‘The medley on our bookshelf’

We’ve said – a few times now – that Childers is doing something very deliberate in this part of the book. The excursion to Schleswig-Holstein seems deliberately designed to emphasise the growing military threat from Prussian arms, and the little collection of books on the shelf in the Dulcibella’s saloon is just as significant.

Our conversation at dinner turned naturally on war, and in naval warfare I found I had come upon Davies’s literary hobby. I had not hitherto paid attention to the medley on our bookshelf, but I now saw that, besides a Nautical Almanack and some dilapidated Sailing Directions, there were several books on the cruises of small yachts, and also some big volumes crushed in anyhow or lying on the top. Squinting painfully at them I saw Mahan’s Life of Nelson, Brassey’s Naval Annual, and others.

‘It’s a tremendously interesting subject,’ said Davies, pulling down (in two pieces) a volume of Mahan’s Influence of Sea Power.

The Nautical Almanack is one of the oldest recurring editions in British letters, dating back to 1767 and originally published by the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. It is essentially a catalogue of the heavens, showing the position of celestial objects on each day of the year, to be used as an aid to navigation. Since 1958, a joint edition has been published by Her Majesty’s Nautical Almanac Office (what a department!) and the US Naval Observatory. The ‘special relationship’ is alive and well in at least this area, it seems.

‘Sailing Directions’ is a generic term for a series of publications – also known as ‘Pilots’ – which are still published today by the Admiralty. They are essentially user guides to harbours and coasts for sailors, giving instructions on how to navigate in and out of anchorages.

Brassey’s Naval Annual was first published by Thomas Brassey, 1st Earl of Brassey, in 1886. It was essentially a guide to navies, showing the development of the most powerful navies in some detail, listing new ships and future plans. Here are a couple of screenshots from the 1901 edition, which should make it clear why Davies was reading it!



In other words – Brassey showed, in detail, the rate of growth of the German navy.

The last two books – The Life of Nelson and Influence of Sea Power – were both written by American admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan. Life of Nelson was published in 1897, the year of Childers’s own voyage to the Baltic and the East Frisians, and only a year before the setting of Riddle of the SandsInfluence of Sea Power came out in 1890, and was immediately, and hugely, influential. Mahan’s essential contention was that the nation that controlled the seas, controlled everything. Ever since Nelson, this nation had been Britain. But in 1890 – and even more so in 1898 – Britain’s preeminent position was increasingly threatened by Germany.

HMS Dreadnought, Britains first Dreadnought-class warship - picture By U.S. Navy (U.S. Naval Historical Center) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
HMS Dreadnought, Britains first Dreadnought-class warship – picture By U.S. Navy (U.S. Naval Historical Center) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
There is a nice detail to add here, from Maldwen Drummond’s book The Riddle. Drummond points out that Childers visited Kiel – the main naval harbour for Germany – during October 1897. At this time, the German Colonial Society was orchestrating a propaganda campaign in favour of German armament and aggression. The Society ‘had organized 173 lectures, printed 140,000 pamphlets and distributed 2,000 copies of Magain’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History.’

Books, then, were another means by which Childers could emphasise his political point. One final thing about them: Childers lists in the log of his own journey to the Baltic and the Frisians in 1897 the books he himself took. He was a big fan of Thackeray, and took two Thackeray titles with him, Esmond and Pendennis. The log entry for 2 October, off the East Frisian island of Langeroog, is rather lovely:

3 fathoms, fine deep channel – just off a long pier. Lovely calm night. Dinner, white soup, steak, onions and potatoes, champagne, black coffee, cigars – Esmond.

We shall, of course, be seeking to re-enact this charming scene when we get there ourselves!

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