Only the Ocean is a novel about history, the way history seems to repeat in a great circle, and the way people specifically misinterpret the past for their benefit today.
People read antiquity either through the lens of the “great” people who lived in that time. Take for example the “Victorian Age” or, for a more modern example, “The Obama Era.” Here we see an age for the individuals who made the most impact, when we look at economic numbers and population density. There is also the Marxist context, which tries to look back instead at the laypeople of the time, specifically the most poor. A good Marxist will relate that in every known period, the people at the lowest rungs of society have been been repressed.
Either way, such interpretations are means by which modern people try to use the past to their advantage. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, in fact one could easily argue there is no other way to interpret history but by comparing it to today. We do not want to see ourselves as the single rung of a ladder floating empty in space, but as a series of events that have made us who we are.
Until that interpretation starts to take on a purely manipulative context. Umberto Eco’s essay on the common elements of facism, titled “Ur Facism,” points to how such totalitarian governments have used distorted versions of a country’s history in order to build such regimes. They do this by invoking a “mythic past” that has been destroyed by whatever enemy it may be, be it socialists, liberals, gays, Jews, what have you. This version of history is extremely rose-tinted, to the point of being ludicrous fiction. Mussolini had Rome. Turkey’s Erdogan has the Ottoman Empire. America has, well, whenever the country was last “great.”
It’s within this context that I wrote my story about people who want nothing more than remake what had come before, all amongst a world that is dying, or more than likely, already dead.
Back of the book summary:
Horatio Nelson, the naval hero of the battles of the Nile and Trafalgar, wakes up in a small cottage in Norfolk to find his wife and child are missing. Most of the world’s great cities are drowned, their countries are broken, and so are the people who inhabit it. England is under threat from invasion by Napoleon’s France, but Nelson sits alone, disgraced, his failing having put his nation in dire straits.
But the famed commander is given the opportunity for redemption, a task that will take him across the known world, to recreations of the greatest centers of civilization from Rome under Augustus, to Alexandria under Ptolemy and to Mauryan-age India, all nations at their height of power, influence and moral supremacy. As the line blurs between friend and foe, and as his own failings catch up with him, Nelson moves among these civilizations out of time, finding evidence that could shake the known world to its core.
“There was a time when everything was as it should be, and the stories all ended with the right people in the right place at the right time. I could be that for them, all of them, if only they would let me.”
The famed hero of the Nile and Trafalgar was born largely innocuous, the sixth of eight children of his parson father Edmund Nelson and his mother Catherine Suckling, whose family can trace its lineage through the famous Walpole family of England. Nelson aficionado Edgar Vincent, in his book “Nelson: Love & Fame,” wrote in his introduction that “much of Nelson’s behavior suggest a hidden well of insecurity stemming from his childhood,” that being since he was a middle child of a large family whose mother died soon after his birth, that “his need for attention became an addiction.”
Effectively, Vincent says that Nelson decided from a young age he would be a hero. Doing so, he would effectively destroy his body. By the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson would have lost most of his sight in one eye, most of his teeth and his right arm. He would become enamored with a woman named Emma Nelson, who was the perfect person to provide Nelson with all the senseless adoration he could desire.
This interpretation of Nelson was particularly interesting to me in writing this story, since like so many characterizations of war heroes, especially before the time when their own words could be recorded on tape, it is basically an educated guess. It is certainly interesting, and Vincent (if he’s still around) obviously is much better at research than I could ever hope to be, but such a characterization of a man who most other historians only put in a context of what one might see when walking through Trafalgar Square, is quite fascinating. It’s also the perfect context in which to write the kind of story I had in mind.
“I imagine myself as a hot bar of iron held in the blacksmith’s gloved fist. I am struck over and over with his hammer until I am bent. I am quenched by a bath of water, then reheated and struck again. I heat and cool, I repair and dismantle. By the end, of course, I should be strong, but instead I become brittle, somehow hollow.”
The Hussars were a kind of cavalry originating first around central Europe but was later seen throughout practically all European nations during the time surrounding the Napoleonic Wars. They were a kind of light cavalry, meant to harass enemy skirmishers and take out artillery emplacements. What was interesting was their general tactics and dress were adopted all throughout Europe, including France and England. For a good number of their ranks, the general uniform also stayed the same, with a bearskin hat, a gold braided jacket and a coat that was often worn with only one sleeve.
As a foil to Nelson, I needed a character that had forsaken any and all identity, who was too upset with the way the world was that he could no longer stomach being on the same plane as other people. He needed to be someone who fit within and without a paradigm, and I thought a Hussar would fit the bill. The character himself goes through quite the transformation in the book, something I did not expect when originally setting out to write it, but as usual characters take on an identity of their own.
“All of England’s children, so few they were, living out lives on wet stones on the border of drowned towers. They seemed to regard me as less than an animal, as there, but not, and always on the periphery, deigned never to touch their lives again, a stranger to all.”
The beleaguered wife of Horatio Nelson often gets displayed in movies and other media as a kind of jealous hag, one who angers her husband so much that of course he would end up in the arms of a woman like Emma, who offered him nothing but utter devotion.
It seemed to me like something that spoke of just how much power Nelson had over the lasting histories of the people surrounding him. In her letters, Fanny does not share anything but an apparent love and appreciation for her often sour and whining husband. That does not mean the two did not fight, but if asked about her characterization, one might think she was just an anecdote to Nelson’s incredible fame.
But she had a life, in fact she was married before Nelson, and had a son by him. It would take an incredibly caring person, in my mind, to put up with Nelson’s tirades and his constant quest for fame and glory in spite of the hazards to his body and health.
Fanny seems to be unable but try and support the broken people of England. Maybe she formed a habit while caring for Nelson for so long, but maybe its something else. And how long can one truly live only for other people’s sake before you give yourself over to them, body and soul?