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Archive for the ‘Patrick O’Brian’ Category

The twenty-one novels in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series are the greatest sustained work of English-language fiction written in the 20th century for the high craft of their characters, story lines, language, and themes, for the breadth of their erudition, and for the sheer stamina of O’Brian’s invention.

The series follows Jack Aubrey, a fighting captain in the British Navy, and his particular friend, Stephen Maturin, naturalist, naval surgeon, and intelligence officer, as they fight in the Napoleonic wars as well as the War of 1812.

The series begins with superlative novels that include the books in my best of O’Brian list below. Then, like the happiest of long-running marriages, the Aubrey-Maturin novels take a modest step down to the level of very good indeed; with my metaphorical marriage encompassing not only Jack and Stephen’s monumental friendship, but more importantly, the great devotion of O’Brian and his readers to each other.

I’ve listed my five personal favorites, in order of admiration, with notes and some spoilers. (I’ve included a complete list of the Aubrey-Maturin novels below these reviews for convenience.)

Post Captain (1972)

Post Captain - a best Aubrey-Maturin novel by O'BrianPatrick O’Brian’s magnificent sophomore work is the crown jewel of the series. The novel begins with O’Brian in full Jane Austen mode, following a young Jack Aubrey with prize money in his pocket and time on his hands because of an unfortunate lull in the Napoleonic wars, as he pursues his eventual wife, Sophie Williams.

Soon, fighting breaks out again but more significantly, Jack and Stephen’s friendship breaks down over a second woman (Stephen’s eventual wife, Diana Villiers) and they challenge each other to a duel. This is the only time in the series when the enduring friendship between the Aubrey and Maturin is shaken, and it makes for some of the most difficult and moving reading in the novels.

In Post Captain, O’Brian’s skill at writing complex, lucid, and compelling battle scenes emerges in all its glory, as does his humor, most especially when Jack is forced to escape suddenly hostile French territory by disguising himself as a dancing bear.

Unlike many of the later novels in the Aubrey-Maturin series, which don’t end as much as they simply stop, Post Captain concludes with a bang.

O’Brian places Jack in command of one of the four British ships that famously captured a Spanish treasure fleet bringing gold back from the New World to finance Spain’s entry into the war against England. Stephen, in his emerging role as an indispensable intelligence officer for the British, gathers the information that makes the capture possible. goodreads page.

HMS Surprise (1973)

hms surprise best aubrey maturin obrianIn HMS Surprise, the pace is faster, the action more exciting, the stakes higher, and the plot architecture tighter than in Post Captain, which it immediately follows in the series’ sequence.

For my money, HMS Surprise features the best set-piece in the entire series: Jack’s brilliant and daring rescue of Stephen, who has been captured as a spy by the French and is being tortured in the town of Port Mahon on one of the Balearic Islands. This is also the moment when the friendship between Jack and Stephen becomes stronger than death, and so the great and enduring heart of the Aubrey-Maturin novels begins to beat.

In HMS Surprise, both Jack and Stephen face down significant rivals. For Jack, it is the French Admiral Linois, who defeated him in the series’ first book, Master and Commander. For Stephen, it is a new contender for Diana’s affections, who he challenges to a duel that leads to another of the series’ most famous sequences, in which Stephen performs surgery on himself.

Finally, HMS Surprise launches two more of the novels’ great elements. The first is the theme of marriage’s problematic nature, as Jack looks forward to bliss with Sophie in the book’s final lines (Jack predicts the future will be “pure paradise”). The second is exotic locales. India features prominently in HMS Surprise, and future novels will take Jack and Stephen all around the world. goodreads page.

The Fortune of War (1979)

The Fortune of War - a best Aubrey Maturin novel O'BrianJack and Stephen are equal as friends, but Jack is more often the agent of action in the novels, partially because he is the captain of the frigates on which Stephen serves and partially because his appalling bad judgment in nearly every aspect of his life except as frigate captain is always getting him into trouble.

The Fortune of War is the single book in the Aubrey-Maturin series that truly belongs to Stephen. In it, he and Jack have been captured by the Americans during the war of 1812. Both are taken to Boston, where a severely wounded Jack is held prisoner, but Stephen walks about with considerable freedom, since the Americans believe him to be just a naval surgeon rather than a British agent.

French agents, also in Boston, know better however, and they engage Stephen in a deadly game of cat and mouse which transforms The Fortune of War into the series’ only true spy-thriller. Thrown in the mix are Diana Villiers, that brilliant complicator of Stephen’s life, and a hair’s breadth escape that wraps up the novel nicely.

Also in The Fortune of War, O’Brian brings the double nature of Stephen Maturin into sharp focus. In the novels to this point, we’ve known Stephen as an accomplished naturalist, a committed physician, and a talented spy – but only had hints of his deadly ruthlessness. Here, Stephen kills without hesitation or regret when driven by circumstances, and O’Brian creates another contrast with his great friend, Jack Aubrey.

Jack as a naval officer is personally responsible for far more deaths than Stephen, but Jack cheerfully regards war as the world’s greatest professional sport. The rewards are immense, the rules complicated and subtle, losing often deadly, but the players feel little actual animosity for their opponents as long as they adhere to the laws of the game. In Stephen’s war, there are no rules, the killing is vicious and personal, and grudges extend beyond declarations of peace. Another way to say it, of the two men, it is Stephen who has the soul of a killer. goodreads page.

The Far Side of the World (1984)

far side world best aubrey maturingAs the Aubrey-Maturin series progresses, the plots of the books become less discrete and the arcs of the stories flatten; so the novels transform into one continuous narrative that blossoms with asides, digressions, false starts, storms and accidents, sudden reversals, changes of mission caused by the whims of Jack’s superiors or shifting geopolitics, and the messy complexity of the characters most of all.

The Far Side of the World is a particularly rich example of these qualities. In the novel, Jack is sent in the HMS Surprise to prevent an American frigate from attacking British whalers in the South Seas, and almost nothing goes right. He is significantly delayed by a lightning storm off the coast of Brazil that damages his ship and requires significant repairs, which allows the Americans to slip into the Pacific and strike the whalers. Later, a typhoon nearly wreaks Jack’s frigate and destroys the American ship for him. The crew is unhappy with an aging, incompetent midshipman who they believe is back luck. Stephen is entangled in political intrigue while reveling in his opportunities to collect scientific specimens. And much more.

There is something existential in all this chaos, and without suggesting that O’Brian intended to write a philosophical novel – he has entirely too much sense and talent as an artist to bother with such stuff – the total vision of The Far Side of the World delivers exactly that. goodreads page.

Desolation Island (1978)

desolation island best aubrey maturin o'brianIf The Far Side of the World flirted with existentialism, Desolation Islands walks right up to this dreary philosophy and gives it a big wet kiss.

Jack accepts the command of the Leopard, an aging ship barely fit to navigate the English Channel, in a mission to transport prisoners to Australia. These prisoners attack and murder some of their guards. The ship is stuck in the doldrums and battered by storms. An epidemic kills most of the prisoners and much of the crew. The Leopard is chased and nearly destroyed by a vastly more powerful Dutch ship of the line. An iceberg damages the Leopard so severely that Jack makes a desperate landing on Desolation Island (one of many in the world at that time) where they are at risk of being marooned permanently.

Desolation Island contains two of my favorite extended set pieces. The first is the Dutch ship’s pursuit of the Leopard, which takes place in the Roaring Forties, where the waves are mountainous and O’Brian’s powers of description are superb. The second is the crew’s extended stay on the cold, bleak island of the novel’s title – which Stephen regards as a natural philosopher’s paradise he is in no hurry to leave. This is an example of O’Brian’s humor, of course. But it also suggests that joy and wonder can be found any place, if you just know how to look for it. goodreads page.

Complete List of Aubrey-Maturin Novels by Patrick O’Brian

Master and Commander (1970)

Post Captain (1972)

HMS Surprise (1973)

The Mauritius Command (1977)

Desolation Island (1978)

The Fortune of War (1979)

The Surgeon’s Mate (1980)

The Ionian Mission (1981)

Treason’s Harbour (1983)

The Far Side of the World (1984)

The Reverse of the Medal (1986)

The Letter of Marque (1988)

The Thirteen Gun Salute (1989)

The Nutmeg of Consolation (1991)

Clarissa Oakes or The Truelove (1992)

The Wine-Dark Sea (1993)

The Commodore (1995)

The Yellow Admiral (1996)

The Hundred Days (1998)

Blue at the Mizzen (1999)

on the hms surpriseHow big of a Patrick O’Brian geek am I?

Pretty big, apparently. Yes, that would me at the wheel of the HMS Rose in San Diego, which was used as the HMS Surprise in Peter Weir’s film. I won’t tell you exactly how excited I was to discover the ship was available for touring because it would be embarrassing.

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Fans of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels value the scenes where Jack and Stephen are playing music in the great cabin of a ship or having particular conversations, like this one which considers the feathers of a paradise bird:

Stephen said, ‘Have you every contemplated upon sex, my dear?’

‘Never,’ Jack said. ‘Sex has never entered my mind, at any time.’

‘The burden of sex, I mean. This bird, for example, is very heavily burdened; almost weighed down. He can scarcely fly or pursue his common daily round with any pleasure to himself, encumbered by a yard of tail and all this top-hamper. All these extravagant plumes have but one function – to induce the hen to yield to his importunities. How the poor cock must glow and burn, if these are, as they must be, an index of his ardour.’

‘That is a solemn thought.’

H.M.S Surprise, pg.259, Norton paperback edition, 1991

HMS Surprise by Patrick O'BrianIt seems strange, at first, that this should be so. The Aubrey-Maturin novels recount the adventures of Jack Aubrey, a British naval captain, and Stephen Maturin, an Irish-Catalan naval surgeon, naturalist, and intelligence agent, during the Napoleonic wars.

The series is full of battles, storms, shipwrecks, spycraft, political intrigue, the scientific discovery of new species, social manners, and problematic relationships between men and women.

And yet, both O’Brian and his fans always return to the quiet scenes between Jack and Stephen playing music or talking, as they are in the passage above. Why?

The reason has to do, I think, with the consolations literature offers us.

Good books have many uses. They are a pleasure and a comfort. They offer a hedge against loneliness. For centuries, readers have found their own thoughts and feelings in literature, and in finding these have been reassured that they are not alone and unknowable in this world.

And good books console us by offering a permanence to characters we love that we cannot find in the lives of the people we love outside of books.

Not all literature offers this consolation. It is no relief to know that Lear is always at the British camp near Dover, howling with the lifeless Cordelia in his arms, or that Antigone is always hanging in the cell to which Creon condemned her, dead by her own hand. Tragic works of literature offer us many things, but consolation is not one of them.

For consolation, a book must offer us characters who are convincingly human, not simply credible or familiar, and who engage our sympathies through both their virtues and their faults.

The book must also give these characters moments if not of happiness, then of peace and ease, because this is what we wish for ourselves. Among all our troubles and suffering, I think we all want – and believe we deserve – moments of at least modest contentment.

But we cannot stay in these moments or keep the people we love with us in them. Time moves. Circumstance and age separate us, further and further, until death makes the separation final and our only hope becomes reunion in another world; which many of us picture as being much like this one, except that hunger and violence and suffering and disease and death are banished.

Which makes heaven or the Summerlands or the after-life (or even reincarnation in the Indian religions) very much like the passages in the books we love.

Elizabeth Bennet will always be sparkling after dinner in the drawing-room at Netherfield, getting the best of and bettering Mr. Darcy, as alive today as the first moment she was written. Timofrey Pnin will always be playing croquet on the lawn at Al and Susan Cook’s summer house or discovering that Victor’s beautiful glass bowl is not broken after all. Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin will always be playing music while the wake of the Surprise stretches away behind them.

In this world, that is consolation indeed. Perhaps not enough. But I’ll take it.

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Memorable characters in the persons of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin; mastery of a sprawling 2,000 page narrative that is, by turns, sea-faring adventure, espionage thriller, tale of political intrigue, and novel of social manners; stuffed with historical, nautical, and scientific detail; and considering at least two great themes – how power corrupts and the problematic relations between men and women – Patrick O’Brian’s twenty-one novel series gives Trollope and Balzac a run for their money. A superb example of the pure pleasure reading can offer.

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