Rupert Christiansen

A Shameful Episode

Medusa: The Shipwreck, The Scandal, The Masterpiece


Jonathan Cape 352pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

In The Raft of the Medusa, Géricault portrayed ‘the shipwreck of France’: Jonathan Miles’s absorbing and intelligent book takes up a theme first sounded by Jules Michelet over a hundred and fifty years ago. This is a work of art history in the broadest sense, with little to say about the painting’s aesthetic qualities but much fascinating information about the complexities of its political hinterland.

The Medusa was the flagship of an inept expedition to repossess the colony of Senegal from the British, part of a strategy through which the dismally corrupt and mediocre post-Napoleonic regime attempted a revival of national dignity. An antiquated frigate, typical of France’s depleted navy, it set sail in 1816 under the incompetent leadership of Hugues de Chaumareys, an émigré lackey of the ancien régime who hadn’t commanded a vessel for over twenty-five years. 

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • 'The lack of evidence ... of any definitive brain pathology in cases of schizophrenia and the absence of any reliab… ,
    • 'Since Dylan’s commercial and ideological heyday, the intrusion of sociology, semiology and post-structuralist thou… ,
    • 'One of the reasons for its longevity is that it has virtually nothing to say about science and technology at all,… ,
    • 'The characters in many of these stories are trapped in the obsessive present tense of their own thoughts; in the m… ,
    • 'Libraries, for much of their existence, have embodied in microcosm many of the characteristics of the totalitarian… ,
    • 'Moss and Cynthia buy several properties through which to launder their ill-gotten gains, take lots of drugs, have… ,
    • 'Never mind the imperial cult. This is the cult of Boris. What happened to Rome?' From the LR archive:… ,