all.  Again, that just happened.  Though I do believe, as I look upon it, that the Lawrence portrait of the boy, aged 15, which graces the cover is as fine an example of serendipity as you are likely to find.

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10 comments on “Character-building…the boy

  1. Piotr says:

    He was a real person?

    • M M Bennetts says:

      The boy? He’s a composite of many individuals I’ve read about who lived during the period…

      The cover portrait is of Edward Impey as painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence.

  2. Drew Cross says:

    Makes us seem somewhat like perennial underachievers, doesn’t it?
    Not that I’m necessarily advocating a return to bygone days…but even today there’s something to be said for keeping youths of a certain age busy (mentally and physically) to avoid them getting involved in similar nefarious activites, don’t you think? Lol!

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I completely think so. There’s a boy’s school near here where they do games first thing in the morning, every morning. Apparently this makes life the rest of the day entirely manageable…

  3. Greta van der Rol says:

    I remember reading those draft opening chapters on THAT site many months ago. That first chapter was enough to grab. And I defy any writer – any writer – to know all about a character before they start. (If they do, I reckon the character would be dead boring).

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Well, he kept surprising me, I’ll tell you that.

      I knew certain things, but there was this large portion in the middle of the book which just came out of nowhere…and sometimes had my eyes popping with amazement and sometimes just had me laughing at his bloody cheek.

  4. Paul House says:

    Boy is a thread that certainly ‘runs’ through the novel. Ha ha. Interesting post, MM. Master Austen certainly had his plate full. I had no idea about the extent of study required. I thought they just binged them out there to get on with it, sink or swim, so to speak.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      No. They even roughed up the lodging so that the gentry boys wouldn’t be shocked when they were forced to sling their hammocks alongside the others to “swing most vilely in some louzy berth surrounded by the noise and stink of rotte-ye-dogs and blackguard boys.” They also had built a Ship’s rigging on a block, so that the lads would learn the practical elements of climbing the riggings, etc.

  5. Rudolf says:

    Gives new meaning to “Give me the child” and all that. I guess then this was kind of like the modern, army/navy/air force cadets, only much more intense. I was an air cadet for a while, and schooling in many disciplines was part and parcel of being one. But as we went into the 80’s I became rather more radical in my thinking and turned my back on all things military. I’m not sorry I did, but I can understand how a young mind can become “absorbed” into seeing the military as their home, their family. My father was long gone, and there I found male role models who were severe (boy did they like shouting!), but fair and on occasion, even kind and proud of me.

  6. […] Character-building…the boy « M.M. Bennetts I spent some time today reading a fine book–Young Nelsons ~ Boy Sailors during the Napoleonic Wars–about the education of Francis Austen, brother of the novelist, Jane, who entered the Naval Academy at Portsmouth in 1788, […]

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