This was recommended to me on Goodreads or Amazon some time ago, and its elegant cover lodged itself in my mind. It has turned out to be an intriguing historical adventure through desire and identity, a clever interweaving of two tales of losing and finding oneself, all spiced with the salt of the sea air. It’s the author’s first novel, but is already deft and assured, and the narration has an authentic early 18th-century period rhythm.
Beware of men, my mother had always told me. Beware of men young and old, but especially those of the sea. Their stories are tall, their manners are rough, their desires unruly. Give them a wide berth if you wish the course of your life to run smooth.
Louise is a dairymaid at the farm of the Handleys, in the middle of the Essex countryside. She takes care with her work and her reputation, hoping to be well thought of by her employers, and yet envying the easy confidence of her sister Susie, a housemaid. The two sisters are both acutely aware of the need to do well for themselves, in contrast to the example of their mother: a slovenly woman with a shameful past, who brought them both to the farm in hopes of giving them a better future than herself, and who now labours in the fields while her two daughters learn gentler trades. One day, as Louise makes butter, she is interrupted by her master’s brother, Captain Handley, who is visiting from his house in nearby Harwich. He offers her an astonishing promotion: to come back with him and be lady’s maid to his daughter Rebecca.
Facing down Susie’s jealousy, Louise accepts and exchanges a comforting, familiar world for a strange new existence in town. Her country eyes are overwhelmed at first by the tall houses, the winding streets, the forest of masts in the harbour and the crude exuberance of the seamen who throng Harwich’s taverns and ogle its women during their shore-leave. But if Harwich itself is dizzying, that’s nothing to Louise’s new ‘family’. At Captain Handley’s house she meets Nels, the cook, Hannah, the sharp-eyed, falsely friendly housemaid, and Skeggs, the man of all work. Here too is Hester, Captain Handley’s plain, brisk elder daughter, who runs the house in his absence. And here is her new mistress, Rebecca: beautiful, dreamy, lazy, self-indulgent, sensuous Rebecca, who takes the admiration of all the world as her due.
Luke is fifteen years old when he is press-ganged for the Navy in a Harwich tavern. Scared and bewildered, he is carried out to the warship Essex and his name entered in its books, sealing his fate to those of the men around him. And such men! Rough, tough and swaggering, these men tower over Luke and terrify him with their casual violence: their subtle establishment of the hierarchy among themselves. As the voyage gets underway, Luke discovers that no quarter is given to the young or nervous. He, like all the men around him, must learn his trade or be punished for it. And so the boy, the shy little mouse, finds himself turning into a man: learning to load guns, swab decks and, most frightening and exhilarating of all, to run like a monkey up the rigging.
There’s precious little time for thinking in this new life, but Luke can’t forget the girl he left behind. As the men around him mourn their wives and sweethearts, the children they won’t see growing up, Luke yearns back to England and longs for delivery. While there’s no escape from the Essex, there might at least be friendship. His youth and sweet nature win him admirers among the men, but of all of them he trusts Nick most: rambunctious, towering Nick, who prides himself on his skill up the mizzenmast and takes Luke under his wing to protect him. But a ship is a small place and enmities fester, and soon Luke will find that it’s dangerous to place too much faith in one person. Survival can sometimes require great sacrifices and cruel choices, and all Luke wants is to get home alive.
Worsley writes very well, catching the cadences of old-fashioned speech without ever losing her readability and with an appealing nautical bent to her language. The novel seems to be the product of her creative writing course at UEA, where Sarah Waters was her supervisor, and there is much here to appeal to fans of Waters’s evocative, sexy period dramas. But there is also a lightness of touch, a playfulness in the plotting, that makes it very satisfying. There are some logical loopholes, and I made an important connection quite early on, but I can’t discuss that here because it’s best for you to come to the book as I did, knowing very little. Nothing that I’ve said above will ruin it.
Just let yourself be carried away on the tide of Worsley’s story. There is loss here, and passion too, but the story is primarily a love-song to the sea in all its captivating moods, and to the ocean’s ability to broaden horizons, bind salt into our bones and to make us dream of things that never before seemed possible.