This entirely readable book was originally written in Enquist’s mother tongue of Dutch, and published in 2005. Since then it has been translated into French, German and Spanish.1 Finally, an English translation (by Eileen J Stevens) has appeared.
The engaging novel combines real historical events with a human story of family life and all its facets in the 18th century. As Enquist says “the story is woven between the cracks of those verifiable facts” with only three departures from known events, which are stated in the book’s Afterword. They are used for the sake of Elizabeth Cook’s story to imagine what could have happened, and to give a more personal account of Captain Cook’s final voyage.
The narrative takes us from Elizabeth and James Cook’s early years together. It gives a warm account of the lives of their six children, two of whom died in infancy, giving them depth and a lasting legacy, which is often reduced to just a couple of lines in any historical book. Enquist ably portrays both the fortitude and the misery of seafarers’ wives. Elizabeth spent in total only four years of her seventeen years of marriage with her husband between his three epic voyages of discovery. The characters are sensitively drawn, and are set evocatively within the streets and dwellings of 18th century London.
This story is not a sanitised account of lives of the time. The differences in class and lifestyle are written with a Hogarthian view of the age.2 Life at sea is tough and unrelenting for officers and sailors alike. Enquist manages to intertwine the two lives of wife and husband through letters and reports. The brief time they managed to spend together during their marriage shows a supportive and loving relationship despite the inevitable doubt and grief.
This book will appeal to any lover of biographies, and to anyone interested in the role of strong women through history—a subject so often missed from our past.
1. Cook’s Log. 2008. Vol. 31, no. 2. Page 38.
2. The English painter and engraver William Hogarth produced many satirical political illustrations.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 29, volume 45, number 3 (2022).