Heroines find way into shanties

March 1, 2002

In this well-written work, David Cordingly displays ingenuity in weaving together mermaids and prostitutes, women going to sea dressed as men, female pirates, captains' wives and female lighthouse keepers, those who went abroad and those who stayed home, and the responses of men from sorrow to sodomy.

At times, though, the search for a good story seems to go overboard. Thus, the chapter "A wife in every port" deals with the womanising admiral and earl of Bristol, Augustus Hervey, and covers a round of sexual adventuring much of which was in no way littoral.

Far more pertinent are the tribulations of Ann Parker, whose husband was hanged for leading the mutiny at the Nore . This powerful chapter describes Ann being denied the opportunity to speak to her convicted husband, and witnessing his execution from a distance. Ann broke into Sheerness, where her husband had been buried in the garrison burial ground, removed the body, and had him buried in a church vault.

Cordingly, formerly keeper of pictures and then head of exhibitions at the National Maritime Museum, is good in his account of the Parkers, and elsewhere, on the shifts and expedients of maritime life for men and women. He deftly uses a range of sources to give voice to the women's hardships, considering, for example, the treatment of widows alongside the loneliness of the wives who accompanied their husbands. The episodic nature of meetings and the role of memory, nostalgia and absence in relationships emerge clearly. He is good at situating his accounts of jollification, which centred on the return of ships to port, against the background of pervasive sadness.

Cordingly also includes some celebrated tales of heroism, from Mary Patten who, when her husband fell ill, took over effective command of the clipper Neptune's Car as it approached Cape Horn en route to San Francisco in 1856, to Ida Lewis, a member of a lighthouse keeper's family, and eventually keeper herself in the harbour of Newport, Rhode Island. Lewis lived to be nearly 70, but many others whose tales Cordingly tells had short lives. Pneumonia, tuberculosis and the hazards of childbirth hit women at sea as much as those on land.

The key element of Cordingly's book is womanhood, not the sea. Seamen's women had to accept their men's absence, but so did other women whose men travelled for work. Migration, whether short-term, seasonal, annual or longer, was (and still is) central to the life of many. The book could have focused on what was distinctive about the maritime experience or used it to throw light on aspects of the general condition of women. Unfortunately, it does not really do either.

Jeremy Black is professor of history, University of Exeter.

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