The Pendennis Times

By:Jean-Paul Guite

Rocks of Death

Have you ever stared death straight in the face as you were about to be swallowed up by a churning black sea? This is just one example of the many harrowing experiences John Spencer, the protagonist, experiences in the historic fiction The Wreckers by Iain Lawrence. John finds himself stranded in the small English town Pendennis in the year 1799, after his father’s ship gets smashed on the shore’s rocks during a storm. The young boy soon learns that the ship’s crew is dead and his father imprisoned for suspected gold smuggling. John also realizes that the people of Pendennis intentionally display false lights at stormy nights, causing ships to crash against giant rocks and leaving the ships’ treasures for the wreckers to take. While John is struggling to rescue his father, he finds his life continuously threatened by a legless man named Stumps, obtains shelter with an ominous man named Mawgan, and gets introduced to a shady man called Parson Tweed.

The Wreckers is a story of immense mystery and suspense. John is greatly confused about whom he can trust and who might be about to deceive him. While John’s host Mawgan appears friendly at one time, he seems to be a ruthless wrecker at the very next moment. John is equally conflicted about his father’s role in the supposed gold-smuggling. While John wants to believe that his father is honest, he simultaneously wonders whether there is a chance that his father has been lying to him. John faces the dangerous challenge of locating and rescuing his father. What makes The Wreckers such a masterpiece, however, is the artful introduction of the antagonists, Stumps and Parson Tweed. Legless Stumps is a greedy villain who chases John throughout most of the story. Meanwhile, Parson Tweed remains a mysterious, but kindly character until the moment John’s father gets rescued.

In the final pages of The Wreckers the reader is confronted with many perplexing truths. Mawgan admits to having practiced shipwrecking years earlier until the day he sunk a ship with his own beloved family members on board. Mawgan resolves to spend the rest of his life saving ships by warning them of the wrecker’s luring lights. The story reaches its climax when John finally rescues his father, only to find Parson Tweed holding a gun to his head. While it soon becomes clear that John’s father is not a gold smuggler, Tweed reveals himself to be a greedy thug who, along with legless Stumps, is the main antagonist of the story and the leader of the shipwrecking. The ultimate death of Stumps and Parson Tweed brings an end to the purposeful wrecking in Pendennis. After peeling away the many layers of complex and sometimes deceptive behaviors of the book’s characters, the reader finally learns the truth, relieved to know that John Spencer and his father at last make their safe return to London.

Facts from The Wreckers

How the Story helps us understand Life during that Time Period

1) “The ponies gazed at me. They turned toward me, and on their sides I saw lanterns hung by leather straps, the glass on one tinted green, the door swinging open. And I knew then what I’d seen from the ship, the beacons that had led us to the Tombstones. They were the lights of wreckers, borne by ponies across the hilltops. These men had carefully, willfully, led our ship to its doom.” (Page 15)

At and around the time of 1799 in which The Wreckers takes place, there was an overwhelming number of reports regarding intentional wrecking. It especially was noted around the rough and rocky coast of Cornwall, England, where John Spencer was stranded after his father’s ship got wrecked. Many dishonest and greedy people took to denying any wrecking, claiming the ships’ disasters were mere accidents. However, there seems to be enough historical evidence that wrecking was some people’s main occupation. Lights were hung on ponies, luring ships to their demise as is described in the passage above.

2) I’d seen others like him, in London. In this last year of the century, 1799, after years of war against the French, the docks were haunted by sailors maimed or crippled in hideous ways. (p.20)

As John Spencer describes his captivator, Stumps, who had no legs, he makes a historic reference to the war between England and France. At this time the French were also going through the horrid events of the French Revolution and it shows that John Spencer, a citizen of London, was exposed to his share of cruelties of the recent war.

3) The nervous [man’s] face was riddled with smallpox. (page 25)

The reference to smallpox in 1799 makes sense as about 10% of all deaths in England at the time were due to this horrible disease. Interestingly, in 1796, three years before The Wreckers takes place, Englishman Edward Jenner had developed the first successful smallpox vaccination. Mentioning smallpox was the author’s way of weaving in a serious medical condition during the time John Spencer was sailing.

4) It will have to be tea.” She was smiling, brightened by her walk. “We haven’t had a coffee wreck in the longest time. (Page 40)

Mary’s casual remark shows the reader that wrecked ships often were seen as a “blessing”. Her statement also indicates how wrecked ships were categorized among the locals, one category being a “coffee wreck”!

5) It’s not the people, John. It’s this country. This wasteland. [] You’ve seen the land. Most of it won’t grow potatoes, and it won’t graze sheep. There were people so hungry that they scraped up limpets from the Tombstones. [] Once in a while –in a very great while- a ship would come to ruin on the rocks. And there would be food then, and wine, and huge heaps of things just waiting to be carried off and sold for pounds and pounds. (Page 48)

Mary reminds John of the fact that great despair ruled the behavior of the citizens of Pendennis. She reasons that people were starving and therefore looking forward to an accidental wrecking. Mary shows compassion for the poor and their eventual taking to ship wrecking in order to survive.

6) The law said that anything that came from a wreck was free for salvage. But for it to be a wreck, no one could survive – not man or beast. If one person –is so much as a dog- made it safely ashore, then it weren’t really a wreck at all. ‘The wreck edn’t dead,’ is what they’d say. So it was the law, John, that made the devil’s work of wrecking. (Page 48)

Mary’s statement clarifies the laws of ownership in the 18th century regarding ships that happened to be wrecked either due to accident or manipulation. It makes clear why the ship wreckers were intent on killing all passengers on John Spencer’s ship. If all passengers had drowned, the treasures of the ship belonged to anyone who found them, including the greedy wreckers! As Mary so eloquently put it, it was in essence the law that caused the evil killings of every single passenger on board of a wrecked ship.