THIS IS THE first broadside. As the bicentenary of Trafalgar comes up over the horizon, ranging shots have already been fired, and these five books are the beginning of a literary cannonade that will rumble until 21 October 2005. The Battle of Trafalgar and the death of Nelson were, of course, five-star events in British history. The victory gave Britain unchallenged command of the seas for a century; Nelson had provided a hero figure to set against Napoleon. Moreover, the admiral's demise combined a quasireligious undertone - the saviour sacrificing himself for his people - with a highly spiced personal life to delight a red-top reader.
Two of these books concentrate on the battle itself. This has always been difficult to describe because it quickly became the 'pell-mell battle' that Nelson required so that superior British gunnery could prevail. Thus any attempt to follow the movements of individual ships in [pint becomes as confusing as it must have been to watch them at the time. Roy Adkins is as clear as can be in Trafalgar: The Biography of a Battle, which, despite the silly subtitle, is well written and makes good use of first-hand accounts.
In Trafalgar: The Men, the Battle, the Storm, Tim Clayton and Phil Craig offer a readable narrative, doubtless influenced bv the latter's experience as a producer of television documentaries. Both books are reliable guides to the event.
Nelson's Purse is a curiosity for those amused by the offbeat. The author, Martyn Downer, was, as head of Sotheby's jewellery department, trawling the Continent in search of custom when, in some unidentified country, he met a middle-aged couple (to whom he promised anonymity) who offered jus; one remarkable This was, as he writes, 'a large brooch designed as an anchor, sparkling with plump, watery white diamonds, all cut thickly in the old antique style. ... The diamonds, which I quickly gauged at over seventeen carats, had the brilliance and purity of the finest Indian stones, mined long before the great discoveries in South Africa in the 1880s. . . . But something else absolutely, uniquely, distinguished this jewel. . . . On either side of the anchor clung a small initial, ... perfectly drawn in tiny diamonds. Two letters that promised everything, yet revealed nothing. Two letters. H and N.' The initials and then the confirmed identification of this brooch as Nelson's - perhaps bought for Emma Hamilton - led to the cache of Nelsonian treasures hoarded by his friend and man of affairs. Alexander Davison. There were letters and armorial porcelain, swords and the purse of the title, said to have been in Nelson's pocket when he was mortally wounded. AU were sold at auction on Trafalgar Day, 2002.
Downer has chosen to combine the intriguing story of this discovery not only with a biography of Davison (a fly yet attractive character, whom he drags from the shadows) but with a rip-roaring account of Trafalgar. However, those who prefer to take their history straight may be disappointed to find that Downer has not simply told the stories as they ran: instead, perhaps with the aim of attracting a wider readership, he has let his imagination loose, combining fact with some fiction. So, when we first meet Davison he is wearing 'an itchy new perruque and a felt tricorn hat which kept falling off', and from that moment we are privy to his thoughts, as well as his known actions. Similarly, at Trafalgar we face the horrors in full colour. The purist may carp, but Downer has a good story to tell and does so in a high style that will satisfy readers of historical novels. What's more, there is enough strange reality to intrigue those preferring non-fiction.
Two books concentrate on Nelson himself. John Sugden's Nelson: A Dream of Glory is such a hefty volume that it is surprising to discover that it ends with Nelson's defeat at Tenerife and the loss of his arm, before his years of fame began; it is, in fact, the first of two volumes, and-this might have been made clearer by his publisher. He is sound on both Fanny Nelson and Emma Hamilton, seeing the latter as essentially 'an outsider', which must have been part of her appeal to Nelson, who himself distrusted those he called 'the great'.
Sugden's research has been thorough, filling out Nelson's early adventures, such as the often overlooked expedition into Nicaragua as a young captain. However, the narrative sometimes slackens as the author makes his own observations, slipping in and out of the period. It is a long book, providing the student of Nelson with a great deal of detail - possibly rather too much for the general reader's liking. (Also, a small point, but his publisher is wrong to claim that Sugden is the first to identify Nelson's early love, Elizabeth Andrews.) The book has manv merits. but Nelson's torrential life demands a continuous narrative, so it may not have been wise to attempt a biography in two volumes.
Andrew Lambert's Nelson will satisfy both those new to the story and those familiar with it. He lets it gather its own momentum and his opinions are worthy of attention, for he is Professor of Naval History at King's College London, and moves confidently through the period, as good on Nelson's personal life as he is on the Admral's manner of command and strategic and tactical thought, setting all in the context of the time. Seeing Nelson as a late developer, deprived of the emotional support of home and family in youth, he believes that the breakdown of his marriage only attracted such attention because of his fame, and Emma Hamilton's notoriety. But not all will agree with his assertion that Nelson's 'private life was small, short and trifling - worthy of note only because he did not trouble to abide by convention'.
Pertinently and controversially, Lambert supports Nelson's much-condemned actions in Naples in 1799, when he helped suppress the republican rising. Not only was Nelson acting entirely within the law, maintains Lambert. but the retribution that followed was less severe than it would have been in this country.
Nelson and Trafalgar will become increasingly familiar over the coming year as book follows bicentennial book. The others will have to be of a high quality to equal, let alone better, Lambert's.