Julia Jones, Yachting Monthly's literary reviewer discusses The Chancellor: George Millar, a life, by Ben Lowings

The Chancellor: George Millar, a life: Book review

A generation ago it was probably safe to say that most cruising libraries would include a well-read copy of Isabel and the Sea.

George Millar’s account of his and his newly married wife’s 1946 journey through the French canals to the Mediterranean and Aegean captured something unique in the immediate postwar period.

It also hinted at wider realm of experience, not all discussable of pleasant.

It’s almost surprising that Ben Lowings is the first biographer to pick up on this and attempt to pull together the different strands of Millar’s unpredictable life.

It may be that previous readers have been content to follow the story in Millar’s own words as so much of his writing was based directly on his experience.

First readers of Isabel and the Sea would have picked up many more of the hinterland allusions had they already read Horned Pigeon and Maquis (both published 1945) or had their own wartime experiences to draw on.

Lowings modestly presents his work as a condensation of Millar’s autobiographical books, yet a literary biography is rather more than that, aiming to put the writer’s life and work into a social and cultural context.

Lowings does his best.

Appealing enthusiasm

Occasionally, one senses, he is hampered by a lack of sympathy for the Millars’ fox-hunting passions and some of their class-based attitudes.

This makes his genuine enthusiasm for his subject even more appealing.

Before Isabel and the Sea Millar’s life had included a privileged upbringing – though when ‘privilege’ includes the horrors of the pre-war boys’ boarding school experience, many would be glad to forego it.

His time at university and his early manhood was subsidised by the generosity of older relatives and one guesses, though it is not spelled out, that his and Isabel’s postwar life – the beautiful yachts, the time spent sailing, then the purchase of 1,000-acres Sydling Court, was made possible by family money, rather than author’s royalties alone.

If so, we later readers should be glad as Lowings celebrates the beautiful yachts Truant, Serica and Amokura and reminds us of the contributions to yachting literature made by A White Boat from England (1951) and Oyster River (1963) as well as Millar’s cruising logs published by the RCC.

If the test of a good literary biography is to send readers back to key works with renewed understanding and appreciation, Lowings has certainly succeeded.

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