Margaret Cohen borrows a line from White Jacket to describe the ship in “The Chronotopes of the Sea”: “a ship is a bit of terra firm cut off from the main; it is a state in itself; and the captain is its king.” A state in itself, a tiny piece of land floating around the blue and white and brown water. And because it’s tiny, and cut off, no one can come and no one can leave.
This is a central force behind the action of the inside novel Voyage Along the Horizon. Victor Arledge, Hugh Everett Bayham, Léonide Meffre, the Handls, Captain Kerrigan, all are stuck together for the duration of the Antarctic voyage. They are also all stuck with the crew and the scientists. The artists, it should be mentioned, are there to make a floating colony and create austral-inspired art. The scientists are there to perform their own art in the Antarctic. But the artists seem like a bunch of dilettantes, deciding to make port calls all over the Mediterranean before setting out in earnest. This means before the trip even makes Gibraltar, everyone is ready to strangle everyone else.
This itself is almost an inversion of the normal ship. As Richard Henry Dana put it in Two Years Before the Mast:
…at sea—to use a homely but expressive phrase—you miss a man so much. A dozen men are shut up together in a little bark, upon the wide, wide sea, and for months see no forms and hear no voices but their own, and one is taken suddenly from among them, and they miss him at every turn. It is like losing a limb. There are no new faces or new scenes to fill up the gap.
But on the Tallahassee, if only losing a limb were so easily accomplished. In fact, the boatswain does disappear and turn up near Alexandria, dead, and not only is no one upset, no one even misses him or does much to look for him (this is among the passengers; we have limited knowledge of the crew). And Captain Kerrigan disappears in a way when he is shut up in his cabin, and no one could be happier. Eventually he even escapes the ship and while the passengers may want him brought to justice they are thrilled to be rid of him. No one can get off this ship fast enough—except the scientists. They want to continue to Antarctica, but the ship never makes it past Tangiers.
While Victor Arledge’s antics cause a decent part of the awkwardness on board, it’s really Kerrigan whose actions make the trip fall apart. The whole voyage was undertaken almost entirely through the force of his personality. He persuaded his own artistic friends and acquaintances to make the huge project their own, and after he is on the outs the glue holding them together quickly melts away.
That’s getting ahead of myself a little. Why does Kerrigan end up locked up? The immediate cause is a drunken rampage that culminates in him actually throwing another passenger off the ship, and threatening to throw off another. The cause of the drunkenness is depression brought on by thoughts of his lost love, part of a past no one but Arledge knows about. That story forms another of the novel’s nested narratives: Arledge recounts for Bayham the sordid history of Kerrigan—not really a captain—as a smuggler and pirate. Kerrigan’s got a whole slew of ship and blue water happenings in his past. This isn’t the first time he’s wanted to get rid of some passengers on his ship; he acquired his lost love after killing her husband and their friend on a desert island he helped them discover in the Pacific.
Another salient feature of the chronotope of the ship is discipline. The captain is its king, and his word is law. On the Tallahassee, Kerrigan is not really captain, and the captain is stabbed by Kerrigan and laid up in bed much of the voyage. Fordington-Lewthwaite, formerly third in command, ends up in charge, and he is ready to begin the authoritarianism that thus far the ship has been missing. He’s all too happy to take charge of Kerrigan, and to humiliate Arledge just for the hell of it.
In many ship-based novels, this discipline is also reflected in the activities of all the people on board. Those people are usually sailors, and sailors are always working. According to Cohen,
In land-based narratives, characters generally maneuver to procure social advantage. On board ship, characters work, and indeed this chronotope, in interaction with other chronotopes of the sea, provides one of the most extended opportunities for the narratie dramatization of human labor.
Not so on the Tallahassee, where Jane Austen has been transplanted into the middle of the Mediterranean. First, we hardly see the crew at all. But the passengers are supposed to be working, too. Isn’t writing and composing work? They don’t do it though; they sit around idle, making small talk and pissing each other off. Maybe that’s why they want to get rid of each other. If they were hard at work they would be bonding over the shared task of sailing the ship, but instead they are jockeying for social position and since the losers can’t disappear from the scene the conflict boils over.