I meant to review two novels in this post, but this has got rather long – second part coming shortly!
Losing Nelson is the first thing I’ve read by the late Barry Unsworth, and it seems likely that I may have started with the wrong thing. Having finished this extremely well-written but, in my view, extremely unsatisfying novel, I found my first impressions closely reflected in this Guardian review from the year of the book’s publication, 1999. Losing Nelson follows the obsessive and increasingly mentally ill Charles Cleasby, an elderly man who believes that his life closely maps that of Nelson, the subject of the book that he is writing. Cleasby’s hero-worship shows early signs of being bizarrely original. On the first page of the novel, he promises to tell us about ‘the two hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Cape St Vincent, Horatio’s first great disobedience, the day he became an angel.’ This single sentence conveys a huge amount of information about Cleasby; his precise knowledge about Nelson, his commitment to celebrating every significant date in his life; but more importantly, it tantalises us with what can possibly be going on in our narrator’s mind. Cleasby explains: ‘I will say what I think angels are. They can be dark or bright, but they all have the gift of spontaneity, of creating themselves anew.’ Cleasby continually returns to the fact that Nelson ‘broke the line’ during this battle, disobeying his commander’s orders in order to win against the Spanish, and, in his mind, this makes him angelic. Of greater psychological importance, however, is the rest of Cleasby’s explanation: ‘angels are not complete, they need their counterparts, the dark needs the bright’. Cleasby believes that he is Nelson’s ‘dark twin’, and that he is moving towards a great reckoning where he will finally vindicate Nelson from the only criticism of his hero that bothers him – that he duplicitously refused the treaty of surrender of the Naples republicans in 1799.
Cleasby’s early framing of the Battle of Cape St Vincent suggests a decidedly twisted and intriguing take on history, but that is not what we get for much of the rest of this novel. Indeed, it falls back upon an all-too-familiar project of warning us about the dangers of hero-worship, until a professional historian can finally spell it out in the final pages: ‘Heroes are fabricated in the national dream factory. Heroes are not people.’ Even almost twenty years ago, this was hardly news (think of, for example, Roland Huntford’s famously critical treatment of Captain Scott in 1979), and the pacing of the novel becomes very frustrating. We know we are building up to the climax of Cleasby realising that he cannot rescue Nelson’s reputation from Naples, but midway through, we’re still meandering. The novel switches between a series of episodes in Nelson’s life, Cleasby’s clashes with his secretary, Miss Lily, who takes a pseudo-feminist angle on Nelson’s mistress and wife, and a predictably awful talk that Cleasby gives at the Nelson Society. Unsworth’s writing is continuously illuminating and vivid, and some of the best parts in this section are his vivid rewritings of history. A scene where Cleasby, Miss Lily, and her son tour HMS Victory is especially strong, as Cleasby takes issue with the tour guide and starts his own narration: telling the boy that sailors would have worn cotton bands to protect their ears, he notes that even so ‘the men would bleed from the ears after the battle, quite copiously, yes, gushes of blood’. Nevertheless, while Unsworth’s history is wonderful, it often seems shoehorned into the framing narrative; would Cleasby really care about the travails of common sailors?
The other big issue I had with Losing Nelson was that it, like The History Boys, feels marooned in time. A mention of Blair’s victory lets us know we’re meant to be in 1997, but if it weren’t for that, I’d find it more convincing if this novel were set in the 1950s or 1960s. Cleasby is obviously a recluse, separated from the modern world around him, but this should only highlight the points at which he bumps up against modernity more clearly. Miss Lily is an obvious channel – a single mum in her early thirties – but she also seems to hail from earlier decades. (While she’s amused that Cleasby thinks of her as ‘Miss Lily’, her real name is Lilian, which doesn’t necessarily suggest a young woman in 1990s Britain). Her dialogue recalls an older, working-class sense of female deference: ‘I can’t afford to refuse a thing like this, the money is so good and everything found’. Or, to Cleasby, ‘I’ve enjoyed it so much, working together on the book… And it’s entirely because you talked to me, Charles, you weren’t just the employer, you asked my opinion.’ Cleasby’s weirdness, somehow, doesn’t seep into his history, or even into his daily life. By the time the crisis of the novel has taken him, inevitably, to Naples, and things darken and twist again, much of the original intrigue seems to have been snuffed out.