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Edward Pellew - By Parkinson, C. Northcote, London, 1934
A CENTURY has passed since the first Lord Exmouth died, and about the same period since his biography was written. That book, Edward Osler's Life of Admiral Viscount Exmouth, is not unreadable. It is not even very difficult to obtain. But it suffers from two serious defects. It is inaccurate, and it is distorted.
Osler's inaccuracy proceeds from a lack of documentary material. To official sources he had some partial access. But he wrote his book against the wishes of the Admiral's heirs, and consequently without access to the family papers. The result is that many of his pages convey information which is utterly unreliable, while many more pages fail to convey any information at all. The fact that the Exmouth Papers are now on loan to the National Maritime Museum, and thus for the first time accessible, seems to justify a revision of Osler's work. This book is such a revision, based throughout on documents which Osler never saw.
Osler's distortion arises from the fact that he wrote with a purpose. His story is that of 'an almost un-friended orphan' who fought a lonely battle with adversity, overcame countless obstacles, and finally 'rose to the highest honours of his profession.' His hero is one who starts with a handicap and yet reaches the House of Lords by virtue of self-reliance, self-help and religious orthodoxy. His object is to convince the young that an equal degree of virtue will, very possibly, raise them to an equally giddy eminence. Perhaps it will. But a biographer who sets out to point a moral is more interested in the moral than in the story which illustrates it. He sometimes forgets that the story is supposed to be true.
If I have thought it necessary to justify a fresh study of Exmouth's life, I mean no injustice to the older version of it. Osler's book is of value as a record of the impression which Exmouth made on a younger generation. And it is of the greater value in that the impression Exmouth made was exactly the impression he wanted to make. He lived long enough to attain a legendary character among his juniors. So congenial was the legend that he came to believe it himself. On perhaps the last occasion on which Exmouth spoke in public - it was at a dinner given by the Navy Club to the Duke of Clarence - he ended by saying,
" I have never known what fortune meant. I never chose my station, and never had a friend but the King's pennant; but I have always gone where I was sent, and done what I was ordered. It is to you, many of you young men, to you I say: `Go thou and do likewise.' "
This is, no doubt, what young men ought to be told. And Osler, in elaborating the theme for three or four hundred pages, produced very much the sort of book Exmouth would have had him write. The result is not very interesting. But it clearly describes the kind of hero Exmouth always meant to be - the kind of hero he liked to think himself. That is, after all, an aspect of what he was.
Although solely responsible for this book, I should like to thank all who have helped to produce it. Without the encouragement of Lord Exmouth's descendants the book would have been neither written nor published. I am especially indebted to Captain E. Pellew, O.B.E. The shortcomings of the work would be more glaring than they are but for the criticism of Professor G. A. R. Callender. Among many from whom I have had assistance, I cannot but mention Miss Beatrix Cresswell, Canon Coulthard of Breage, and Mr. Bridger of Penzance. My thanks are likewise due to the Trustees of the National Maritime Museum for permission to transcribe a part of the Exmouth Papers; and to the Council of the Navy Records Society for permission to reprint extracts from the Society's publications. Letters taken from this source are marked N.R.S., with the number of the volume. The frontispiece is a reproduction of the Drummond portrait in Exeter Museum, to the curator of which I am indebted for permission to use it. I have to thank Major Cornwallis-West for leave to reprint certain letters from his Life and Letters of Admiral Cornwallis ; and the firm of John Murray, publishers, for leave to use a quotation from Mr. Childers's book, A Mariner of England.
C. N. P.