Nevil Shute Norway Foundation

Book Review

The Seafarers

Introductory Note and Review by Shoshana Milgram

THE SEAFARERS, a novella written by Nevil Shute in the years 1946-47 and published now for the first time, dramatizes one of his most important themes: the life-giving joy of productive work. His own life story exemplifies this very theme. Shute's autobiography, SLIDE RULE (1953), deals with the manifold achievements of his first career (as an aeronautical engineer and as the founder of his own aircraft firm) and with the beginning years of his second career, as a writer. The epigraph to that book cites Robert Louis Stevenson: "the true success is to labour." Shute thus calls attention to the rewards of goal- oriented mental and physical effort, as measured not only after the attainment of the goal, but at every stage of the struggle. In THE SEAFARERS, Shute concentrated his considerable powers on analyzing that "true success"--showing how it can be won and how, even if lost, it can be regained.

The story line is elegantly simple. As World War II winds down, Donald Wolfe (a senior naval lieutenant) and Jean Porter (a boat's crew Wren) meet when he brings his motor gunboat to Portland harbor to be dismantled and disarmed. They admire each other's dedication and cheerful competence; their first date is promising, and both hope for a romance. But when they meet again in peacetime, away from the sea, they seem to have much less in common. Without the work they love, their differences are magnified. Puzzled and disappointed, they part, regretfully--but not permanently.

This book is Shute's second version of THE SEAFARERS, written not long after the first, with some enhancements in style and characterization, but no changes in the story line. Although Shute did not choose to publish either version of THE SEAFARERS, he returned to several of its elements in two other works: BLIND UNDERSTANDING, left incomplete in 1948 and never published, and REQUIEM FOR A WREN (known in the U.S. as THE BREAKING WAVE), published in 1955.

All three titles feature a capable, matter-of-fact young woman who has joined the Wrens fresh from school. During the war, she has developed skills and confidence. When her war service ends, however, she is adrift. The versions are significantly different in three main ways, all of them to the advantage of THE SEAFARERS.

To begin with, the heroines of BLIND UNDERSTANDING and REQUIEM FOR A WREN, each named Janet, serve as Ordnance Wrens; each shoots down a plane carrying seven men, who may not in fact belong to the enemy side. The identity of the men killed is never established; it is suggested that Janet committed an error of judgment. Although Shute does not make Janet unequivocally guilty, she blames herself for the seven deaths, and also for the subsequent deaths of her father and her fiance, which she attributes to divine retribution. Shute left unresolved the story of the heroine of BLIND UNDERSTANDING; the story of the heroine of REQUIEM FOR A WREN ends in tragedy.

In THE SEAFARERS, by contrast, the heroine's war work is an unambiguous good. She has learned how to repair and manage boats; she solves practical problems. Jean never has to cope with the possibility of tragic error that is a central focus of the other texts. She has nothing on her conscience, no mysteries to unravel. She mourns no dead. Her skill is an unquestioned asset, and her life is triumphantly un-tragic.

Another feature unique to THE SEAFARERS is the characterization of Donald Wolfe, a heroic counterpart to the heroine. In the other versions, the heroine's fiance dies during the war, and the man who approaches her later (Robert Prentice in BLIND UNDERSTANDING, Alan Duncan in REQUIEM FOR A WREN) is less than direct in his courtship of her. But in THE SEAFARERS, Shute creates a character who not only loves and admires the heroine, but who seeks and finds the solution to the problem they share in peacetime.

The solution to the problem, for Donald and Jean, requires finding in peacetime the purposefulness that was automatically present during the war. THE SEAFARERS identifies productive work as the cardinal value of the war years, for both Jean and Donald. The emphasis on work is the third distinctive feature of THE SEAFARERS, and the most important. BLIND UNDERSTANDING and REQUIEM FOR A WREN, by contrast, stress the end of youth, the loss of unrepeatable opportunities.

By focusing on work instead of on youth, Jean Porter and Donald Wolfe are able to find in their post-war lives the purposefulness that inspired their war-time happiness. In war, when they worked hard to defeat the enemy, their efforts were richly rewarded--not only by the ultimate military victory, but by the ongoing satisfaction of the struggle (the skills they developed, the challenges they assumed). In order to earn such rewards in peacetime, they must discover for themselves new, and significant, goals.

Turning back the clock, returning to one's youth, serving as a Wren when there is nothing for a Wren to do--all are impossible. But the desire of Donald and Jean--for peacetime work as rewarding as their military service--is open to fulfillment.

That fulfillment, to be sure, is neither quick nor easy. Initially, they follow the paths of least resistance. Donald becomes an insurance agent, like his father, and Jean signs up for secretarial training. The result of their passivity in the selection of goals is predictable. Not only does their work fail to match their abilities, but they have not discovered, or even attempted to discover, a long-range or large-scale purpose comparable to what they were given by the war.

Their arranged meeting in London, months after the war, is a disaster of surprises, misunderstandings, and disappointments. Yet Shute, by making the reader privy to their parallel thoughts, shows that they have more in common than they realize. When they part, we--but not they--know it is not forever.

The lovers are irreplaceable to each other, a fact that Jean, at least, sees intensely when she believes they have said goodbye. "In years to come," Jean reflects, "when time had eased the sharp grief that had come upon her now, there might be other men, but she knew that there would never be another man like Donald." To lose each other would be to miss their best chance of happiness. They do not miss their chance.

In the following chapters, both Donald and Jean find temporary assignments of boat work, tasks other people consider difficult or even impossible. With his trademark descriptive style--understated, detailed, and concrete--Shute makes their endeavors credible, dramatic, and inspiring. They do, in essence, what they did during the war: in the face of danger and discomfort, they exert the mental and physical effort required to achieve important objectives. When Donald and Jean face their challenges, with courage and intelligence, they are--without knowing it--journeying back to each other.

When they find each other again, appropriately "messing about with boats," Jean devises a business plan that will benefit them both. As Wolfe and Porter, Ltd., they convert and sell boats; as Donald and Jean, they live happily ever after. The "true success" of their work, ever increasing in range and scale, will exemplify the epigraph of SLIDE RULE.

The joy of purposeful work, to be sure, is fundamental to Shute. It underlies not only his own experience as an engineer- novelist with two careers, but also many of his other books, notably RUINED CITY (1938) and ROUND THE BEND (1951). ON THE BEACH (1957) spotlights the power of purposeful work to give meaning to life even when all human life is coming to an end.

THE SEAFARERS is shorter than Shute's published novels. It is uncomplicated by the twists, mysteries, and subplots that enrich his other books. But its simple directness is no defect. Shute gives Jean and Donald, or allows them to give themselves, the only paradise worth having: one joint project after another, in their burgeoning business. They pursue, together, a meaningful life. The dignity of the book eloquently crystallizes the dignity possible to a human being.

In THE SEAFARERS, Nevil Shute celebrates the tenacity, intelligence, and drive--in Jean, in Donald, in human nature-- that make possible the world of work.