This is an intellectual’s history of Trafalgar. Instead of dragging us through another thudding account of the 1805 battle outside Cadiz, Adam Nicolson – begotten of Nigel, begotten of Harold – examines the ‘underlayer’ of the ‘English’ victory, as he insists on calling it. Good writing obviously runs in the family, and the reader will find nothing dull about this sparkling work, even if he does not swallow its argument hook, line and sinker. Naval buffs can be comforted by the sight of gut, roundshot, and split mizzen masts; but there is much more to the book than that.
Nicolson’s account weaves around the slow morning’s approach, in a light breeze but heavy Atlantic swell, of the two wooden sailing fleets – Franco-Spanish and British – on that 21 October. He dwells poetically on the moment the first guns were fired from the French ship (the Fougueux), then enters