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  • Sir Francis Drake: The Construction of a Hero
  • Mark Netzloff (bio)
Bruce Wathen . Sir Francis Drake: The Construction of a Hero. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2009. 200 pp. ISBN 978-1843841869, $95.00.

As its title suggests, Bruce Wathen's book offers not a biography of Sir Francis Drake but instead an analysis of the varied meanings that have been constructed around the Elizabethan explorer and privateer over the past four centuries. His study is a fascinating and masterful survey of the afterlife of this figure: a tour de force of cultural history, this rich book deserves to be widely read and recognized. As he ranges over an impressive spectrum of texts and cultural practices, Wathen demonstrates the central role of Drake's image and reputation in evolving definitions of local, national, and imperial identities.

Although images of Drake proliferated especially in the Victorian era, Wathen rightfully emphasizes the extent to which Drake has remained a [End Page 400] figure of perennial fascination and constantly shifting appropriation. In the Elizabethan period, the subject of Wathen's first chapter, Drake was already a populist figure in texts by poets and pamphleteers such as Henry Robarts and Charles Fitzgeffrey, one whose actions were often at odds with the commercial interests of early modern England's maritime elite. By the Jacobean and Caroline periods (Chapter 2), the image of Drake provided a means for writers such as Thomas Heywood and Michael Drayton to lament the decline in English naval power and endorse a more interventionist foreign policy (41). Wathen's subsequent two chapters analyze reasons to account for the relative scarcity of images of Drake in the eighteenth century. Literary depictions of Drake waned as he began to be claimed by the burgeoning field of naval history. With the ascendancy of English naval power, the figure of Drake was associated less with the national defense against the Spanish Armada, an idea especially pertinent in moments of crisis and anticipated invasion, and more emphasis was placed, instead, on his accomplishments as an explorer, a paradigm that offered historical precedents for English commercial and colonial expansion in that era (62, 72).

As Wathen discusses in Chapter 5, biographies of Drake written in the late eighteenth through early nineteenth centuries witness rival traditions that offered competing historical and literary interpretations of this figure. The increasing emphasis on original sources found in biographies by John Barrow and Edmund Lodge, efforts culminating with the publications of the Hakluyt Society, was countered by the continued popularity of folk legends associated with Drake. And as Wathen demonstrates in Chapter 7, the nineteenth century was the period in which some of the most ubiquitous narratives associated with Drake became canonical, from the story of Drake finishing his game of bowls before launching into action against the Armada to the legend of "Drake's drum" that would call him back to life in order to save the nation in its time of need. One of the most fascinating aspects of Wathen's attention to Drake-related folklore is his attention to the local meanings attached to Drake, who as he convincingly demonstrates, "remained predominantly a West Country hero" (130). For local historians in the Victorian era, such as Anna Eliza Bray, Drake signaled a disjunction from the region's feudal and agrarian past. But a more pervasive local meaning attached to Drake stemmed from his function as a historical foundation for community identity. Devon port cities such as Plymouth and Tavistock vied to claim Drake as a native to create a link between the region's present and its past, an effort that extended over a range of media and texts: stained glass windows, local antiquarian journals, tercentennial celebrations of major events in Drake's life, historical reenactments, the display of objects tied to Drake, and the erection of statues of Drake in town squares. [End Page 401]

Perhaps no individuals were more directly responsible for establishing Drake's historical reputation than the Victorian writers James Anthony Froude and Charles Kingsley, and it is therefore appropriate that the most extended analysis found in Wathen's book is his consideration of these two figures in Chapter 6. Froude, disenchanted from the...


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