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JAMES: a hard man fashioned by a hard life

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 Liverpool shipowner.

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 women.

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
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