Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Born in Liverpool, Monsarrat attended Cambridge University with the intention of practicing law. The law failed to inspire him, however, and he turned instead to writing, moving to London and supporting himself as a freelance writer for newspapers while writing four novels and a play in the space of five years (1934–1939).
Though a pacifist, Monsarrat served in World War II, first as a member of an ambulance brigade and then as a member of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. His lifelong love of sailing made him a capable naval officer, and he served with distinction in a series of small warships assigned to escort convoys and protect them from enemy attack. Monsarrat ended the war as commander of a frigate, and drew on his wartime experience in his postwar sea stories .
Resigning his wartime commission in 1946, Monsarrat entered the diplomatic service. He was posted to first to Johannesburg, South Africa and then, in 1953. to Ottawa, Canada. He turned to writing full time in 1959, settling first on Guernsey, in the Channel Islands, and later on the Mediterranean island of Malta.
Monsarrat's first three novels, published in 1934–1937 and now out of print, were realistic treatments of modern social problems informed by his leftist politics. The Visitor, his only play, fell into the same category. His fourth novel and first major work, This Is The Schoolroom, took a different approach. The story of a young, idealistic aspiring writer coming to grips with the "real world" for the first time, it is at least partly autobiographical.
The Cruel Sea (1951), Monsarrat's first postwar novel, is widely regarded as his finest work, and is the only one of his novels that is still widely read. Based on his own wartime service, it followed young naval officer Keith Lockhart through a series of postings in corvettes and frigates. It was one of the first novels to depict life aboard the vital, but unglamorous, "small ships" of World War II—ships for which the sea was as much a threat as the Germans. Monsarrat's short story collections H.M.S. Marlborough Will Enter Harbour (1949), and The Ship That Died of Shame (1959) mined the same literary vein, and gained popularity by association with The Cruel Sea.
The similar Three Corvettes (1953) is actually an anthology of three true experience stories published by him during the war years and show the appropriate care for what the Censor might say. H M Frigate is similar but deals with his time in command of two Frigates.
Monsarrat's other novels use a variety of settings, themes, and styles. Several, notably The Tribe That Lost Its Head (1956) and its sequel Richer Than All His Tribe (1968) draw on his experience in the diplomatic service. Several have peripheral connections to the sea: The Nylon Pirates (1960) tells a story of piracy aboard a modern ocean liner, and A Fair Day's Work (1964) deals with labor unrest in a shipyard. His final work, unfinished at the time of his death but published in its incomplete form, was a two-volume historical novel titled The Master Mariner. Based on the legend of the Wandering Jew, it told the story of a British seaman who, as punishment for a terrible act of cowardice, is doomed to sail the world's seas until the end of time. Reincarnating his hero at critical moments in history, Monsarrat used him to illustrate the central role of seamen in history.
After his death the Royal Navy co-operated with his wish to be buried at sea.
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