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Simon Heafield
Simon Heafield

The Sea, The Sea
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Life of Pi
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The French Lieutenant's Woman
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Foyles Curates: All at Sea

Simon Heafield

“Exultation is the going¸ wrote Emily Dickinson,“Of an inland soul to sea/ Past the houses – past the headlands/ Into deep Eternity!¸ Exultation is just one of the reactions evoked when we confront that “deep eternity¸ – awe, trepidation, peace, uncertainty: the sea conjures up a rich emotional tapestry for all who are drawn to look upon it. Little wonder then that it should have proved such powerful inspiration for writers, artists and musicians across the centuries, from literature’s birth in the epic poetry of Homer to the radical landscapes of Turner and the operas of Britten.

          The sea’s inscrutability, its enigmatic shifts in mood and temperament have allowed authors to draw upon it in a host of different ways. Daphne DuMaurier utilises the romantic and dramatic possibilities of a seaside setting perhaps better than anyone else. The world of wreckers and smugglers is brought vividly to life in Jamaica Inn, in which the sea is tainted by the violence and lawlessness of Joss Merlyn and his cronies. However, nautical naughtiness has a rosier glow in Frenchman’s Creek, where the charming French pirate who wins the heroine’s heart is gloriously romanticised and symbolises the boundless freedom offered by the sea.

          The romanticism of The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles is a good deal more self-conscious. In this 1960s homage to the 19th century novel, the mysterious Sarah Woodruff spends her free time standing on the Cobb in Lyme Regis, staring out to sea after the lover who spurned her. She attracts the attention of Charles Smithson and provokes a stormy upheaval in his life as he is forced to question the entire Victorian value system and to choose between her and his shallow but socially acceptable fianc?e Ernestina.

          Nothing represents escape quite like the sea – and many readers choose to escape in the company of Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, in Patrick O’Brian’s series of novels, which begins with Master and Commander. These swashbuckling novels are crammed with historical detail yet avoid dryness through the sheer charisma of O’Brian’s protagonists.

          If the sea can symbolise the world opening up, it can also symbolise a closing down, an oppressive force trapping the character in its unrelenting sameness. The title character in Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi faces the ultimate isolation, adrift in the ocean, sharing his boat with a Bengal tiger. The strange and uneasy relationship between boy and beast is beautifully described and could only exist on water.

          The isolation in Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea is a self-imposed one, as Charles Arrowby leaves his life in the theatre to write his memoirs in the seclusion of a house on the cliffs. Charles is a complex character, egotistical and self-obsessed, for whom the sea is a fickle companion, by turns treacherous and beguiling.

          For Quoyle, in Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, an escape to the coast turns into the start of a whole new life. With his old life in meltdown following the suicide of his parents and the death of his abusive wife, journalist Quoyle is persuaded to return to his ancestral home in a remote corner of Newfoundland. He begins writing the shipping news for the local newspaper and as he forges a connection with the community he begins to rebuild himself emotionally. In this instance it seems nothing cleanses the soul better than salt water.


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