Wednesday 8 March 2023

Review: Moonraker by Fryniwyd Tennyson Jesse

Moonraker is an adventure novel written by an author with the wonderful name of Fryniwyd Tennyson Jesse. Published in 1927 it wished to capture the same spirit as Treasure Island and the similarly named Moonfleet. It’s a short novel that covers a lot of material, from pirates, to women’s liberation and the betrayal of Toussaint L’Overture. 

It’s framed as a yarn being told by an old salt, with the first few chapters being a peculiar mix of purple prose and seaman’s slang. Our hero, Jacky Jacka, not only has a girl’s name but is often described as being particularly feminine in his beauty with his long golden hair, rosy cheeks and ‘eyes of the greenish-blue of the deep water near the rocks.’ Not much is done with his prettiness, which is surprising given the twist towards the end of the book. He’s also sensitive and saves a witch from being stoned. She lets him glimpse his future and he sees images he’ll then encounter in the course of the book.

He sets sail on the Picksie, a ship whose captain has a deep relationship with. The ship is attacked by pirates on board the Moonraker, and rather than build up any tension, the ship is attacked and exploded within a paragraph. Jacky is then forced to live among the pirates where he develops a fixation with their captain, Lovel. He is also sick to the stomach to now be a pirate, though when the pirate attacks a French ship, he ‘could not but enjoy it’, which is described as ‘a thing not to be wondered at’. They capture a young French man called Raoul, whose presence changes Captain Lovel and sets them on a course to Santa Domingo and not the nearby island of Tortuga, where the pirates planned to search for Kidd’s treasure. 

Santa Domingo is in a place of relative peace, having fought a number of slave uprisings and slave-owner backlashes, the country is now stable under Toussaint L’Overture and even building forward-looking architecture celebrating the now free island. However, Napoleon has sent a fleet with the instructions to lure and capture the ‘rebel’ leaders and bring the country back under the thumb of the French.

The next part of the book follows Jacky as he follows L’Overture in his last fights. He’s doing well but his generals are lured over to the French and he is eventually tricked into captivity. The events themselves, the military to-ing and fro-ing, the ambushes and battles, are all rushed through as quickly as possible in order to spend time with Jacky’s point of view of L’Overture and his struggle. He’s portrayed as the wisest and most authentic man Jacky has ever met, yet Jacky is constantly surprised to be admiring a black man. He regards L’Overture as ugly, brutish and compares him to an ape yet also recognises wells of humanity, goodness and even a shadow of divinity in him. It’s a strange mix and reads oddly ninety-odd years after the novel was published. A modern reader finds themself wondering if the surprise and recognising a ‘great’ person who is also black is supposed to be one encountered by the 1790s figure of Jacky, or if it’s a surprise expected in the 1920’s reader. Suffice to say there are also n-words thrown about the text by both characters and narrator.

There’s a lot of potential in the Toussaint L’Overture section, as there was in the forced piracy section but the book moves too quickly to properly develop them, a fault with much of the book. There are some wonderful sections, particularly when L’Overture compares Raoul’s political and idealistic conception with freedom with the genuine struggle for bodily freedom he has had to fight. It’s a good point and well made, but a slower, more fleshed out version of this book could have developed those points and differences far better (though maybe to the detriment of the book’s nippiness).

Raoul’s original plan was to evacuate L’Overture and his fancy-bit on the Moonraker and take them to America but with L’Overture captured, it’s just Jacky, Raoul, fancy-bit and fancy-bit’s friend who board the ship. Captain Lovel is acting even stranger, refusing to attack legitimate targets and seeming to risk everyone’s life on board the ship to take Raoul back to France. In a tense dinner scene, the captain invites the main characters to a dinner where Jacky is the waiter. The Captain enters wearing an elaborate frock and fancy-bit thinks he’s having a laugh and cross-dressing, declaring that as handsome a man as he is, he’s a really ugly woman. This is when it’s revealed that Captain Lovel is actually a woman called Sophy. 

It’s a really striking scene, because Sophy/Lovel had picked the dress as the prettiest they’d ever seen and was hoping it could be a wedding dress - in a wedding with Raoul. There’s something so cruel in the description of her ugliness in it, the opposite of a romantic movie glow-up. Then the crew mutiny and all see the truth of their captain. She fights, bare-breasted, the dress stripped down to the waist, skewering numerous mutinous pirates. When a stale-mate ensures, she loads the named characters on a longboat and explodes the Moonraker…

…Jacky lives his life, becomes a captain himself and marries but he’s always haunted by the two realest people he’s ever known, Toussaint L’Overture and Sophy Lovel, who make his wife seem as insubstantial as smoke in comparison. When he feels this, he kisses his wife, who’s pleased by the act of affection but doesn’t understand why. It’s a surprisingly moving and sombre ending to an oddly perfunctory story. 

I couldn’t help but wonder if this book would have been better if it had been expanded and deepened, there were so many interesting stories of freedom vs constraint in the lives of Jacky, Sophy and L’Overture that could have been compared. There was the whole element of Jacky’s prettiness, how he as a born male would have passed as a woman better than Sophy could. There was the whole tragedy of L’Overture and his betrayal, as well as the hidden love of Sophy for Raoul. If the book was bulked out, it would have lost its adventure story bracket, and perhaps Tennyson Jesse wrote it for a quick buck, but I couldn’t help but feel that this book could have been more. It was good, but there are seeds of great in it.

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