Great religious novels such as THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY, BRIDESHEAD REVISITED, THE END OF THE AFFAIR or THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH do not grow on trees. Even less often do they grow on a sailing ship's masts or spars. Imagine Thornton Wilder, Graham Greene, C.S. Lewis or Evelyn Waugh composing a sea adventure tale about two young lovers separated permanently in 1799 by their religious beliefs.
In the case of French Republic privateer Captain Raoul Yvard and beautiful Ghita Caraccioli marriage is rejected by Ghita on account of Raoul's exalted French Republican belief in pure reason allied with perceived active opposition to Jesus or at least to priests. That is the religion displayed in James Fenimore Cooper's 1842 novel, THE WING-AND-WING, or LE FEU-FOLLET. If you refuse to read books dipped in religion, then this novel is not for you, all of its other memorable aspects notwithstanding.
Cooper's novel is one of six sea tales selected for The Heart of Oak Sea Classics series of books. Probably 90% of readers do enjoy THE WING-AND-WING as pure sea adventure, and it is a great one -- set in one of the titanic eras of the modern world, from the French Revolution to the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte. On stage, though not often seen, are British Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson and his evil Irish love, Lady Emma Hamilton. Napoleon is tearing up Italy and the British are out to stop him.
One 5' 11" tall, gallant, hot-headed French sea captain, Raoul Yvard, age 26, preys on British and Italian shipping in his small, 180 tons privateer, the lugger, Le Feu-Follet (meaning jack o' lantern or will of the wisp). Yvard is a thorn in Lord Nelson's side and eventually three great British men of war are sent to capture the Feu-Follet.
Yvard beats off a British attack once, flees a frigate, is caught, imprisoned and sentenced to death, escapes with the help of his intensely anti-British first mate, New Hampshireman Ithuel Bolt, and lives to fight one final small scale land and sea battle against seven boatloads of British sailors trapped south of Sorrento amid the Isles of the Sirens.
Raoul's sea judgment is, however, impaired. For he is in love with 19 year old Ghita Caraccioli, pious Italian Catholic girl whom, with her other-worldly uncle, Raoul had rescued a year earlier from pirates. Fictitious Ghita is the granddaughter of that real Italian Prince-Admiral unjustly hanged during the tale from a yard arm by Horatio Nelson. She returns Raoul's love but will not marry a revolutionary French atheist. Not now. Not ever. For he tempts her too strongly from the service of God. Wherever Ghita flees, however, Raoul tracks her down -- even in the heart of Nelson's fleet in the bay of Naples, during her grandfather's execution.
At tale's end there is a glimmer of hope that the two might conceivably marry when ultra-rationalist Raoul looks at the bright stars above Italy. He is impressed by astronomers who speculate that some stars are actually inhabited worlds. One star in particular fascinates Yvard that night. He tells Ghita: "If it be really a world, some all-powerful hand must have created it. Chance never made a world, more than chance made a ship. Thought -- mind -- intelligence must have governed at the formation of one as well as of the other" (Ch. XXX). That is as close as the religions of the two lovers will ever come in this life.
In his preface to the 1851 edition of THE WING-AND-WING, author Fenimore Cooper gives the recurring human context of the religious disagreement not unknown in all cultures between an irreligious man like Raoul and a religious woman like Ghita. "There is something so gratifying to human vanity in fancying ourselves superior to most around us, that we believe few young men attain their majority without imbibing more or less of the taint of unbelief, and passing through the mists of a vapid moral atmosphere, before they come to the clear, manly, and yet humble perceptions that teach most of us, in the end, our own insignificance. ... Perhaps the greatest stumbling-block of the young, is a dispostion not to yield their belief unless it conforms to their own crude notions of propriety and reason. ... From arrogantly claiming a right to worship a deity we comprehend, we soon come to feel ... (that) a being that can be comprehended, is not a being to be worshipped."
Ghita might have done as so many women, and as Raoul begs her to do: marry a man opposed to her religion, pray for his conversion and continue to serve God loyally. But she will not.
A novelist friend of mine recently told me: "religion does not sell books." If you are a reader not attracted to religion in novels, do not, for that reason alone, despair of THE WING-AND-WING.
For it is a great meditation, as well, on injustices such as the British impressment of American seamen like Ithuel Bolt and such as Lord Nelson's vengeful execution of a fallen foe Prince Carracioli. The book also ends with a gallant small-scale naval battle against great odds. Being small, that engagement is easily grasped -- unlike God -- by today's young readers, and is memorable.
The novel shows as well a gallant young Frenchman too passionate and adventure-loving for his own safety. This is a tale from the final years of the great centuries when wooden ships went to sea propelled only by the winds, tides and currents.
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