“Sir Walter Raleigh’s head was separated from his body on 29.10.1618. Wikipedia tells us that Raleigh is “well known as the populariser of tobacco”. It also tells us that his last words, after he lay his neck upon the block, were “Strike, man, strike!” And that his embalmed head was given to his wife, Bess, who kept it in a velvet bag until her death. Wikipedia does not tells us what was going through Walter’s head as the blade struck.”
Maybe not but R N Morris, in choosing to write this historical novel in 1st person, makes an entirely plausible attempt. Not only during Raleigh’s last moments but from the moment 14 year-old young Wat’s feet hit the deck of the ship that took him to fight for the Huguenot cause in France. It’s an inauspicious start for the renowned sea-farer. The seasickness that stayed with him throughout life ironically looming large.
It really wasn’t all plain sailing (sorry). But then if you play with the big guys inveigling your way into the Elizabethan court, you are playing a dangerous game for high stakes. Sometimes the gamble pays off and sometimes it doesn’t. But you are always at the mercy of the caprices of the majesty. A fine player, our Walter, though prone to overplaying his hand. Marrying the queen’s lady-in-waiting without permission landing him in the Tower for the first time. Then a much longer (13 years!) stay courtesy of the king’s displeasure (James I).
Inbetween times participation in massacres of unarmed enemy troops in Ireland, raiding Spanish galleons (with her Majesty’s approval), establishing settlements in Virginia and an obsession with discovering El Dorado. Adventures all told in Raleigh’s voice which does not shy away from vivid descriptions of harsh realities such as the amputation of a thief’s hand. Morris’s Raleigh is also something of a visionary, seeing the world from various other viewpoints: the acorn which grew into the tree which became his ship, the weevils feasting on the crew’s biscuits. At other times he imagines himself as the sea itself, tidal, ebbing and flowing around the moon (Elizabeth I). I found that particular highly lyrical flight of fancy hard to reconcile with the straight-talking ship’s commander that Raleigh must have been. But the other side of the man was a courtier, and it turns out, a poet in his own right.
This is why I read historical fiction: to be entertained and to learn without having to swot because the author has done it for me. Not only has Morris done all the hard – and probably dry – research, but his subject lives once more, colourfully and indiscreetly. There’s no doubt whatsoever as to what Raleigh thinks of James I. Unfortunately for him, the antipathy is mutual and, when Raleigh sails far too close to the wind for the final time, the desired rendezvous with El Dorado turns instead into a date with the executioner.