Friday, September 07, 2012

Jane Austen and Patrick O'Brian - Bridging the gulf between

Though their stories are set in a similar era, there is a gulf between the historical romance novels of Jane Austen and the maritime fiction of Patrick O’Brian. The divide between these two extends beyond obvious gender difference and the genres in which they write, to the readership they attract and to the authors who attempt to emulate them.

Jane Austen is acknowledged as the quintessential Georgian Romance writer, while Patrick O’Brian and CS Forester are recognised as the masters of nautical fiction set in the Napoleonic period. Yet, born 100 years after Miss Austen’s death, Patrick O’Brian has been called ‘her rightful heir’ (Kirkus Reviews).

Jane Austen’s empathy for naval officers stemmed from having two brothers who served in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Both rose slowly through the ranks from mere midshipman to Admiral. But despite her close affiliation with, and knowledge of the navy, Austen did not attempt to write in the sub-genre of maritime fiction. Similarly, while Patrick O’Brian (author of the Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin series) allowed love interests to filter into his novels, as did CS Forester in his Horatio Hornblower series, neither wrote genre romance.

In the past, writing romance in the Austen style has been and, for the most part, still is the domain of female authors. Conversely, writing in the sub-genre of nautical fiction set in the age-of-sail has been, and still is, the domain of male writers.

But it was not only the writers who fell into this distinct divide. In the past, the readership they attracted reflected a similar distinct male/female split. Generally, females read romance and male readers read maritime fiction. These unsubstantiated variants still appear to apply to a greater extent however very slowly the worm is turning. Today, more male readers are attracted to Austen’s novels, and increasing numbers of women are savouring heroic sea stories set during the Napoleonic wars. Perhaps the in-home TV presentations of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Sense and Sensibility’ have introduced men to Miss Austen. Similarly, the ‘Hornblower’ series, and the epic movie ‘Master and Commander’ have brought nautical fiction to the screen and introduced this genre to a general, rather than a mostly select male audience.

So, apart from the media, what other factors are bridging this gulf? Today, women feature almost as much as men in ocean racing and sea-faring achievements. Only a few decades ago, women who enlisted in the navy did not step aboard a ship, yet recently, a woman was appointed as commander of a British Royal Navy Frigate. Today, the navy is no longer an exclusive male domain, and maritime fiction is no longer just read by men.
But there is one area where the great divide still appears to be anchored in tradition. It relates to the authorship of the two historical sub-genres. As stated earlier, it is accepted that female authors write romance. A few male authors cross the divide, with some opting to write romance under a female pseudonym. From my observations, authorship of age-of-sail maritime fiction is accepted as being exclusively by males. For many years Forester and O’Brian have been the respected authors of classic Georgian age-of-sail novels. More recently, new names have appeared, such as Alexander Kent, Julian Stockwin, Richard Woodman and many more. But there are no female names on the list. It would seem, therefore, that for the female author, this is a difficult sub-genre to enter and gain acceptance in.

To compete in either genres, writers must know their craft. Just as authors of Georgian Romance must be conversant with the society of the day, the accepted behaviour, mannerisms and dress etcetera; the prerequisites for writing nautical fiction is a thorough knowledge of tall ships, historic sea battles and familiarity with all the bells and whistles of the Royal Navy in Napoleonic times. But is this sufficient for a female author to gain a foot on the ladder of the male dominated sub-genre?

From my own experience, having had four historical novels published, my fifth novel, Floating Gold, was a maritime fiction adventure. As an apprenticeship to writing this type of story, I sailed on several tall ships. I crossed the Atlantic on a barquentine and cruised most of the world’s oceans including the Southern Ocean and crossing Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula. I have hauled on ropes, climbed the mast, taken the helm and immersed myself in the days of wooden ships. I have also visited numerous historic vessels and walked the decks of many.

But a knowledge of tall ships is not the only prerequisite to be competitive in this sub-genre. More importantly, the author must be capable of writing an engaging story, and be familiar with the historical facts in order to form the framework on which the story can take shape.

Having graduated with a BA (Writing) in 2004, I returned to University in 2010 to learn more about the Age of Revolution, the Atlantic World and the events of the Napoleonic Period. Just recently, I completed a second maritime fiction novel titled, The Tainted Prize. This is a sequel to Floating Gold, and my second book in this male dominated domain.

Just like the length of time it takes for a young midshipman to rise to the rank of admiral, I imagine it will take some years for female writers to rise up the list of accepted authors in the narrow and rather exclusive sub-genre of nautical fiction. But, I believe the worm is turning. Or, should I say, the tide is on the turn.

This first appeared on MORGEN BAILEY’s Guest Blog – 6 Sept 2012
Thank you Morgen.


Linda Collison said...

Excellent post, Margaret. You really nailed it!

Margaret Muir said...

Thanks, Linda.