by William Clark Russel
The Honour of The Flag was penned in 1895 by William Clark Russel, who also jotted several fine sea stories and historical fiction horror. He yearned for an adventurous life from a very young age, and, together with his school friend, one of Charles Dickens’ sons, he decided to travel to Africa. Charles Dickens dissuaded the boys, thus Russel finished what must have seemed bleak school years at private schools in England and France.
At the tender age of thirteen, he joined the United Kingdom Merchant Army and served for eight years. Sadly for him, this left him with several health issues, and lucky for the ardent historical fiction reader, he therefore dedicated his life to writing nautical stories, which come to life with vivid details only an expert sailor could conjure and made him renown as the English writer of nautical stories. His change in career also gave him time to advocate for a better life for seamen, and in the time he had to spare, he worked as a journalist.
Russel became the first renown English writer of sea stories, gaining the admiration of Melville, his American counterpart, who dedicated one of his books to him. Russel reciprocated and admitted he had started his career, nervous of pioneers like Melville.
The Honour of The Flag is a zesty short story packed with violence, a question of legality and morality, and palpable, archaic customs.
Synopsis of The Honour of The Flag
The Honour of The Flag is not part of a series and can be read as a standalone. However, if you decide to get the free kindle version on Amazon (link below), you’ll receive a bunch of other sea short stories with it. William Clark Russel penned “fine sea stories” which were so successful at his time that even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle mentions these in The Five Orange Pips.
The narrator begins with a small excursion to noteworthy events on the Thames, all recorded in the history books and the Whitechapel County Court, and then closes in on the protagonist he chooses to call John Sloper “out of regard to the feelings of his posterity, if such there be.” Mr. Sloper, a retired tailor, has built himself a beautiful villa on the bank of the Thames, overlooking the commercial ship traffic. The widower had been unhappily married, so when his wife had died one Easter morning, he decided to fire the small cannon in his yard overlooking the river, and continues to do so every Easter Monday.
Then the narrator introduces Joseph Westlake, fifty years a sailor, who bought himself a “smart little cutter” (smart as in the archaic definition of speedy), on which he lives and sails the Thames to his heart’s content. Being an admiral on his own account, he decides to cruise under his own flag, taking great care in designing it and flying it with pride. It depicts a very small jack in the top corner, a crown in the middle, underneath which is drawn a wooden leg, and symbolizes “Britannia’s greatness” to him and his shipmates, and by the narrator’s accounts many people crane their necks to better see the honorable flag when he passes.
The inciting incident occurs one Easter Morning when John Sloper drunkly fires his cannon and mistakenly shoots a hole in Joseph Westlake’s flag of honor. Because Sloper doesn’t realize he hit them, being drunk and the cloud from his first cannon blinding him, he continues to shoot, and the crew from The Bowling open fire as well. The Tom Bowling lands at the tailor’s lawn, the flag of honor only rags, the tailor’s chimneys knocked down.
Needless to say, both men are exceedingly upset and their argument escalates when Westlake kidnaps Sloper, who admittedly has no knowledge of ships at all, and confines him below decks.
Evaluation of The Honour of The Flag
Historical fiction, horror
The Honour of The Flag is a horror short story which was written as historical fiction and with time has further slipped into this genre. I did not expect so much violence, and the almost approving aftertaste left me thoroughly horrified.
It was difficult for me to care for any of the characters because they are all of such violent disposition that I could not imagine liking any of them in real life. None of the characters learns anything in life throughout the story, but it is admittedly a very short story. The ending does imply that a character arc may have formed after the last events, but we don’t get to know. In that sense, the character arcs are not satisfying.
Gripping story and dubious theme
The story gripped me because the introduction very precisely shows how which character ends up at the inciting incident and I wanted to find out how the conflict is solved.
Its most apparent theme, that of honor, springs at you from every page. The honorableness of the characters is constantly questioned, displayed, or rated. It’s difficult to say what the story is supposed to tell us in regard to honor, because the narrator obviously has an archaic stance on it, which is very different from how we see honor today. For example, eating dinner at two o’clock is seen as tasteless, whereas eating dinner no earlier than seven o’clock is honorable. I believe the theme is well expressed throughout the story. It’s apparent on every page, but the time since the composition of this short story has changed so much that we can no longer easily access it.
The Honour of the Flag begins with a slow pace, quickens its stride from the inciting incident onwards, and slows down again after the climax. The story never drags.
Judgmental and vivid prose
The Honour of The Flag is set in 1851, when “there was more life in the river than there is now [now being 1895]. In our age the great steamer thrusts past and is quickly gone; the tug runs the sailing-ship to the docks or to her mooring buoys, and there is no life in the fabric she drags.” A slight glorification of the age of sail comes to life in every fiber of this short story, and indeed seems to be a constant with the author William Clark Russel, who had spent many years a sailor himself. It gives this story a realistic feel, a rich narration.
From the very beginning, the narrator seduces the reader to consider sailors (i.e. Joseph Westlake, and what a sea-worthy name that is, too) worthier than tailors (i.e. John Sloper). Take, for example, the lexical choices in the following sparkling sentence:
“The board on which Sloper had flourished was not shipboard, it had nothing to do with starboard or larboard; he was a tailor, not a sailor, and the friends who ran down to see him were of his own sort and condition.”
William Clark Russel in The Honour of The Flag
The phonetics in this sentence alone render it delicious even when only pronounced inside one’s head, but the opposition of the good things Sloper is not and the bad things he is (because he is not a sailor) is divided almost precisely in the middle, with nineteen and sixteen words on either side, with the minimal pair sailor and tailor, which speaks of a master crafter. Delicious prose like this makes one want to side with the narrator.
In fact, when the narrator introduces Westlake, he makes one believe one is meeting a grand character who not only has traditional values but who is one of the few men left on the globe who have given life and body to the fatherland, patriotism being an important value of the time, what with all the wars.
“… [A] sailor, named Joseph Westlake. This man had served when a boy under Collingwood, had smelt [sic] gunpowder at Navarino under Codrington, had been concerned in several dashing cutting-out jobs in the West Indies, and was altogether as hearty and worthy a specimen of an old English sailor of the vanished school as you could ask to see.
“He had been shot in the leg; he carried a great scar over his brow; he was full of yarns as a piece of ancient ship’s biscuit of weevils; he swore with more oaths than a Dutchman; sneered prodigiously at steam; and held the meanest opinion of the then [then being 1851] existing seamen, who, he said, never could have won the old battles which had been the making of this kingdom, …”
William Clark Russel in The Honour of The Flag
Having served under grand names such as Cuthbert Collingwood and Sir Edward Codrington, who both made significant contributions to British naval history, backs the later contemptuous view of younger sailors and gives insight into the way the times were changing, anchoring the historical period in a palpable way while disclosing character. The stereotyping of Dutchmen, which borders on racism, though perhaps common at the time, is little understandable from today’s viewpoint. Either this stereotype has changed over time, or the author spoke of individual experience.
This also brings us to my opinion that The Honour of the Flag has just a touch too much of dialect and profanity, even though this was common at the time of its composition. Such examples as “Why, junk me if he ha’ n’t shot our colour through,” or “I suppose you’re aweer,” and “purwided,” slow the reading unnecessarily from today’s viewpoint. Also unnecessary is the use of profanity such as “little faggot,” which further deepens the void between reader and author. A modern reader might easily be irritated by such language use.
The sailing jargon, on the other hand, brings this story to life. “The Tom Bowling was thrown into the wind,” or “when his couch is Thames ballast,” are, beside some of the other quotes above, examples of how Russel’s prose sparkles with vivid sailing terms.
But some of his prose sparkles without sailing, such as the following quote.
“When Sloper and his friends had dined, and the bottle had circled until, like quicksilver in the eye of a hurricane, the contents had sunk out of sight, the party went to the lawn to fire off the guns there in completion of the triumphant celebration of the ever-memorable anniversary of Sloper’s release.”
William Clark Russel in The Honour of The Flag
I cannot explain how someone could come up with such imagery, but I googled what happens to quicksilver in a hurricane. In the eye of a hurricane quicksilver, a liquid metal at room temperature (and a common laxative in the early 19th and 20th centuries, I won't venture to say this is where our friend Russel met with quicksilver), is dispersed by the centrifugal forces. In other words, it really does disappear faster than you can see.
There is another passage that perplexed me:
“It was the year 1851, when the class of society in which Mr. Sloper belonged was not so genteel in its habits as it has since become; in other words, Sloper dines at two o’clock. Had he survived into this age he would not have dreamt [sic] of dining at an earlier hour than seven.”
William Clark Russel in The Honour or the Flag
I wondered what he meant to say with dining time being not prestigious. Turns out that dining times had to do with class because only wealthier people could afford artificial lighting and dine late. But he also hints at the general availability of artificial light, which softens his earlier stereotyping just a tad.
In summary, the prose in The Honour of the Flag is biased, phonetically and lexically delicious, filled to the brim with considerations of values and honor, and spiced with vivid sailing terms and beautiful imagery.
The short story The Honour of the Flag left me absolutely horrified. I’m an ardent historical fiction reader and I love reading stories written in their own time, and often imagine what living in the past might have been like, and though I usually enjoy such mental strolls, this one left me glad I’m a woman of our times.
Recommendable only to readers who enjoy violence
The Honour of The Flag is not for the softies among us. If it wasn’t for the excellent prose, I could not recommend this story at all.
Golden Books Rating of The Honour of The Flag
Three of five Golden Books for The Honour of The Flag by William Clark Russel.
The major drawback of this story is the narrator’s approving viewpoint towards violence and biased narration in regard to the worth of a human being depending on class or habits.
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