aptain Marryat's novel, Masterman Ready (1841), maintains a strong moral tone and didactic dialogue throughout this telling of the adventures of Masterman Ready and the Seagrave family. Captain Marryat began writing Masterman Ready in 1839 as a continuation of Wyss's The Swiss Family Robinson at the request of his own children. However, Marryat apparently found Wyss's description of island survival so improbable that he ended up writing his own tale of shipwreck and survival. Here, the genteel Mr. Seagrave, the frequently indisposed Mrs. Seagrave and their four children: William, twelve, Tommy, six, Caroline 7 and Albert who is not yet one, sail on board the Pacific en route to the Seagrave's home in Australia. The Pacific runs into several storms and when the captain is struck unconscious, the ship's crew abandon the ship wholesale with the exception of the selfless Masterman Ready who elects to remain onboard the doomed vessel to help the Seagraves and their negro maid, Juno. Eventually, the weather clears and the prescient Ready leads the Seagraves to relative safety on a desert island where they seek food and shelter, survive several adventures and are even attacked by natives before being eventually rescued by fortunate reappearance of the recovered Captain of the Pacific. The first of Marryat's childrens books, Masterman Ready represents the tone of Marryat's works, matching romantic tales of shipwreck and survival with stern lessons to be good and have faith in God.
Captain Marryat amply strews moral admonishments throughout the text. In fact, Mr. Seagrave, as his surname implies, readily casts a properly religious and seriously grave manner over the entire proceedings. After the exciting events of the storm and the crew's abandonment of the Seagrave family, Mr. Seagrave philosophically awakens to his first day on the deserted island, first admiring the scene with "what calm - what content - what a sweet sadness does it create!" and continuing to accept that "How mercifully have we been preserved when all hope appeared to be gone; and how bountifully have we been provided for, now that we have been saved, - and yet I have dared to repine, when I ought to be full of gratitude!" (50). Mr. Seagrave's description of the island and its aura of "sweet sadness" properly dictates the tone of the following months.
The narrative of Masterman Ready easily breaks down into a series of lectures probably more akin to the literature of Sunday scholars rather than with the adventures of penny dreadful heroes. From Ready's regret over the follies of running off to sea or warnings against youthful hubris or Mr. Seagrave's lectures on everything from the flora and fauna of the island to political history, Captain Marryat takes care to distinguish his work from mere scintillation and youthful entertainment.
Thus while the young consumers of penny dreadfuls would be more familiar with little Tommy's escapades which range from bellyaches due to eating castor beans to being surrounded by sharks when he tries to row the leaky, makeshift boat around the island in search of bananas, they must also recognize that little Tommy always ends up howling and being sent off to bed without dinner. Moreover, Tommy's laziness in filling water from the cask stored in the supply room turned stockade leads directly to Ready's death. Tommy's small shirking of duty — he merely chose not to walk to the well to get water for his mother — jeopardizes the entire family when the savages attack and lay siege on the makeshift stockade. Ready asks that William ensure that "Poor little Tommy; don't let him know that he was the cause of my death" (331). Here, unlike the young protagonists of earlier didactic tracts penned by authors such as James Janeway or the Rev. Wilson, Tommy is absolved of his thoughtless crime. He is too young to understand "what a lesson it will be to Tommy when he is old enough to comprehend fully the consequences of his conduct" (334). However, it appears that the reader, being older than Tommy's tender six years, would understand.
Finally, the most curious aspect about this tale, with its conscious reference to that most famous of shipwrecked adventurers, Robinson Crusoe, is its apparent rejection of exploits at sea. In the opening pages of the novel, while still aboard the Pacific, Ready almost seems to apologize for Marryat's adventure; he and Mr. Seagrave agree that young boys should not run off to sea:
"With my permission," continued Mr. Seagrave, "my boys shall never go to sea if there is any other profession to be found for them."
"Well, Mr. Seagrave, they do say that it's no use baulking a lad if he wishes to go to sea, and that if he is determined, he must go: now I think otherwise - I think a parent has a right to say no, if he pleases, upon that point; for you see, sir, a lad, at the early age at which he goes to sea, does not know his own mind. Every high-spirited boy wishes to go to sea - it's quite natural; but if the most of them were to speak the truth, it is not that they so much want to go to sea, as that they want to go from school or from home, where they are under the control of their masters or their parents."
"Very true, Ready; they wish to be, as they consider they will be, independent."
"And a pretty mistake they make of it, sir. Why, there is not a greater slave in the world than a boy who goes to sea, for the first few years after his shipping: for one they are corrected on shore, they are punished ten times at sea, and they never again meet with the love and affection that they have left behind them. It is a hard life, and there have been but few who have not bitterly repented it, and who would not have returned, like the prodigal son, and cast themselves at their father's feet, only that they have been ashamed."
"That's the truth, Ready, and it is on that account that I consider that a parent is justified in refusing his consent to his son going to sea, if he can properly provide for him any other profession. There never will be any want of sailors, for there always will be plenty of poor lads whose friends can do no better for them; and in that case the seafaring life is a good one to choose, as it requires no other capital for their advancement than activity and courage." [22,23]
The Seagraves pass their months on the island working industriously and prosaically to build a house and secure a supply of fish and turtle. Marryat's descriptions of the desert island verge on the desultory, and the beautiful sunny days quickly darken into gales as the rainy season descends. Despite Ready's dire remarks that they may not survive the year, the Seagraves make no attempt to familiarize themselves with the landscape but rather seek to impose civilization as they understand upon it. Although Mrs. Seagrave heroically announces that "You must not consider that you have lades with you now... at least, not fine ladies. My health and strength are recovering fast, and I mean to be very useful" (103), she continues to swoon and rely on Mr. Seagrave and William to support her throughout the ordeal. She remains in every aspect, a lady. Finally, unlike their literary predecessors, the Swiss Robinsons, the Seagraves remain firmly with two feet on the ground and construct a normal house with raised floors, use stones to line their turtle pond and wood to line their well. Perhaps the most romantic aspect of Masterman Ready is not the Seagrave's predicament nor Ready's selflessness but rather the adults' astounding ability to maintain all the niceties of Victorian society and the life of a proper Victorian family even when cast ashore on a deserted tropical island surrounded by man-eating sharks and savages.
Tommy's senior by six years, twelve year-old Master William, is considered almost an adult by his parents and Ready. In fact, throughout the tale, he supports his father and protects his mother, accompanies Ready through the island forest, and helps man the stockade against the savages. Yet little Tommy is an utter scamp and gets into scrapes that seriously endanger the others. Where does the line between children and adults appear then? Can we consider William to be a typical twelve year-old and thus a young adult as he is treated? Or is he merely different and better than his contemporaries, and apparently his younger brother too?
While Mr. Seagrave remains a gentleman throughout the ordeal, it is really Ready who saves the day. Yet do the Seagraves properly appreciate Ready's aid? How does Captain Marryat address this somewhat tricky social problem? Ready is after all only a seaman whereas Mr. Seagrave is a gentlemen. Does he?
Mrs. Seagrave announces that she will henceforth no longer be a "fine lady" but rather be useful. How does this reflect prevalent gender roles? What about Juno? As the only two women on the island, how do Mrs. Seagrave and Juno interact? What social and gender roles do they embody?
Although Captain Marryat does not linger upon the beautiful tropical beach-scape of the island, Mr. Seagrave's comments supply an ample description of the plants and animals that share the beach and forest with the Seagraves. However, the format of Mr. Seagrave's description invariably embody the form of a lesson:
Well then, William, you observe there is an island commenced as it were, and, once commenced, it soon increases, for the coral would then be protected to leeward, and grow up fast. Do you observe how the coral reefs extend at this side of the island, where thy are protected from the winds and waves; and how different it is on the weather side, which we have just left? Just so the little patch above water protects the corals to leeward, and there the island increases fast; for the birds not only settle on it, but they make their nests and rear their young, and so every year the soil increases; and then, perhaps, one cocoa-nut in its great outside shell (which appears as if it was made on purpose to be washed on shore in this way, for it is water-tight and hard, and at the same time very light, so that it floats, and will remain for months in the water without being injured) at last is thrown on these little patches - it takes root, and becomes a tree, every year shedding its large branches, which are turned into mould as soon as they decay, and then dropping its nuts, which again take root and grow in this mould; and thus they continue, season after season, and year after year, until the island becomes as large and as thickly covered with trees as the one we are now standing upon. Is not this wonderful, my dear boy? Is not he a great and good God who can make such minute animals as these work his pleasure, and at the time he thinks fit produce such a beautiful island as this?" [86-87]
Mr. Seagrave's descriptions of nature balance an appreciation for a personal quest for knowledge and a faith in its Creator, God. How does this compare with the merge of science and faith in Charles Kingsley's Madam How and Lady Why?
Marryat, Frederick. Masterman Ready. 1841.
Last modified 1 August 2007