In Seize the Fire, Adam Nicolson, author of the widely acclaimed God's Secretaries, takes the great naval battle of Trafalgar, fought between the British and Franco-Spanish fleets in October 1805, and uses it to examine our idea of heroism and the heroic. Is violence a necessary aspect of the hero? And daring? Why did the cult of the hero flower in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in a way it hadn't for two hundred years? Was the figure of Nelson -- intemperate, charming, theatrical, anxious, impetuous, considerate, indifferent to death and danger, inspirational to those around him, and, above all, fixed on attack and victory -- an aberration in Enlightenment England? Or was the greatest of all English military heroes simply the product of his time, "the conjurer of violence" that England, at some level, deeply needed?
It is a story rich with modern resonance. This was a battle fought for the control of a global commercial empire. It was won by the emerging British world power, which was widely condemned on the continent of Europe as "the arrogant usurper of the freedom of the seas." Seize the Fire not only vividly describes the brutal realities of battle but enters the hearts and minds of the men who were there; it is a portrait of a moment, a close and passionately engaged depiction of a frame of mind at a turning point in world history.
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On October 21, 1805, the British navy crushed the combined fleets of Spain and France near Spain's Cape Trafalgar, thwarting Napoleon Bonaparte's planned invasion of England and leading to a century of British maritime dominance. There are many books on the Battle of Trafalgar, but this one is different in that Adam Nicolson focuses more on "the mental landscape" of those who fought than on the battle itself. In analyzing why the British scored such an impressive victory, Nicolson looks beyond tactics to study the collective psychology of the three navies, along with the social and cultural forces at work. Part of the study revolves around the concept of the hero at the dawn of the 19th century. The men who fought at Trafalgar "looked on battle not as a necessary evil but as a moment of revelation and truth" that played into their conception of purpose, honor, and duty to king and country--with violence seen as an integral part of duty. No one fit the classic model of the hero more than Admiral Lord Nelson, the "most feared naval commander in the world"; a man who saw himself as a "prophetic agent of apocalypse and millennium" destined to lead England to global dominance. Nelson became the model of the British hero for the rest of the century and beyond.
In addition to an in-depth study of Nelson's background and psychology, Nicolson discusses the cultural differences between the three countries. For instance, in England, a non-aristocrat like Nelson was allowed to rise to the top--an occurrence that would have been impossible in both France and Spain given their strict societal codes. Each nation's motivation was different as well. Spain's social system was based on aristocratic chivalry, while France was acting according to the authoritative whim of Napoleon. Britain, however, was motivated by trade, and Nicolson discusses how England was able to finance its powerful navy by taxing the growing middle class and their seemingly limitless desire for material goods, making Trafalgar "the first great bourgeois victory of European history." Seize the Fire provides an intriguing perspective on one of the great naval battles in history. --Shawn Carkonen
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