Monday, February 20th, 2017

Patrick O’Brian

Master & Commander cover At sea with Captain Jack

I first became acquainted with Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, Patrick O”Brian’s protagonists, in 1997, about 5 years after the novels started catching on in the U.S. After a false start or two, a very active mail list, the gunroom, came into being. It is populated by a literate and very civil group of POB fans.

Since 1997, I believe I have read the 20 volumes cover to cover at least six times.

Why do these sea stories, set in the Age of Sail (roughly 1760 – 1815) never seem to grow stale? I can think of several possible reasons:

  1. I’m a hayseed. I live far from the nearest sea – in Quincy, Illinois, USA. There is no blue water sailing in my genes.
  2. For character development I know of no equal to Patrick O’Brian. I feel like I know Aubrey and Maturin. I have recently read or re-read from Dumas, Hugo, and Tolstoy, and O’Brian arguably does a better job than any of them in bringing his characters to colorful life. By now they feel like family.
  3. O’Brian’s sly, understated, British/Irish, sense of humor appeals to me greatly. His little gems age well, and I still unearth a previously un-noted bit of humor almost every pass through the canon. These little surprises (no pun intended) provide much of the fodder for the Gunroom mail list, which in itself makes good reading.
  4. The author’s vivid scenic descriptions are exceptionally graphic. His selection of adjectives is uncanny. See a few examples below.

After making a pest of myself by urging these novels on family and friends, I have discovered, not too surprisingly, that O’Brian is somewhat of an acquired taste. My rule of thumb is that it takes a couple of readings of the first 3 novels in the series (Master and Commander, Post Captain, and HMS Surprise) to get ‘hooked.’

Some POB Gems

…and she could have set her royals, if the amorphous heap of merchantmen under her lee had not determined to travel very slowly until full daylight, no doubt for fear of tripping over the lines of longitude.

‘No, no, no,’ said Stephen. ‘I deprecate violence. My part is to heal rather than to kill, or at least kill with kindly intent. Pray let me take my place, my station, in the cockpit.’

…and in any case Mrs Williams idea of a protectorate was much more like a total annexation. She was afraid of Diana, and dared not push her too far, but she never gave up trying to gain a moral advantage, and it was striking to see how this essentially stupid woman, unhampered by any principle or by any sense of honour, managed to plant her needle where it hurt most.

The sun beat down from its noon-day height upon Bombay, imposiing a silence upon that teeming city, so that even in the deepest bazaars the steady beat of the surf could be heard – the panting of the Indian Ocean, dull ochre under a sky too hot to be blue, a sky waiting for the south-west monsoon; and at that moment far, far to the westward, far over Africa and beyond, it heaved up to the horizon and sent a fiery dart to strike the limp royals and topgallants of the Surprise as she lay becalmed on the oily swell a little north of the line and some thirty degrees west of Greenwich.

Another voice, low, inward and confidential, was that of Babbington, who had borrowed Stephen’s phrasebook: over and over again he was repeating ‘Woman, wilt thou lie with me?’ in that language, staring impatiently north-eastward. Like many sailors he could sense the loom of the land, a land with thousands of women on it, every one of whom might perhaps lie with him.

It was an old fat badger, and it grumbled and cursed all the way. The last uphill stretch was particularly difficult, with the burden catching in hazel or thorn on either side and leaving long wisps, and just before the entrance the badger lifted its head and looked around, as though to say, ‘Oh it is so bloody awkward.’ Then, having breathed, it took a fresh grip on the bundle, and with a final oath vanished backwards into the holt.

The POB canon

  1. Master and Commander
  2. Post Captain
  3. HMS Surprise
  4. The Mauritius Command
  5. Desolation Island
  6. The Fortune of War
  7. The Surgeon’s Mate
  8. The Ionian Mission
  9. Treason’s Harbour
  10. The Far Side of the World
  11. The Reverse of the Medal
  12. The Letter of Marque
  13. The Thirteen-Gun Salute
  14. The Nutmeg of Consolation
  15. Clarissa Oaks
  16. The Wine Dark Sea
  17. The Commodore
  18. The Yellow Admiral
  19. The Hundred Days
  20. Blue at the Mizzen
  21. The unfinished novel ’21’