“…And to what foul end do you traverse the seas?” [Brunel]
“Towards the realisation of human freedom.” [Nemo]

Have you ever wondered what became of Isambard Kingdom Brunel after his death was faked in 1859? No? Learn of the conspiracy here. Who was the greatest enemy of transatlantic industrial giants and avaricious empire builders: Britain and America? And, who did they chose as their champion in the field? These and other mysteries of the nineteenth century are explained in The Great Eastern.

This literary mash up leans heavily on Jules Verne and Herman Melville for its inspiration, it is immersed in the spirit of the nineteenth century adventure novel and the result is a rambunctious, inventive and exhilarating story. The Great Eastern is as inventive and exotic as the cocktail menu at the Savoy American Bar. A cornucopia of contrivance and creativity that revels in mingling history and science with flights of fancy, whim and whimsy to stunning effect. You will be surprised and then seduced by this novel, and by the end you will have been royally treated to a festival of fun. The Great Eastern is totally engaging; from poetic rhythmic prose, infused with nineteenth century flavours and spices, to the very modern page turning style of storytelling this is spot on as homage but sharp and pacy too. A novel that conveys a sense of wonder, boys own adventure and discovery but is laden with knowing twenty first century twists. Fact, fiction and fantasy in harmony, as beguiling as the Indian rope trick. A literary Ride of the Valkyries.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who deserves a place in history for his name alone, was a builder of extraordinary things. Biggest of all: The Great Eastern launched from the Isle of Dogs in 1859. A leviathan six times the size of any other ship, capable of carrying 4,000 passengers. Not everything went to plan, an explosion killed eight stokers, and exhausted by his efforts, Brunel had a stroke, he died soon after. The last resting place of the maker of tunnels, bridges, boats and railways was Kensal Green cemetery next to his father Marc. At least that is what they want you to believe.

The real story has now be revealed by Rodman. It begins with a lascar, a seaman of sub-continent origins, his attendance at the funeral of said titan of the engineering world went unnoticed. Call him ‘N’, more will be explained later, perhaps not here but certainly in the novel.

Young Shropham, thirteen, works as a night clerk at the Mile End Infirmary, the hospital to the nearby workhouse poor and the merchant seamen and local dock workers. 5th September, 1859, is a quiet night and the lad is composing a mournful Largo, the third movement of Shropham’s sonata number four (he is precocious). However, it is Shropham’s job to wake a doctor if something happens and three laskars arrive carrying a stricken man on a makeshift sail stretcher. The patient is clearly a gentleman, so he interrupts Dr. Murdstone’s slumber. It proves more difficult than anticipated but the mention of a gentleman and the lure of coin rouses the physician. He examines the patient and informs Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s men that he has suffered a cerebral haemorrhage, adding helpfully that he may or may not recover. Gold changes hands.

Is it the cursed leviathan that has brought Brunel to this? The 680ft, double hulled, five funnelled monster was first proposed by Brunel in 1851. The cost, originally envisaged at £120,000, rose astronomically to £732,000. The company and its backers went bankrupt, but the project survived. The huge vessel proved near impossible to launch, finally on the third attempt in November 1857 the hulk made it to the water, sideways. By September 1859, the Great Eastern was ready for its maiden voyage. That was when the explosion caused eight deaths, Brunel had his stroke and Dr. Murdstone began to line his pockets with the great man’s money. On 15th September Brunel died.

Murdstone had little time to enjoy his money, although he did manage to satisfy his masochistic tendencies at a local brothel before being strangled. As he had no money on him and had been flashing coin earlier it was assumed to be a robbery. Young Shropham died in less violent circumstances shortly afterwards and the truth of Brunel’s fate never did appear in the press.

‘N’, the leader of the laskars, was is fact a prince only two years before. A participant in the “Indian Mutiny” of 1857. And now we are getting to it. Brunel has been kidnapped by Captain Nemo for his engineering expertise. Nemo intends to destroy the transatlantic cable, laid on the ocean bed, connecting his arch enemies England and the United States. Captain Ahab and the Great Eastern are set to defend it. From Cawnpore to the high seas, automatons, weapons, and wars I have only begun to scratch the surface…

Rodman is a joyous storyteller with a lively imagination, hopefully not inspired by hallucinogenic substances, he lets it run riot to great effect here. Fictional legends and great men of the nineteenth century mix, as do real historical events with imaginary battles:

“With the first light all hands they were on deck. The men of the Great Eastern, entire, save Anderson (deceased), Field (belowdecks)—And absent three souls, valiant and foolish in equal measure, who sought the night before to repel what to them was perceived as an attack.”

Genuine scientific and engineering discovery meets pure invention. This is a novel that should have a wide appeal, certainly not the preserve of steam punk enthusiasts alone, it will delight nineteenth century adventure buffs and lovers of perfectly executed pastiche too. The prose has a rhythm that is almost sing song and fizzes. Turn a page and meet a new adventure. This is a party on the page.

Rodman has fun with resurrecting the dead and breathing new life into the never born, creating an adventure but also a fascinating backstory for each of the characters. This is a fantasy that cleverly opens up our understanding of the age it is set in. I will have nothing but warm, fond memories of The Great Eastern.

Howard A. Rodman is a novelist, screenwriter (Saving Grace), and professor of screenwriting at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.

Paul Burke 4/4

The Great Eastern by Howard A. Rodman
Melville House Publishing 9781612197852 hbk Jun 2019