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"A well-balanced account of the incredible life" of a tragic hero - Naval Historical Review

Book Review, as published in the magazine of the Naval Historical Society of Australia: Naval Historical Review, Vol. 42. No. 4 - December 2021.


Book Review - Nelson's Folly by Oliver Greeves

Image: The Bosun's Call for NHSA Members

A fascination with the tragic hero Horatio

Nelson never seems to diminish and this historical novel adds to that plethora of interest. It is based on true life events concerning the great man’s life and colourfully provides some well improvised conversation between the main characters. Most importantly it is written by a direct descendant of Lady Frances Nelson (previously the widowed Mrs Frances Nisbet). Skilfully drawing upon this family background, the author seeks to better explore the difficulties encountered by Horatio and Frances, but primarily sees these from the Nisbet perspective which is largely overlooked by contemporary authors.

Other family members spring to life, from the aging patriarch the Reverend Edmund Nelson, financially handicapped by a large brood. At first Edmund distances himself from his daughter-in-law Frances, but they discover mutual respect leading to a closer relationship, and it is Frances who cares for Edmund during the final phase of his life. Horatio’s elder brother William and his wife Sarah loom large in the story, seeking advantage from the fame of Admiral Lord Nelson. Horatio having no direct heir, an ambitious William and his son stand to inherit Horatio’s estate and titles. But what happens if the stepson Josiah Nisbet is formally adopted into the Nelson family?


When Frances marries Horatio she is a 27-year-old widow with a seven-year-old son Josiah. The then Captain Nelson accepts the youngster and when he is 12 years 60 Naval Historical Review December 2021 old enters him into the Royal Navy. Through patronage the youngster is rapidly advanced to Lieutenant and at 18 given command, albeit of a decrepit hospital ship, but by 20 he is a Captain in command of a frigate. Clearly this causes resentment amongst other career officers and the immature and headstrong Josiah (much like his stepfather) finds enemies which impact his career and his association with Horatio.


As a leader of his ‘Band of Brothers’ in battle Nelson fully considers all options and he excels. As an Admiral however, often far removed from Admiralty control, he is called upon to provide political judgement. In this his perspective is limited, failing to appreciate the opportunities presented by a broader canvas, and at times his judgement is unsound.


No Nelson story is complete without mention of Sir William and Lady Emma Hamilton and the reader is not disappointed. As Horatio becomes infatuated with Emma he risks his career with this love affair and only survives because of his ability as a fighting admiral who becomes a celebrity, adored by the masses. Dying in glory only goes to cement his place on the pantheon of naval heroes.


Nelson’s Folly is a well-balanced account of the incredible life of a man with a fire to succeed but who needs reassurance and love. Within this heady mix is a background of great unrest with threats of invasion and revolution. The book is eminently well researched and will be appreciated by both those with limited knowledge and others with a long-standing interest in the great man.


Reviewed by Walter Burroughs, Naval Historical Review, Editor and Bosun



Review reprinted with thanks to the Naval Historical Society of Australia https://www.navyhistory.org.au/


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