Perhaps not as well known as The Pilot (1824), James Fenimore Cooper's fictional account of John Paul Jones's adventures, The Wing-and-Wing (1842) is closer to the late Twentieth Century notion of "mainstream" historic naval fiction. Set in the Mediterranean in the months following Nelson's victory at the Nile, The Wing-and-Wing is the story of a bold captain and his plucky crew prevailing over great odds by superior strategy, seamanship and gunnery. All familiar territory to the contemporary reader of HNF, but Cooper's story has a twist. The hero is French. Raoul Yvart is the dashing captain of Le Feu-Follet, a lugger-rigged French privateer cruising Italy's west coast. Since the Tyrrhenian Sea is more or less a British lake at this time, with Nelson firmly established in Naples, Yvart needs to draw on all his considerable resources to succeed. He loves Ghita, a beautiful and pious daughter of Tuscany, who loves him as well, but can't reconcile her Catholicism with Yvart's skeptical anti-clericalism. Pursuing his love and pursued by the Royal Navy, Raoul makes Le Feu-Follet (in English, will-o-the-wisp) live up to her name.
The action and ship-handling passages are well done and compelling -- after all, Cooper served in both merchant ships and the U.S. Navy, and spent considerable time in Italy. There are some interesting windows on actual history, notably the execution of Admiral Caracciolo, which Cooper considered ignominious and blamed on the pernicious influence of Emma Hamilton on the noble Nelson. For all that, a great deal of the charm of the novel is in the humor. A few secondary characters consistently make the reader smile as Cooper paints broad caricatures of Italians, French, English and Scots. (The only American, Ithuel Bolt, may be the book's most complex character, combining courage and righteousness with bitterness and greedy self-interest.) Much of the fun is language-based as the English, French and Italians mangle each others' language. We also enjoy parodies of legal wrangling and philosophical discourse. Surely there is no other action novel in which the epistemology of George Berkeley plays a crucial role in advancing the plot!
If you don't have your Victorian prose mojo going, don't pick up this book. Cooper is wordy in a way that forces the reader to slow down and savor the language. Readers looking for a plot-driven "page turner" may chafe at the pace, but patience will be rewarded. Unlike many action novels that are fun to read, but fade from mind, Cooper's plot, characters and descriptions linger in the imagination. Some time after finishing the book, I find myself returning to reconsider some personage or event. A wine drinker might say that The Wing-and-Wing has a long finish.
The Henry Holt "Heart of Oak Sea Classics" edition features Jeffrey Ward's maps -- very useful to the reader -- and Thomas Philbrick's instructive introduction.
Description of: The Wing-and-Wing: or Le Feu-Follet
Author: James Fenimore Cooper