The Pilot: A Tale of the Sea by James Fenimore Cooper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Pilot (A Tale of the Sea) by James Fenimore Cooper 1824
One more deviation from my normal reads. Someone was asking about good historical fiction they might use for an essay and this was one of the offerings mentioned. I couldn't resist since its a fictionalized account involving a notable hero of revolutionary fame in the United States of America.
The novel itself reminded me of the style and scope of Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1830) and the stranger's life, as it vicariously told, reminds me of Giacomo Girolamo Casanova (as related in his memoir written 1798 published 1822-German). As such our hero is called stranger and Mr. Grey and John in the few scenes within which he is prominent. Truly the style is what makes this classic what it is. It is more reminiscent of the Dumas books with the romantic adventure spirit. But what am I saying? Dumas and Fenimore were contemporaries, though Dumas' writing may have begun well after the publication of Pilot. Some would like to say that Fenimore created the template for this type of romance, but I think there are other's to pull up to that position who come from further back in literary history. Pilot was written partially in response to The Pirate by Sir Walter Scott(1822). But I will admit that Fenimore improved the genre immensely.
In the Pilot James Fenimore Cooper uses a device that I have found annoying though seemingly prevalent in his era. This is breaching the forth wall, well maybe it was supposed to be an aside back then, but for me it pushed through each time he pause to let the reader know we were going to skip this part or jump back and show the reader what he knows the readers are so anxious to see. This enables him to, throughout, bring in several asides that apprise the reader of things that otherwise might be left unknown or at maybe bewildering to the reader: or at least we are led to believe so by Fenimore.
One such instance is this next-where in three short sentences he brings us back and up to date.
We must leave the two adventurers winding their way among the broken piles, and venturing boldly beneath the tottering arches of the ruin, to accompany the reader, at the same hour, within the more comfortable walls of the abbey; where, it will be remembered, Borroughcliffe was left in a condition of very equivocal ease. As the earth had, however, in the interval, nearly run its daily round, circumstances had intervened to release the soldier from his confinement-- and no one, ignorant of the fact, would suppose that the gentleman who was now seated at the hospitable board of Colonel Howard, directing , with so much discretion, the energies of his masticators to the delicacies of the feast, could read, in his careless air and smiling visage, that those foragers of nature had been so recently condemned, for four long hours , to the mortification of discussing the barren subject of his own sword-hilt. Borroughcliffe, however, maintained not only his usual post, but his well-earned reputation at the table, with his ordinary coolness of demeanor; though at times there were fleeting smiles that crossed his military aspect, which sufficiently indicated that he considered the matter of his reflection to be of a particularly ludicrous character.
Cooper, James Fenimore (2012-05-16). The Pilot (p. 236). . Kindle Edition.
More important than this though is the introduction that proclaims that Fenimore is attempting to write a sea adventure with more realistic tone (Being that he served for five years as a seaman aboard a merchant ship and obtained the rank of midshipman.). Somehow in those words I mistakenly conjured notions of the harsh realities of seafaring life without realizing that this was going to digress quickly into a romance heavily on the romantic side of lovers and sometimes tragic lovers.
The story opens off the coast of Great Briton; and if my reckoning is correct it's somewhat north and east of the isle and within some treacherous waters. Our secondary characters (Barnstable and Griffith) are bringing two vessels into a bay that is protected by rock with the expectation of obtaining a passenger they will call the Pilot, who we are led to believe will be helping navigate around these waters unknown to them. It is by the Pilot's instructions that they are to make rock-fall and send a party ashore. One of that party is Barnstable, the captain of the whaling schooner Ariel, who we quickly find has the surprise of a lover who has anticipated their landing. What ensues before Pilot arrives is a bit of a trist (very brief) with his love Katherine Plowden who tells him of her and Cecilia's plight[Cecilia is Grifiths lover]. Cecilia Howard is a ward of Colonel Howard as is Katherine though Cecilia is more closely tied to the man. The Colonel staunchly supports his king and eschews the rebellious Americans, which is why he has brought his wards back to England. With not enough time Katherine leaves Barnstable with a letter and some instructions. These become important in the sense that she demonstrates that their movements in English waters are being watch; particularly by the Colonel. While many believe that a man name Paul Jones is aboard those vessels the Colonel is certain that Barnstable and Griffith are aboard with the colonel's nephew, Merry. This is the one of two times Paul Jones is directly mentioned though many times alluded to.
The Pilot proves his mettle to the sailors by saving them through navigating in troubled waters back out of this rocky bay. The Pilot's purpose is left mostly unknown in a sense of a need to know basis. Because they reveal a portion of what is in Katherine's letter the Pilot finds it worthy of a diversion and serendipitously he takes Griffith along and they manage to become captured. It should come as no surprise when one of St. Ruth's nuns, Alice Dunscombe, is shocked to recognize a voice when the prisoners are interrogated. Soon Pilot becomes a player in the grand romantic tragedy that is afoot.
It doesn't take long for the plot to be diverted leaving this reader with the notion that the original plot he perceived was a MacGuffin and the true plot is one of lost love and young love and duty and honor and perhaps whether all those can all survive in the same adventure tale. Make no mistake, there are still a few naval battles to be fought and the usual pitfalls and storms of nature against man. There are even some strange turns of events that often stretch the suspension of disbelief.
This is a great classic for all readers and might interest some of those Romance fans though mostly Adventure Romance and those who are interested in the details of ocean sailing ships. This rather dusty historical romance fiction still reads quite well and satisfied this reader's thirst for exceptionally long sentences.
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