Kathy Watson has crafted a jewel of a book, an exotic Victoria portrait that goes far beyond the simple description of Captain Webb and his extraordinary swimming of the English Channel - the first person ever to do so in recorded history.
For in this miniature we certainly see bits and pieces and touches of ouselves in ways that force us to immediately recognize the subject of the book: the having done a daring, or honorable, or brave, or even brilliant act in our past, one that defined us as eminently worthwhile members of the human family. Perhaps only we knew about what we had done, perhaps we did it only in silence, perhaps there was never outside recognition; but most of us have one or more of those moments, just as Capt. Webb had when he did his extraordinary feat, only less so. He was certainly recognized and feted and admired; he received cash and other rewards for demonstrating British pluck in his accomplishment. And then...glory was taken away from him. Not in one fell swoop, but gradually and ignominiously over a period of 8 years, when he ended his life as a boastful freak who attempted to swim the Whirlpool Rapids at Niagara Falls and failed.
The story of this brilliant meteor and its crash is splendidly narrated; the prose is redolent with Victorian language without being Victorian prose. Meticulous research has obviously been used to underpin the narrative, and the author's joy and enthusiasm is everywhere: "Niagara," she explains "had become the primary port of call in North America for daredevils, con men, suicides, sensation-seekers, and nutcases" in 1883 when Capt. Webb arrived.
Ms. Watson gives statistics, but does not burden us with them; since Capt Webb there have been 500 or so people who have swum the Channel, but today it is much easier (but not easy) because of the expert knowledge that has built over the years on how to prepare for, and execute, a crossing. Not so when Jabez Wolffe made his first attempt in 1906, nor in the ensuing years, when he tried 22 times and never succeeded in his quest.
Whether one swims or not, this is an exciting and delightful book. Yes, it ends in the defeat of Capt. Webb, but somehow this failure totally pales when compared to his success; and because of that, this is an upbeat book of optimism and hope, brilliantly written.