- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 27, 2004


By John Sugden

Henry Holt, $35, 943 pages


Every Englishman alive in October, 1805 remembered forever the moment he first heard of Horatio Nelson’s death at Trafalger, off Spain. It’s easy to understand why. England had won one of its most spectacular victories, only to lose one of its greatest heroes.

The essayist Charles Lamb, who had once seen Nelson on the streets of London and described him then as “looking just as a hero should look,” spoke for most if not all his fellow countryman, when he declared that Nelson’s passing “left him “very much cut out” because “nobody is left of any name at all.”

How the English — and much of the world — came to hold Nelson in such great esteem is the subject of John Sugden’s spendid — and very long — new biography, “Nelson: A Dream of Glory, 1758-1797.” This first volume follows Nelson’s life from his birth through his great victory at Cape St. Vincent and the humiliating defeat on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Mr. Sugden promises a second volume that will deal with the last eight years of Nelson’s life, when he won the reputation that has left him permanently among the immortals of naval history.

What made Nelson the great man and hero many who knew him — and many others since — have thought him to be? Mr. Sugden cites Nelson’s exemplary courage, which never failed him. He also describes his exceptional intelligence. Nelson read newspapers and much else ominivorously and he knew his Shakespeare, his favorite writer, thoroughly. He was a quick study in every field he undertook.

But the author warns against reverting to the word “genius,” which is used repeatedly by one of the great man’s earlier major biographers, Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose “The Life of Nelson” appeared in 1897. Instead, Mr. Sugden sees Nelson as but one of a several members of a new type of Englishman.

Nelson was, in Mr. Sugden’s view, “a particularly strong example of a new breed of aggressive naval officers, nurtured in a tradition of victory and increasing professionalism,” a group of men whose abilities and devotion to duty would transform the British navy and make it the most powerful maritime force in the world.

But Mr. Sugden doesn’t want to diminish Nelson’s status as hero. For the author, Nelson had qualities that caused him to stand out among even this “new breed” of superior officers. “There was something special about Nelson,’ Mr. Sugden writes. He was, “a driven man, intensely focused on his work.”

This tremendous, overwhelming drive was more than unchecked ambition or vainglory, though it was those things at times. For Mr. Sugden, Nelson’s “insatiable ego” was tempered by his genuine devotion to king, country, and the Church of England.

And it was this blend of great ambition, patriotism, and deep piety, in the author’s opinion, that made Nelson who he was — an exceptional man who deeply impressed those around him.

“He is the most indefatigable man I know,” said one officer who served with Nelson. Another said that he was “perhaps, more generally beloved by all ranks of people under him than any other officer in the service” and was so well loved because he had the “rare quality of conciliating the most opposite tempers and forwarding the public service with unanimity amongst men not of themselves disposed to accord.”

This love for Nelson on the part of men who served under him sprang from other causes, too. Nelson listened to those who spoke to him and was “approachable and easy-mannered,” qualities (to say the least) not commonplace among the mostly very class-conscious officers of his time. He was always loyal to the men who served him and did their jobs well. No “captain of the fleet fought more tenaciously for the promotion of his officers than Nelson,” writes Mr. Sugden.

It should not be forgotten Nelson achieved greatness despite (or perhaps because of) his slight body and in the face of frequent serious illness and severe bodily pain. Frail as a child, he caught malaria early in his naval career and suffered periodically from fevers his whole life, often spending weeks in slow recuperation and sometimes losing his hair. He was subject to migraines and developed a debiliating abdominal hernia.

And he famously lost both an eye and arm in battle. These are indeed the grit of which heroes are made. But Mr. Sugden wants to write what he calls in his introduction a “dispassionate” biography that isn’t hagiographic. Thus he describes Nelson’s flaws, which were many and sometimes egregious. The great admiral, for example, was given to blatant self-advertisement and tooting his own horn, a tendency to boast he shared (Mr. Sugden notes) with another great great English hero, Sir Francis Drake.

Money problems — Nelson had no family fortune to fall back on — often made him grasping and less honest that he might have been about ship finances. But Nelson’s most disagreeable trait was a sycophancy that made him blind to the faults of royalty and others whose approval he sought to court. His fawning manner, for example, before Prince William Henry (later the British King William IV), an aspiring naval officer whose naval performance Nelson had only praise for, despite its obvious mediocrity, astonished many who otherwise admired him.

At times Mr. Sugden’s big biography seems too long and far too detailed. But at the end, the accumulation of fact and anecdote and Mr. Sugden’s painstaking thoroughness combine to create an unparalleled image of the British navy at the time of Nelson and a clear picture of Nelson’s qualities.

Mr. Sugden dwells on the future admiral’s early years and education more than other biographers have. He gives great accounts of the young officer’s experiences in the East Indies and and the Arctic, where Nelson served on an expedition to Spitzbergen. There were many years spent in the Central America and the Caribbean, where he met his future wife, Fanny.

But Mr. Sugden is at his best on Nelson’s years into the Mediterranean in the 1790s: his part in the campaign to capture Corsica from revolutionary France, for example, and above all, Nelson’s roles in the notable victory at Cape St Vincent and in the defeat in the Canary Islands. About the success at Cape St. Vincent, where Nelson violated strict orders to take matters into his own hands at a moment when English victory seemed uncertain, the author writes: “As a combination of insight, decision and heroism it was unsurpassed in the history of combat at sea.”

At the end of the first volume of this biography, the Canary Island defeat has left Nelson despondent. He yearns for battle and the glory it will bring. But he fears the wars with Napoleon are over and contemplates the life of a country squire. Perhaps, he thinks, he will stand for Parliament.

Mr. Sugden’s next volume will take up this extraordinary Englishman’s return to command, his greatest triumphs — and his well-known betrayal of his wife with Lady Emma Hamilton. In this first volume, the author has prepared readers to understand how Nelson was able to achieve the admiration of many. He’s also helped us understand the faults that made him human.

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