Friday, March 3, 2017

Stories by English Authors: The Sea by W. Clark Russell, et al.

As predictable as the tides
Walter Besant
This collection of short fiction is part of the ten-volume Stories by English Authors series published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1896. The unnumbered volumes in the series are subtitled according to the settings of the stories they contain, in this case The Sea. This is the sixth volume I’ve read in the series, which has been of mixed quality thus far.

As I work my way through the series, I didn’t approach this assortment of sea stories with a great deal of optimism. I find that sailing stories generally tend to be jargon-heavy and formulaic. The atmosphere of shipboard life often takes precedence over plot, and for every master of the genre—e.g. Herman Melville, Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson—there are a thousand hacks. The table of contents of this volume contains no British authors of Stevenson’s calibre or notoriety. The fact that three of the selections are attributed to “Anonymous” is even less promising.

The three anonymous stories end up being the shortest, most conventional, and least inspiring entries in the book. Two stories of smugglers and slavers, “The Rock Scorpions” and “‘Petrel’ and ‘The Black Swan,’” are so bogged down with nautical slang, foreign accents, and murky prose that the plots are barely intelligible. “Vanderdecken’s Message Home” is a generically spooky telling of a ship’s encounter with the ghostly Flying Dutchman.

Faring a little better, but not much is “The Extraordinary Adventure of a Chief Mate” by W. Clark Russell. A sailor is marooned on a newly born volcanic island, where his adventures are far from extraordinary. After a long, boring wait, nothing much happens. In “The Master of the ‘Chrystolite’” a captain is ready to resign his post for a more lucrative offer when his bosses offer him a huge cash bonus to wreck their ship for the insurance money. This one starts with a pretty good premise, but ends up being predictable and a little slow.

Compared to its two sister series from Scribner’s—Stories by American Authors from 1884 and Stories by Foreign Authors from 1898—the Stories by English Authors series contains an inordinate number of narratives about romance and betrothal. Not even The Sea is immune to this saccharine subject matter. Shockingly, however, one of these stories ends up being the best selection in this volume. In Walter Besant’s “Quarantine Island,” a would-be Romeo is jilted by his beloved, but finds solace in tending the sick on an isolated island that serves as a holding pen for potentially contagious ship passengers. The plot leads to a predictable end, but the getting there is well written. Yet another recurring subtheme in the romance category is the matchmaking story, here represented by Grant Allen’s story “Melissa’s Tour.” An English family is asked to escort a young woman from Kansas City on a transatlantic voyage, and she ends up not being the dumb Yankee country bumpkin they expected. It’s a decent selection, but, being a Kansas Citian, I may be biased.

There’s nothing either terrible or impressive about this volume. It is probably an accurate representation of the mediocre center line of nautical literature in Britain at the end of the 19th century. If you’re a fan of sea stories, you might enjoy this collection, but chances are you’ve read far better works in this genre.

Stories in this collection
The Extraordinary Adventure of a Chief Mate by W. Clark Russell 
Quarantine Island by Sir Walter Besant
The Rock Scorpions by Anonymous 
The Master of the “Chrystolite” by G. B. O’Halloran 
“Petrel” and “The Black Swan” by Anonymous
Melissa’s Tour by Grant Allen 
Vanderdecken’s Message Home by Anonymous

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