Percival Keene by Frederick Marryat

Percival Keene by Frederick Marryat

This was a pleasant surprise. I’d heard that it was one of Marryat’s lesser novels and, further, that it contained some racism. The latter was particularly distressing to me as I greatly admire Marryat and was not looking forward to having my high opinion of him diminished. Fortunately, I did not find the chapter in question to be racist at all. The protagonist, Percival Keene, falls in with a pirate ship manned by escaped-slaves who are taking vengeance on the white slavers and merchants they capture. They may be bloodthirsty but they are, after all, pirates. Keene is spared and is actually pretty sympathetic to the pirates, only wishing that they were less indiscriminate in their killing. He expresses as much to the Captain, and successfully pleads for the life of some merchants who are not associated with the slave trade.

Maybe some people consider it racist that Keene tans his skin to avoid upsetting the pirate captain or that, upon rejoining his ship, he is kept off duty until his skin color returns to normal but the latter is probably period accurate and the former needs to be put in the context of the author’s clearly stated dis-like of slavery and the friendship that develops between Keene and the pirate captain.

More disturbing to me was Keene’s obsession with proving himself to be noble born, in pursuit of which he blackmails his mother into faking her own death, but, this is portrayed as a character flaw (albeit one that drives him towards mostly great things, with a few missteps along the way.) In the end the protagonist is a complex and likely realistic character.

Aside from all of that, Marryat is just a great writer. This book was hilarious, the action was well done and the story ultimately compelling.


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