Fiddlers And Whores

Book Review by Willard Manus

Never intended for publication, FIDDLERS AND WHORES, the candid memoirs of James Lowry, a young Irish surgeon who sailed with Nelson's Mediterranean fleet from 1797-1804, gives a fascinating and earthy glimpse into the "wooden world" of a bygone maritime age.

Lowry's original diary and sketches were lost in a storm at sea but, after retiring to practice medicine in Kent, England, he reconstructed his writings from memory, only to put the book away and forget about it. It took 150 years for it to surface again (in the garage of a great grandson). Now Naval Institute Press has released the book in a small but handsome volume.

Most of Lowry's time at sea was spent on British ships doing battle with Napoleon's fleet; he saw action in North African, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish and Greek waters, dodging cannonballs and "showers of grape and musketry as thick as hailstones" as he ministered to sick and wounded sailors.

Lowry also had many a close call on shore, fighting duels, fending off bandits, suffering bouts of malaria.

The author had some happy times as well, especially in Naples when he was pampered by the grateful King and "provided provisions and every other luxury of life, free of expense." Lowry went hunting, attended fancy balls, had affairs, frequented brothels. "One house in particular shined in splendor," he recalls fondly. "A liveried servant came to the door with a lighted torch in his hand, his dress trimmed with gold and silver tinsel, conducted us up into a very spacious and rich apartment where three beautiful females received us with the greatest cordiality, painted like Jezebel, dressed with such fine muslins that you might see their shapes to the greatest nicety, their breasts exposed in the most wanton manner, heads decorated and wreathed with pearls and artificial flowers, hair hanging down their bosoms in beautiful ringlets, lascivious attitudes, their breath as fragrant as the spices of Arabia. Alas! what human depravity and art excited us to stop and treat them with a few bottles of wine. They gave us some sweet Italian airs upon the harpsichord and guitar which made us pass the winter's evening very jovial. I have often been sorry to behold so many charming females prostitute themselves to gain their livelihood."

Admitting to a healthy interest in the opposite sex, Lowry also had numerous liasons with both married and single women as he traversed the Med, supplementing his navy pay with the spoils taken by force from enemy ships. The money helped him dress so elegantly that many of the best houses invited him to dine and dance. Lowry's memoirs make for surprisingly compulsive and entertaining reading.