Dover Harbour by Thomas Armstrong (1942)

Review by Val H:

Dover Harbour (1942), by the forgotten Yorkshire writer Thomas Armstrong, is superficially an old-fashioned ‘ripping yarn’ about England in the Napoleonic wars.  Dig a little deeper, and there is more going on.

To readers looking simply for entertainment, there is much to enjoy.  Dover Harbour would be a good companion for a long train journey on a miserable afternoon.  The novel features: smuggling; espionage; pressgangs; friendships and quarrels between and in families; small town politics and business; comedy courtships among the lower orders and romantic escapades featuring their betters, all handsome heroes and spirited heroines; and more besides.  It is set in the small but strategically important town of Dover against the backdrop of the French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon and the resulting European wars.

For all the entertainment value, there are faults in Dover Harbour.

The characters are pretty much from stock.  Reading, we accept local banker Henry Rochefort, his lively daughter Caroline, hothead brother George and his friend John Fagg who runs a shipping business with smuggling on the side.  But on reflection even the central characters, Henry and John and their children, Caroline and Charles, couldn’t live outside their own pages.  And the minor characters are hard to distinguish.

The prose, while perfectly readable, has not aged well – see the example below.  Even in 1942 it must have seemed ponderous and consciously archaic.

Then there is the length of the book.  Armstrong himself wrote of his “massive novels” and in 1942 a reviewer said Dover Harbour was “for one reader at least, too long by half” (Spectator, 16 July 1942, p.20). Think of those record attempts where dominoes fall and fall, one after the other, relentless, predictable.  Soon I stopped caring about the latest abduction, raid or disaster at sea, and the characters involved, even when death intervened, because I knew there would be another event along in a moment and in the end it would all be fine.

Linked to length is detail.  Put me down in early 19 century Dover and I could now find my way.  I could also probably run a home, command the militia or (and this got very tedious) re-engineer the rapidly silting-up but vital harbour.  It’s all there.  I suspect that, although the main characters are fictitious, Thomas Armstrong’s research is accurate.  In a preface, he says “the municipal records of [Dover] have been preserved with admirably few exceptions” and assures us of his “fidelity to the chronological sequence of history”.  Perhaps, having uncovered something, he could not bear to omit it but it’s exhausting…  Dover’s archivists should prize it, but the book would have been better for a strong editor.

Superficially then, the book with its 576 pages, its large cast set against great events, is very like today’s doorstop historical novels or lavish television dramas.  They all feature similar events and characters, often drawing on history.  They’re not very subtle, they don’t say anything new but they can be fun.

So much for the surface.  Underneath, there is more going on.  For Dover, read Britain.  For 1800, read 1940.  For Napoleon, read Hitler. The following passage says it all (and is a good example of Armstrong’s style):

“We are fighting for no evil cause…Our struggle is not to place other men under a cruel yoke. We go forth not for conquest, but to seek out and destroy an insatiable beast.  ‘Tis not for ourselves alone either, my dear, but for the sake of our children and our children’s children.”

…“ ‘Twill be a long road…for even now, after so many heart-grievous years, we are but at the beginning.”

…”But we are at the beginning…After an age of dreary waiting we now take the fight to them.  And soon, pray God, they shall know what that means.” (p.575)

This is the heart of the book.  Dover Harbour is a passionate and occasionally even despairing call to arms by a patriotic author.  Thomas Armstrong had fought in the First World War.  Now in the early 1940s he worries about Britain’s lack of preparedness and its naivety.  He urges ever greater, united effort.  This is what lies beneath the espionage, the militia drilling, the naval patrols and, most of all, the struggles against the money men and the complacent to repair the harbour.

Put aside 1942 and remember the “nation of shopkeepers” tag associated with Napoleon (and Adam Smith).  The ostensible reason for improving Dover Harbour is trade and, before he wrote, Thomas Armstrong was in trade.  By the end of the Napoleonic wars, Britain had become the dominant economic power in Europe.  The post-imperial reader is perhaps more conscious of this – and the irony of the harbour signifying Britain – than Thomas Armstrong for all his background.

 

 

 

 

 

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