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Alethea Hayter. The Wreck of the Abergavenny: One of Britain's Greatest Maritime Disasters and its Links to Literary Genius. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2002. ISBN 0-333-989171. Price: £14.99.

  • Jonathan Roberts

…plus d’informations

  • Jonathan Roberts
    Wolfson College, Oxford

Corps de l’article

The wrecking of The Earl of Abergavenny off Weymouth in 1805 with the loss of 260 lives was, as Hayter's subtitle notes, "One of Britain's Greatest Maritime Disasters." The corresponding "Links to Literary Genius" exist because the drowning of the captain, John Wordsworth, moved his brother, the poet, to write a series of elegies that included the monumental "Peele Castle." During the 1960s a spate of academic publications on John's death argued that Wordsworth was psychologically unable to deal with the event, and that this might account for his later retreat into religious and political conservatism. [1] The wrecking has remained a familiar part of Wordsworth biography ever since, and Hayter's subtitle promises further discussion of this important matter.

Hayter divides her narrative into three parts, "Launching," "Sinking," and "Salvage." This scheme allows her to explore both the central story of the loss of the ship, and its close relation to the emotional and financial hopes and losses of the Wordsworth family. While the central chapters ("Sinking") are concerned with the wreck itself, the story extends backwards to include John working his way up through the ranks ("Launching"), and forwards to the reaction of John's family and friends to the news of his death ("Salvage").


The central difficulty faced by biographers of John Wordsworth is that of making their subject sympathetic. He was a quiet, solitary man who left only 51 letters, which (like Wordsworth's own) are often businesslike and mundane. Worse still, on those few occasions that he does speak out strongly on a subject, it is often in an objectionable way. Writing to Mary Wordsworth about a neighbour who has cut down some fir trees near Grasmere he says, "I wish I had the monster that cut them down in my ship & I would give him a tight flogging" (104). To Wordsworth himself, John describes Longman, his brother's publisher, as "a most damnable Jew," and in the same letter exults that his own business is "coming on most famously [—] I shall soon be as rich as a Jew—my investment to China will amount to about 10,000£ & the longer the war last the better it will be for me" (82-3).

Hayter faces some of these difficulties head on, but does so through an unsuccessful attempt to exonerate John by relativizing such statements. Commenting on his "robust" attitude towards the personal benefits of war, she writes:

War was not then the universal dread that it is now; it was regarded as the preserve of professionals, who enjoyed exercising their skills and making their fortunes, and had comparatively little impact on civilians, in England at any rate.


I find this to be an extraordinary claim, given that in the year that the Abergavenny sank, in addition to Britain's massive militia and volunteer corps, there were 120,000 men in the pay of the Navy, and 135,000 in the Army, the majority of whom had families and dependents. Half of those who drowned on the Abergavenny were soldiers on their way to serve in India.

These matters aside, Hayter presents a very readable account of John's early years in the East India Company, which is no easy task since only two letters survive from his first twelve years of service, and since Hayter has had to reconstruct the narrative from ships' logs and general accounts of early-nineteenth-century shipping. Drawing on these sources she produces some fascinating glimpses into contemporary voyages, such as dining on board ship (evening dress at 2 p.m., pease-soup, hog's puddings, stewed cabbage, and gin); the cargo (feathers, toys, claret, and packs of hounds); and life on board ("Ladies were not expected to play cards or backgammon, or drink more than two glasses of wine" [50]). The treatment of this general information is sometimes more thorough than that regarding the Abergavenny itself. The successful outcome of John's skirmish with a French naval squadron off the Malay peninsula in 1803, for example, is accounted for by the phrase "an ingenious manoeuvre which made them [the British merchant ships] appear to the French like armed warships," but the "ingenious manoeuvre" itself is never explained.


Hayter's reticence on such matters appears to correspond to the limits of her research. She does not present any substantive new theory or evidence concerning John or the Abergavenny, and she is hostile towards conjectural biography. This is made clear in her treatment of Constance Pilgrim's entirely speculative biography of Austen, Dear Jane (London, 1971), which conjectures a relationship between John Wordsworth and Jane Austen as the basis for the Wentworth-Anne relationship in Persuasion. Hayter dismisses Pilgrim's argument as "preposterous" and "foolish" because she fails to produce the supporting evidence, yet Hayter is equally wary of scholarly fastidiousness, and in her own work, eschews footnotes, endnotes, and even the names of critics. Thus, despite taking a full page to dismantle systematically Pilgrim's arguments, neither Pilgrim nor her work (referred to only as "a book published in 1971" [21]) are actually named, and neither appears in the bibliography. These methods may keep Hayter's narrative superficially clear of academic distractions, but they also mean that she has to introduce key theories about her subject via passive constructions: "it has been maintained" (22), "it has been suggested" (28) and so on. This is disappointing, as in the field of Wordsworth studies, Stephen Gill, Kenneth Johnston and others have shown that it is possible successfully to combine popular biography with scholarly specificity. Hayter's book had the potential to be of real academic value here as the sources available regarding the wreck and the public and private responses to it are manifold, complex, and often conflicting, and have yet to be comprehensively brought together.


Although Hayter has little new to say on the sinking itself or its impact on Wordsworth, she does make good use of material that has previously been considered peripheral to accounts of the wrecking. By sketching in the later lives of one or two of the Abergavenny's passengers, she begins to give faces and names to the 400 individuals on board. She describes the lengthy salvage operation, makes a critical assessment of two contemporary poems on the subject of the wreck, and annotates a collection of extracts from condolence letters written to Wordsworth and Dorothy. More importantly, she manages to establish a sense of the relationship between John and Coleridge, and this is perhaps the most original aspect of her work. There is a good deal of interesting material here, from Coleridge's commissioning of John to procure hashish for Tom Wedgwood, to Hayter's considered analysis of Coleridge's response to John's death. The evidence itself is not new (Coleridge's increasingly bizarre revisions of his own response to the news of John's death, for example), but Hayter makes useful connections between John, Coleridge, the news of the tragedy, and the reports of the wreck in the Maltese journal Il Cartaginese. In a rare moment of speculation, she even considers the question of how Coleridge might have comforted Wordsworth had he been in England at this time—Hayter suggests he would have comforted his friend philosophically.

The closing chapters of the book are given to a discussion of "the effect of the tragedy on Wordsworth's art and view of life [. . .] which shows how a catastrophe is transformed from first reports and contemporary reactions into historical record and poetic myth" (cover notes). This section overlooks recent scholarship on the subject of the public reception of the event [2] and turns instead to Julian Barnes's discussion of Le Radeau de la Méduse which inspires Hayter's own exploration of Wordsworth's poetic meditations on John's death. This discussion is of limited value as it overlooks fundamental aspects of Wordsworth's poetic response, such as the consolation that he draws from the conventions and emblems of the elegiac genre. For example, Hayter argues that in "To the Daisy," Wordsworth "simply described what happened in language perhaps deliberately naif, like a ballad" (193).

Despite these shortcomings Hayter has written a very readable narrative which covers the key facts of the wreck and John's life, and brings up many of the critical issues concerning the wider response to his death. It gives little sense of why the tragedy was so important to Wordsworth's poetic career, but at its best, Hayter's prose is evocative and absorbing, and conveys some sense of the social environment in which the events occurred. The introduction to Ketcham's Letters still remains the best concise account of John's life and the wrecking; McAdam and Townsend still provide the most provocative discussion of its impact on Wordsworth's career; and the nautical archaeologist E. M. Cumming still remains the authority on the ship itself and the salvage operation. [3] Hayter, however, in a book that is new in its form rather than its content, has condensed these sources into a lucid overview of the tragedy and the impact on those it affected.

Parties annexes