Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 1, 2018

Fletcher of the Bounty, by Graeme Lay #BookReview

It won’t take long to share my thoughts about this one… it’s a rather ordinary book with some rather questionable fictionalisations.

Fletcher Christian was the leader of the 1789 mutiny against commander William Bligh of the HMAV Bounty, and this novel by prolific New Zealand author Graeme Lay is a fictionalised account of the story.

If you already know the story of the mutiny, (and after a week on Norfolk Island, I certainly did) then the most interesting part of this novel is the story of Fletcher’s Christian’s youth in England and his rise from genteel poverty after his widowed mother fell into debt.  But the first hint that this fictionalisation takes liberties with the truth occurs when the reader comes across a concocted account of Christian rescuing the young William Wordsworth from being bullied at school.  It’s not just unconvincing, it’s also an indication that heroic deeds will be ascribed to this man who consigned the commander of his ship and 18 loyalists to a likely death when he cast them out to sea in a longboat.

Journey of the longboat

Artistic licence or otherwise, this 1790 painting by Robert Dodd which I photographed at the Pier Store Museum on Norfolk Island, shows the enormity of the crime.  The Bounty was in the middle of nowhere, in the largely uncharted waters of the Pacific, and these men were cast adrift in an overloaded boat with supplies for about a week.  Fletcher Christian later died in murky circumstances on Pitcairn Island so there is only Bligh’s (possibly self-serving) account after he miraculously steered his longboat crew 6000km to safety in Timor, but whatever the reasons, the mutineers would have had no illusions about the likelihood of Bligh surviving.

Graeme Lay, however, has adopted a populist interpretation of events, with Fletcher Christian as a conflicted hero distressed by Bligh’s irrational command and in love with a Tahitian woman, adding for good measure the insinuation that Bligh made homosexual overtures to Christian, which he found intolerable.  (Even if true,  why this would justify consigning a man and his supporters to a likely death in a vast ocean, I cannot imagine.  Women suffer indecent propositions all the time without reacting with such disproportionate outrage).

Oh well, as a novel Fletcher of the Bounty is no better or worse than the sensationalist Hollywood movies about the mutiny, the inaccurate plots of which are laid out on display at the museum for the edification of those interested in history.  I bet they sell heaps of these books on Norfolk Island, where descendants are proud of their Christian lineage…

Norfolk Island Museum Bookstore

Author: Graeme Lay
Title: Fletcher of the Bounty
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2017
ISBN: 9781775541066
Source: personal library, purchased from the Norfolk Island Museum Bookstore, $34


Responses

  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  2. All I can say is why does anyone do brutal things to another person. I haven’t heard of this but I’m guessing it’s a traditional genre historical novel where in a way, it seems to me, anything goes. It’s fiction based loosely on a real situation? Or, does this book have a better reputation than that?

    • Yes, that’s right, it is a genre historical novel, but I don’t quite agree that anything goes. It’s one thing to invent an interaction between Wordsworth and Christian (who were at school together but six years apart and there’s no evidence that they even knew each other), and another to invent a homosexual advance as a justification for Christian’s hatred of Bligh and casting him adrift – which would have been as good as murder if Bligh hadn’t been such a good seaman and lucky to boot. I know of a murder trial where the defence argued that a homosexual advance from an old man was provocation for a thug to kill him, and I think that’s outrageous.

      • Oh, I didn’t mean I agree with it, I just meant that I think genre historical fiction is more likely to play loose with the facts.

        • With the risk that the undiscerning reader will believe it as the gospel truth!

          • Yes, but on that score I tend to see that as the reader’s lookout not the fiction writer’s. There’s a fine line of course, but I’m uncomfortable with fiction writers being called to account for not being factual. The whole point about fiction is to explore ideas and possibilities. Still, I sometimes think that if they are going to stray wildly from the truth it would be sensible to explore the event/s using different names.

            • It’s a very tricky issue. I wasn’t happy with Richard Flanagan playing with Charles Dickens in Wanting… I don’t usually mind when it’s done to give someone a voice that they otherwise haven’t had (as long as it’s done well, of course) but twisting the legacy of a real historical figure makes me uneasy. As you say, using a different name is a way out of it, but that might not suit the writer who wants to use the reputation or fame of a real person to get traction for the book.

              • Yes, I appreciate that – also the real name means some things don’t have to be explained …

                In the end I guess, I do expect readers to understand the form they are reading and adjust their expectations accordingly. I can’t see myself not liking a novel because the facts are wrong – but maybe if there was one that said something really bizarre about Jane Austen then all bets could be off. Haha!

                PS How much did Flanagan twist Dickens? I’m trying to remember. Dickens had some shady aspects to his character – I don’t recollect Flanagan being excessively outrageous but maybe my memory is poor. I thought Wanting was a fascinating book.

                • My recollection of Dickens in Wanting was that the facts were not in dispute, it was the representation of his thoughts that I felt uneasy about.

                • Ah well, that’s historical fiction isn’t it. That’s a big part, I think, of Mantel’s Cromwell books? His thoughts? At least that’s my recollection.

  3. I tend reflexively to side with the rebel against the tyrant. I take your point, but would point out that Bligh was mutinied against not once but twice. He obviously wasn’t an easy man to work for. As for liberties in historical fiction I really dislike them, and the one I dislike the most is Ned Kelly’s wife in Carey’s True History (however ironically intended).

    • Yes, I tend to support the deposing of tyrants too. But I don’t agree with capital punishment under any circumstances, and what Christian did was consign Bligh and his men to death. Christian knew the odds were against survival and it’s acknowledged by all that Bligh’s survival was miraculous.
      What Christian should have done, assuming he had justifiable cause (and there’s doubt about that, given that Bligh was less of a tyrant than many other commanders *and* what the men were most upset about was having to leave the Tahitian idyll where they’d been for 6 months) was to confine Bligh under guard and then take him back to England and make his case against him. That was what the previous mutineer had done. What Christian did instead was appoint himself prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner.

  4. I’ve been to Norfolk Island too – for work, though, rather than on a break. Saw a rather different side to things as a result. Sometimes I toy with the idea of writing about those Tahitian women who Fletcher Christian and his mutineers kidnapped.

    • Oh yes indeed. From the moment I heard them referred to as ‘girlfriends’ and then ‘wives’ (when there was no one on Pitcairn to marry them), I remembered the Indigenous Tasmanian women that sealers kidnapped and my antennae were on alert. These women are next to invisible in the Norfolk history that we heard, and the whole question of whether they could give informed consent to leaving with the men is never mentioned.


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