Review of The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin (New York: Nan A. Talese, 2014).
The dead speak—loudly, softly, sweetly, wildly, reassuringly, beckoningly—in The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, Valerie Martin’s haunting new novel of the sea, that “immensity beyond comprehension” (92) that swallows so many who venture upon its waters. “I have a terror of the sea,” admits Violet Petra, one of the novel’s central characters. “It has taken everyone I loved” (250). And yet Violet, like her sister and cousins and uncles before her, boldly embarks on a sea voyage to encounter what awaits her on the breast of that “ravenous, murderous, heartless beast” (296).
Drawing on the historical record, including newspaper accounts and a family memoir, Martin brings to life the remarkable stories of the Briggses and the Cobbs, two intertwined New England seafaring families. “Mother Briggs,” a woman who loses six children to the sea is just one of the extraordinarily “stalwart” (27) figures among them. One of her sons, the young but experienced Benjamin Briggs, was captain of the Mary Celeste, a brigantine en route to Genoa, carrying a cargo of distilled spirits, found drifting and abandoned near the Azores on December 4, 1872. The Mary Celeste’s entire crew of 8, plus two passengers—the captain’s wife Sarah Elizabeth Cobb Briggs and their two-year-old daughter, Sophia Matilda Briggs—had disappeared without a trace, and with no evidence of foul play on board. After the ship was towed to Gibraltar, it became the focus of a sensational international investigation. As Martin puts it in her novel, in 1873, “When the trial at Gibraltar was in the news, there wasn’t a schoolboy in Britain who hadn’t asked himself the unanswerable question: why did the crew leave the ship?” (252).
Over the years, numerous theories have been put forward to account for the abandoned ship: vapor emissions from the barrels of alcohol on board; piracy; drunkenness; mutiny; premature abandonment. In 1884 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published a shamelessly fictional narrative, “J. Habakuk’s Jephson’s Statement” in Cornhill, and since then numerous writers and filmmakers have offered varying versions of the ship’s story. There are even two Doctor Who episodes based on it. But it has been left to Valerie Martin not so much to solve the mystery of the Mary Celeste as to “deepen” it (268), allowing readers to experience the vivid life and love of the ship’s captain and his wife, along with the lives and loves of numerous other characters deeply affected by their loss.
Foremost among those characters is Violet Petra, originally Sarah Cobb Briggs’s younger sister Hannah, a girl who, from childhood, has visions of the dead. Having lost her mother at an early age, Hannah becomes deeply attached to her cousin Maria Briggs Gibbs, a young woman whose death at sea in 1859, on her first voyage with her beloved captain husband, is grippingly told in the novel’s first chapter. Devastated by Maria’s death, Hannah devotes herself to caring for her cousin’s orphaned child, Natie. But when Natie fails to thrive, Hannah can no longer find solace among the living. Through the firmly materialist eyes of her older sister, we watch as she is drawn into the thriving mid-nineteenth century milieu of spiritualists—mediums and seers who offer bereaved family members communion with their departed loved ones. Eventually, Hannah takes on the role of Violet Petra, an ethereal, mysterious, tormented woman who lives entirely at the mercy of the living who support her financially and the dead who speak through her.
Martin constructs her absorbing novel through the interplay of numerous first and third person narratives, mingling real with imagined characters and events, changing voices and tones with each new chapter. We read the journals of Sarah Cobb Briggs at two stages in her life, along with the personal recollections of an intrepid female journalist, Phoebe Grant, who has chosen to investigate the spiritualist movement and befriended Violet Petra. We enter the mind of Arthur Conan Doyle at various stages in his career—from struggling young ship’s doctor to lionized literary master; and we encounter some of the original documents—cables, newspaper reports, and letters—“concerning the recovery of the brig Mary Celeste, found derelict east of the Azores on December 4, 1872” (61). Hannah as a young girl has in her room the novels of Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mrs. Gaskell, and “the Misses Bronte” (49). She reads the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, Mrs. Browning, Lord Tennyson, and “Miss Rossetti” (49). In this way, Martin establishes the thoroughly Victorian context of her thoroughly Victorian tale; reading it, we not only enter a perfectly reconstructed Victorian era with Victorian sensibilities and concerns (the conflict between scientific and religious world views, for one), but we also have the sense of being inside a classic, richly developed and complex Victorian novel.
Martin’s writing is nuanced and compelling, with descriptions of storms at sea—the sea is one of her primary characters—that leave one breathless, along with original images that linger in the mind: a ship is “knead[ed]” by the wind, “like bread dough” (4); passengers appear on deck “like mushrooms after a rain” (72); the lights of tugboats in New York harbor are “strings of fallen stars leading the way to the open sea” (214). Martin has throughout her career focused on extreme stories of love and death, beginning with A Recent Martyr set in New Orleans, the city where she grew up, studied and taught for several years, and which she still identifies as home, and continuing in her most recent works, Property and Mary Reilly. The Ghost of the Mary Celeste is an East Coast story, yet it is imbued with the Gothic sensibility Martin associates with New Orleans and the South. Yet this is Gothicism with a light touch, neither sensationalist nor overbearing. Martin makes contact with the spirit world seem absolutely ordinary; her characters are all so deeply alive that we too experience them continuing after their deaths.
At one point in the novel, the journalist Phoebe Grant delivers to the orphaned Arthur Briggs his mother Sarah’s long lost log from the Mary Celeste: “You have brought me my mother’s voice,” Arthur tells Phoebe (240), and suddenly we understand: it is writing itself that most fully gives voice to the dead, and it is that task to which Valerie Martin has so wonderfully dedicated herself throughout her long and distinguished career. Like Violet Petra, she too is a medium, channeling the voices of her characters, allowing us to meet and love them in all their rich diversity, returning us to our own lives with greater passion and understanding.
Reviewed by Joyce Zonana
Joyce Zonana, whose memoir, DREAM HOMES, is available from The Feminist Press, is a Professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College branch of The City University of New York. She is a frequent contributor to NOLA DIASPORA.