THE TWO ADMIRALS
James Fenimore Cooper. (1789-1851)
"...when the English flagship came sweeping past in a cloud of smoke, and a blaze of fire. His own broadside was nobly returned, or as much of it as the weather permitted, but the smoke of both discharges was still driving between the masts, when the dark hamper of the Carnatic glided into the drifting canopy, which was made to whirl back on the devoted Frenchman in another torrent of flame. Three times was this fearful assault renewed on the Scipio, at intervals of about a minute..."
If the above description pleases, you'd probably like this book, but it's not all thunder and mayhem. The action takes place in the middle of the 18th century, beginning at a signal station on the coast of Devonshire in a small village named Wychecombe. Master Dutton lives at the station with his wife and daughter Mildred. Sir Wycherly Wychecombe is the aged land-owner and ruling baronet of the area. He's a bachelor and at 85 years old, and there's some question as to who will inherit the estate when he's gone. He had five brothers but they are all deceased. the eldest had a son out of wedlock named Tom, who's eager to take over his uncle's property, but he's not liked by most people, being sneaky and dishonest.
The Baronet visits the Duttons to see if any ships have arrived in the small harbor. He finds an emergency situation: another Wycherly Wychecombe, this one from Virginia, has fallen over the cliff in front of the station and has landed on a ledge about thirty feet down. He'd been talking with Mildred and had lost his balance while trying to pick a flower just over the edge. After a certain amount of dithering, the Master and the Baronet rig up a rope and rescue him. There's been a bit of fog hovering over the site and when it lifts, they see that a fleet has entered the shallow anchorage. There are two Admirals in charge of the battleships, Rear Admiral Oakes and Vice Admiral Bluewater. The two grew up together in the Royal Navy, beginning as Midshipmen and serving in different vessels until they were both promoted at approximately the same time. Oakes is a die-hard Naval Officer, while Bluewater, although just as competent, has Jacobite leanings. This is the era in which Bonny Prince Charlie was about to land in Scotland in order to reclaim the British throne.
At a large dinner to welcome the fleet to the area, the Baronet has a stroke and dies. Since he has no heirs, he leaves all his worldly goods and estate to the other Wycherley, him being a distant relation even though he's a colonial. Tom has forged a marriage certificate to prove that he's the legitimate heir, but it's generally recognized as being fake. Wycherley has fallen in love with Mildred and is about to declare himself when news arrives that the French are "out", meaning a French fleet has entered the English Channel. The two Admirals make their plans: the fleet is to be split into two halves in order to attack the French from two sides at once. Sir Oakes leaves first with five ships, and engages the enemy, fulling expecting Bluewater to back him up once the engagement has begun. But Bluewater has been approached by other Jacobites and there is danger of him sailing away up the Channel to aid Prince Charles.
Oakes can't believe his long-term friend would desert him in a crisis, but he fights a losing battle against the overwhelming French forces. Things are about to look even bleaker, when...
(Will Bluewater arrive in time to rescue his friend? Will Mildred and Wycherley marry? Will Tom manage to take over his uncle's estate? Will the Prince defeat all comers and acquire the English throne? et alia...)
Cooper is a much better writer than Marryat. He is one of those authors who can detail out a meticulous plot while interjecting interesting side comments at the same time on human affairs and human behavior. Reading his work is like listening to an authority on whatever subject might lie under discussion, be it seamanship, surveying, hunting, anthropology, politics, exploration, farming, or geography. The result being a three or four dimensional impression, instead, as in Marryat's case, one limited to two dimensions. Granted, his prose style gets a bit weedy sometimes, but that serves as a sort of bottomless receptacle for his multiphasic interpolations. Reading his work is an adventure of the best sort. Try it, you'll like it...