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  1. Book ImageLosing Nelson

    Barry Unsworth

    "Stunningly original. . . . Pulpy and juicy, full of wisdom and horror." —Los Angeles Times Book Review

Barry Unsworth on Lord Nelson

Most British people, if asked to name the national hero, would unhesitatingly say Lord Nelson. A large part of the reason for this lies in the manner of his death. He was shot on the quarterdeck of his flagship, HMS Victory, by a French sniper at the height of the battle of Trafalgar. The issue of the battle was in doubt when he received the wound, but he was still alive when they brought him the news of the greatest British naval victory since the defeat of the Spanish Armada two centuries earlier—a victory that destroyed French naval power, removed the threat of invasion by Napoleon, and gave Britain total supremacy in the Mediterranean for a century to come. When the news arrived in London, instead of rejoicing at the victory, people wept— a measure of the love that was generally felt for Nelson. They gave him a state funeral unrivaled in pomp and ceremony, but they did not honor his dying wish—the only thing he asked of his country—that provision be made for his mistress, Lady Hamilton. She died in France, completely destitute, ten years later.

Discussion Questions

  1. What sort of narrator is Charles Cleasby? Can we trust him? How do we learn about Charles's possible deficiencies as a narrator?
  2. What is the role of Miss Lily in the story? How does she function to give us more information about our two protagonists (Charles and Nelson)? How does her growing friendship affect Charles?
  3. Charles considers Lord Nelson to be the greatest hero England has ever seen. Does Charles think heroes are born or made? What do you think? Charles also refers to Nelson as an "angel." What are the qualities of an angel, as Charles describes them? Is Nelson more hero or angel?
  4. Think about heroism, as it functions in history. Some historians organize history around certain "heroic" figures; some organize history around the events themselves. For example: some might consider the French Revolution to be solely the outcome of social and economic pressures placed on the French populace. Others might consider it primarily the work of a charismatic leader like Robespierre. Obviously, Charles follows the "heroic" theory of history, rather than the "event-driven" theory. What are the dangers and falsehoods inherent in each theory?
  5. Think about the role of the hero. What does being a hero mean for Charles? How does Miss Lily's idea of the hero differ from Charles's? How does fame affect the hero? Does Charles think there are any heroes in the world today? (Consider his remarks on both Hugo's David Bowie and Winston Churchill.)
  6. There is a great emphasis in the book on parallelism. Think of the parallels that Charles constructs: between Nelson and himself, within Nelson's life, between the varying historical accounts of Nelson's life and actions. Are these parallels maintained? What happens when they are not? How does the final scene of the book affect Charles's ideas of parallelism?
  7. Try interpreting some of Charles's dreams. What do you think they indicate about Charles's feelings and anxieties?
  8. What is the relation between Charles's relationship to his father and his father's death, and his obsession with Nelson? How does Charles view the relationship between his father and mother?
  9. Consider the denouement of the book. Was an ending of this sort inevitable for Charles? What did Charles achieve with this action? Remember the scene with Charles's father and the rabbit. What was the lesson learned in that scene, and how is it demonstrated in this final act?
  10. Finally, is Losing Nelson a historical novel? What are your biases and expectations regarding historical fiction? Does Losing Nelson fulfill those expectations, or defy them?

About Barry Unsworth

Barry Unsworth (1930-2012), who won the Booker Prize for Sacred Hunger, was a Booker Prize finalist for Morality Play and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize for The Ruby in Her Navel.

Books by Barry Unsworth

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