Review of C.S. Wilkinson, The Wake of the `Bounty'.

["Mister Christian." Review of C.S. Wilkinson, The Wake of the `Bounty'. Queen's Quarterly 42.2 (1955): 271-4.]


“Was Fletcher Christian, the mutineer of Captain Bligh’s ‘Bounty’, the model for Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner’?  Did he return to England from Pitcairn Island?  Did he tell his story to Wordsworth and did Wordsworth pass it on to his friend Coleridge?”  So the dust wrapper of this book asks: but these questions, though enticing, are misleading.  The book is mostly about the Bounty (as the title suggests); there is a good deal about Wordsworth; the connexion with Coleridge is at best nebulous.

The thread of Mr. Wilkinson’s book is this.  Fletcher Christian did not die on Pitcairn Island as the official reports have it; he escaped from the Island in the Bounty’s boat and by some means returned to Britain.  This is not a new suggestion: it has been a local tradition in the Lakes for some generations and was stated elliptically in Sir John Barrow’s book on the Bounty.  But Mr. Wilkinson, having discovered a letter signed F. Christian, written from Portnessock in Wigtownshire, and dated in 1812 – many years after Christian was reported to have died on Pitcairn Island – was not content to rest with the tradition.  When the evidence of the letter brought him to a dead end, he pursued his inquiry from another angle of approach.

Most notorious mutineers, cutpurses, and murderers have had obscure ancestry.  Not so Fletcher Christian.  He came of a substantial – almost a noble – North-country family which claimed distinguished forbears; in the later eighteenth century the family could command (as Bligh found to his chagrin) formidable political influence.  If Christian escaped from Pitcairn Island, what more likely than that he should make his way to his home county of Cumberland where he would be surrounded by friends and influential relatives, where he would not be liable to incriminating chance encounters or official inquiry?  The connexion with Wordsworth was a local one.  Christian was five years older than Wordsworth, but they had been schoolfellows at Cockermouth Grammar School; and the Christians’ house in Cockermouth was within a stone’s-throw of the Wordsworth house.

Sir John Barrow gives an account of Christian being recognised in Plymouth in 1808 or 1809.  Mr. Wilkinson suggests a much earlier date for Christian’s return to Britain; the mode of escape is argued in a well-informed and convincing manner.  The author then links Christian and Wordsworth together by a tissue of inferences from silence.  Christian returned to England some time in 1793.  The Christians needed somebody to assist him as agent and contact with the everyday world.  What more natural choice than Fletcher Christian’s school-fellow, the young William Wordsworth – who had no job at the moment and no prospect of one, whose wits were muddled by the French revolution, his peace of mind shattered by his melancholy affair with Annette Vallon – a young man of unusual reticence and fierce loyalty.  This date for Christian’s return fits neatly into a period of several months in Wordsworth’s life about which nothing is known.  Now the Christians are very seldom mentioned in the Wordsworth correspondence: strange, when one considers how outstanding the Fletcher and Christian families were in Cumberland, and how closely they were allied by friendship and political sympathy with friends and patrons of the Wordsworths – the Loshes, Lowthers, Curwens, Lonsdales, Clarksons.  If William could preserve so successfully the secret of Annette Vallon, why should he not have kept complete silence about some undercover work for the Christians in 1793 and 1794?  There are vague traces of Wordsworth having travelled to Scotland then; and it was in Scotland, in the thinly populated county of Kirkcudbrightshire, that Fletcher Christian is reputed to have spent at least part of his time after escaping from Pitcairn Island.

On the assumption that Wordsworth learned all about the Bounty mutiny from Fletcher Christian, he could be expected to pass on the story to Coleridge by 1797-8 when The Ancient Mariner was writing.  This inference is the last convincing.  Coleridge certainly knew about the mutiny – as the misleading facsimile of a Gutch Memorandum Book entry on the book-jacket shows.  But Lowes has shown (though somewhat inaccurately) that there was plenty of literature on the subject before 1796; furthermore, there is no parallel between the action of The Ancient Mariner and the voyage of the Bounty.

As a piece of “literary detection” – the publisher’s phrase, not the author’s – the book is not very convincing.  Once the argument from silence is accepted, the evidence can be turned in all sorts of direction; and it is clear that Mr. Wilkinson is not complete master of all the minutiae of Wordsworth and Coleridge biography.  Nevertheless, the account he gives of the interrelations of Cumberland families, the interweaving of the loyalties of blood, patronage, and political interest, is an important contribution to one’s understanding of the period and fills important gaps in the standard biographies.

Mr. Wilkinson has not proved his case about Wordsworth – and probably he does not think he has.  But he has raised some extremely interesting possibilities and discussed them responsibly.  For myself, I should like to think that Wordsworth consorted with Fletcher Christian, heard the story of the mutiny from his lips, ran risks to secure the safety of his schoolfellow no less extreme than he had recently run in France, and had some well-earned pay for it.  It is in a good literary tradition – Defoe, Green, Marlowe, Zola, Dostoievski; and it adds some stature to the Lake-Singer who is too often remembered through Sir Max Beerbohm’s witty caricature.  As for Coleridge, this is all his line of country anyway.  No Devon man needs lessons in listening to salty yarns over a seawall or from a self-confessed mutineer home from the South Seas, whether it be in Bristol or London or that port from which tradition has it the Ancient Mariner set sail.

Mr. Wilkinson is a bibliophile and a man of keen intelligence who loves to sniff out a mystery; he is also – or has been – a professional seafaring man.  The story of the Bounty, unsavory enough though recently sentimentalised, comes vividly to life under his hand in a sharp evocation of things past, of seas crossed, of men inexorably opposed, or intolerable decisions faced and outlived.  About Bligh, Mr. Wilkinson has made up his mind, inflexibly, as a seaman.  Bligh may have been one of the most brilliant navigators and geographers England ever produced; he may be forgiven for being a self-made man and for personal ambitions not always pressed the utmost scrupulosity; but he failed lamentably in the essence of seamanship – the art of handling men.  The contumely of such a failure, as the tone of Mr. Wilkinson’s narrative firmly implies, can never be erased from a man’s record when his life is with ships.