talks about his role as James Onedin
It's likely that James was only 14 when he first went to sea - a raw
apprentice aboard a coal-hauling brig, shy and thin-limbed but quick and
eager to learn and already ambitious beyond his years.
We know little enough about his family, except that his father was a
Liverpool ship's chandler - an unadventurous, security-minded shopkeeper,
just like his other son, James' brother Robert, has grown up to be.
Their father gave them both a decent start in life: they probably went to a
grammar school, perhaps in St Helens or Warrington. When he died, it was
Robert who inherited the chandlery - not that that for one moment bothered
James. He was no shopkeeper. He knew he must seek his fortune at sea.
The bitterly hard life aboard a sailing vessel made or broke a young man in
those days. Those who survived - and many did not - emerged considerably
toughened, both physically and spiritually, with a harsh contempt for the
petty irritations and comparatively minor discomforts of life ashore. James
is a typical survivor: a hard man fashioned by a hard life.
He is contemptuous ad mistrustful of his unadventurous
brother, and he will allow no grudging regard for the seamanship of his
rivals to deflect him from the job of beating them at every turn. He bore no
personal animosity towards Callon; he simply detested him as a competitor.
Similarly, he nears no particular ill-will towards Daniel Fogarty –
Fogarty’s affair with James’ obstinate, spoilt sister Elisabeth has long
been put out of mind – though he knows that Fogarty could be a man to thwart
him and should be watched.
Quick-witted, bold, thought by many to be ruthless, James is
a typical Victorian businessman struggling to get to the top. He could just
as easily be the young, determined boss of a colliery or a steelworks as a
He doesn’t want money for money’s sake. He doesn’t care to own a fine house
or wants to wear fine clothes. He’s not interested in what he eats, or what
the rest of the family eats. In fact, if they’re eating well, he’d rather
they weren’t because he’d think that a waste of money; a needless luxury.
He wants money to plough back into the Onedin Line, to build a shipping
empire, just as others might want to build a mighty industrial empire. It’s
a very north-country Victorian ambition.
The trouble is, his judgment is frequently warped by his lust for success.
He is often unnecessarily harsh on his family and his employees, but always
there’s the impression that, in his solitary moments, he acknowledges and
regrets his wrongs. For he’s not a bad man at heart and there are times when
he shows himself to be touchingly vulnerable. Somewhere, even, there’s a
trace of humour.
The face he presents to the world is a contradiction of stony virtue and
almost evil cunning. At a deeper level there is probably a fear of emotion,
which explains hid reluctance of any social involvement, particularly with
James married Anne but what he really wanted, of course, was the Charlotte
Rhodes: he got them both with the wedding certificate. Their early married
life was difficult, but gradually there was a coming together, and that’s
the way it mostly was in Victorian times among ordinary people. Love at
first sight, falling madly in love – that’s a largely 20th-century notion.
Affection began to replace coldness in James’ heart. He self-consciously
brought Anne a couple of cheap presents from abroad – and slowly they found
that they were growing to love one another. Her death in childbirth has
shattered James. He cannot even look at his infant daughter, Charlotte, for
in his mind she has killed the woman whom, perhaps only now, he realises
meant so much to him.
Alone, with only the loyal and kind-hearted Baines hovering uncertainly in
the background, James must surely find that the success he has fought so
hard to achieve tastes like ashes in the mouth. And the future must surely
look bleak and awfully lonely.
Radio Times Special, 1973
© Radio Times
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