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Admiral Nelson - Hero or a Mere Mortal?

27/08/2014 16:05 BST | Updated 27/10/2014 09:59 GMT

By Jan Needle, author of Nelson: The Dreadful Havoc.

An article by historian and journalist Kathryn Hughes in the Guardian has stirred up a critical storm about whether Nelson was one of Britain's greatest heroes - or a petulant blowhard.

Her contention was that a 1795 letter that has recently come to light in Derby, shows the great man - then 36 years old - as a bit of a whinger who was full of 'the tell-tale signs of under-confidence.' He is revealed, Ms Hughes wrote, as being 'petulant, boastful and chippy about other people.' And her headline, in the Guardian, http://bit.ly/1v8C0Md suggested that letters by historical figures showed they often 'had little idea they were destined for greatness.'

As a native of Portsmouth and the author of both novels and non-fiction about Britain's naval past, I believe that the letter was in fact anything but a revelation, as Nelson showed himself to be a man convinced of his own superiority and rectitude in practically everything he said or wrote. The idea he was unaware he was 'destined for greatness' is bizarre, as he insisted before almost every battle he engaged in that he would finish it either as a mighty hero or buried in Westminster Abbey. Whatever else he was, Nelson was hardly modest! Nelson was reckless with his own and his sailors' lives, contemptuous of orders he disagreed with (although they were often very sound) and insanely brave. Dying, he thought, was a reasonable price for glory.

Nearly a hundred people responded to the Ms Hughes' article including a leading London journalist and a naval historian who has studied Nelson's life exhaustively. The 'great hero' was accused of everything from war crimes during the battle of Copenhagen (when he 'threatened to burn his POW's alive if the Danes did not grant him a cease-fire') to rising through the ranks only because his uncle, Maurice Suckling, was Comptroller of the Navy.

What emerged most plainly, perhaps, is that like many historical figures everybody thinks they have a handle on, he was in fact as complex as most real people are, and in some ways more so. Everybody (almost!) was prepared to accept Nelson as a hero, but many thought his failings possible outweighed his 'glories.'

When I was commissioned to write a series of novellas on his life for Endeavour Press, I revisited many details of his story that are often overlooked. The first one, Nelson: The Poisoned River, examines an early expedition that was by any standards a failure, and cost nearly two thousand British lives. Nelson was invalided back to Jamaica from the coast of Nicaragua, and barely survived himself. The second book, Nelson: The Dreadful Havoc depicts his long and agonizing recovery, aided by his burning determination to become the great man that he knows will be his destiny. By the end of it he is only 22, and the best, and worst, is yet to come.

The 1795 letter quoted by Kathryn Hughes is accurate in what it reveals, certainly. The only problem is, it was never a secret. Nelson was a great hero, and ridiculously brave. He was also flawed in very many ways. His relationship with women is a subject I can hardly wait to tackle!

Jan Needle is the author of Nelson: The Dreadful Havoc, published by Endeavour Press.