In the British Navy’s Mediterranean station of Port Mahon in 1800, Royal Navy Lieutenant Jack Aubrey meets an Irish/Catalan doctor, Stephen Maturin, at a chamber music performance. Patrick O’Brian’s remarkable score of historical adventure books recounts the friendship, professional life together, love lives and family lives of Aubrey and Maturin from their meeting until a year or two after Waterloo, when Jack is promoted to Rear Admiral.
At their meeting, Jack’s annoying habit of audibly keeping time to the music annoys Stephen. The two have words almost ending in a duel, but when Jack is given command of a ship he is so joyful that he not only apologizes to Stephen, but hires him on as ship’s surgeon. Thus is established the two men’s shipboard relation, where they often make music in Jack’s large stern cabin, he on violin and Stephen on cello, sailing toward a battle station or some adventure in the Far East or the Pacific. At the beginning, the two very different men are united only by a love of music and a hatred of Napoleon, though they gradually form a deep friendship based on many shared loves and experiences in peace and war.
Jack is a superb sailor who has spent more time at sea than ashore since he was a small boy. His first command is a brig, called in the British navy a sloop, the Sophie. The first thing he does with his new command—and every subsequent ship he commands—is to train his crew until they are able to fire two accurate broadsides within five minutes. He is also very lucky. With the combination of seamanship, luck, and superbly-trained gunners, he takes a series of prizes, eventually engaging with a Spanish zebec frigate, a huge 74-gun ship—the Sophie carries only fourteen guns that fire four-pound balls, while a third of the Spaniard’s are twelve-pounders. Jack takes the Spanish ship O’Brian calls the Cacafuego (“shit fire”). But finally he loses the Sophie to a French frigate.
Jack’s professional fortunes are irregular. When he has prize money, he is likely to lose it to con-men, being as innocent in shore matters as he is capable and fearless at sea. He progresses through a series of vessels, but spends much of the ensuing books commanding a 28-gun frigate called Surprise, busy engaging the enemy whenever he can. By the third book, however, he is also well aware that Stephen is more than a ship’s surgeon with a reputation for miraculous cures, having saved a seemingly drowned man and another with a depressed cranial fracture. In fact, Stephen is a spy, and some of Aubrey’s and Maturin’s voyages are to pursue the secret ends of the British government, and more than once Jack lands Stephen on enemy territory and picks him up later at a rendezvous point. Once also, when Stephen fails to make the rendezvous and Jack learns that he has been captured and is being tortured, the captain leads a raid to rescue his friend.
Meanwhile each of these complementary characters enlivens the series with his own quirks and, especially, his own humor. Maturin’s lubberliness is one source of humor. At the beginning, his lack of sea canniness also serves the narrative purpose of allowing graceful explanations of arcane terms and shipboard procedures, although all readers must have noticed O”Brian’s indifference to their ignorance in this regard. After many days of relentless pursuit of their ship by a Dutch 74, Maturin finally asks Aubrey how long the chase will last. “A stern chase is a long chase,” says Jack, and Stephen then innocently asks, “And would you consider this a really stern one?” Maturin never quite gets the jargon or even such vital naval matters such as how the moon’s phases affect the ability to travel by water.
Though he has no trouble with naval terminology or plain bluff talk, Aubrey gets common sayings confused. His very recognizable ship, the Surprise, says Jack, stands out “like a bear with a sore thumb.” When he wants to say something is “neither fish nor fowl.” it comes out “neither Scylla nor Charybdis.” He says of a man getting immediately to the point in conversation, “No humming or whoreing, no barking about the wrong bush.”
Aubrey not only gets common sayings wrong, but he is likely to pugnaciously defend them in their wrongness. Stephen sometimes tries to help, but he quickly learns that Jack is an unreconstructible malaprop. In the eighth book of the series, The Ionian Mission, Jack remarks that you can “judge the pudding by its fruit.”
‘You mean, [says Stephen] prove the tree by its eating.’
‘No, no, Stephen, you are quite out: eating a tree would prove nothing.”
Stephen is a quick study; after one or two such episodes, he either lets Jack flounder or offers help that is at best mischievous and at worst downright malicious. Here is one example:
‘Why, Stephen, some people are in a hurry: men-of-war, for instance. It is no good carrying your pig to market and finding . . .’ He paused,
‘It will not drink?’
‘It will not drink?’
‘No, it ain’t that neither.’
‘That there are no pokes to be had?’
‘Oh well, be damned to literary airs and graces. . . .’
There is also much wordplay in the books, even by Stephen, who sometimes grumbles that “he that would make a pun would pick a pocket.”
The books follow the chronology of the Napoleonic Wars, though sometimes taking liberties with pacing—as in Anthony Powell’s books, time is an arrow in O’Brian. One of the characters in The Nutmeg of Consolation makes a remark that might do for these novels: “I remember Bouville’s definition of a novel as a work in which life flows in abundance, swirling without a pause.
Here are the Aubrey/Maturin books:
Master and Commander (1969)
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 (1992) (published as The Truelove in the USA)
The Wine-Dark Sea (1993)
The Commodore (1994)
The Yellow Admiral (1996)
The Hundred Days (1998)
Blue at the Mizzen (1999)
Both Aubrey and Maturin have lives ashore. They briefly are seeing the same woman, the beautiful, willful widow Diana Villiers. Diana lives her life in defiance of almost every convention, which causes a good deal of heartache for Stephen—because it quickly becomes obvious to Diana and Stephen that they are two of a kind, while Jack soon settles down with the very pretty and very domestic Sophia Williams. By the fourth book Jack and Sophia are settled into a small cottage with twin daughters, soon to be joined by a son, who, at the end of the series, is ready to go to sea himself.
Sophia is a much simpler and narrower character than Diana Villiers, though occasionally she shows a more worldly and broad-minded side: she welcomes into her family Jack’s black bastard son, Samuel Panda. Samuel is a Roman Catholic clergyman and his mother was an African woman, Jack’s stowaway mistress whose discovery got him turned before the mast when he was a young midshipman. He profits from his time in the fo’c’sle and ever after is able to see his ship from the crew’s viewpoint.
Less fortunate, though far more interesting, are the fortunes of Diana Villiers and Stephen Maturin, who pursues Diana across several continents where she has gone with lovers or just protectors. Stephen kills one of the former in a duel. After much drama they marry at the end of the seventh book. The drama does not end there, but they are frequently on good terms and produce a daughter. Diana dies in the next to the last novel, failing to negotiate a sharp turn before a bridge while driving a coach and four at reckless speed. Thus she dies as she lived, with little concern for niceties of social convention or safety. The only good result of this tragedy is that she kills Aubrey’s Gorgon of a mother-in-law in the crash. No hay mal que por bien no venga.
Jack climbs through the ratings toward the professional pinnacle, marked by the title of the last book, Blue at the Mizzen, indicating the Admiral’s flag flown from the mizzenmast of the ship he chooses to sail in from among those in his squadron. But there are many obstacles along the way. He is often in danger of arrest because he has foolishly lost his considerable prize money at some ill-advised scheme of enrichment. At one point Jack is cashiered because of a trumped-up charge concocted by spies and political enemies. Stephen, who has inherited money, buys the Surprise, which has been sold out of the service because of her age. Jack sails her as a letter of marque during the brief period he is in disgrace.
In addition to his uncanny command of both naval terminology and the precisely-dated idiom of such writers as Austen, O’Brian more than once shows his familiarity with the way Homer tells a story. In The Ionian Mission, Jack turns the tide of battle (the crew of the Surprise has boarded a Turkish transport) by his enraged fighting over the body of Pullings, his lieutenant and long-time friend. Though Pullings turns out to be only stunned, the episode recalls the fight over the body of Sarpedon and Glaukos’s rallying of his comrades to defend it in Book 16 of The Iliad. And again, as Commodore Jack Aubrey’s squadron sails into Gibraltar at the beginning of The Hundred Days, O’Brian tries another Homeric ploy as he puts two aged, half-pay lieutenants on the heights commenting on recent events that will affect the lives of the co-protagonists, recalling the old men talking on the walls of Troy in Book 3 of The Iliad.
O’Brian’s series is both river novel--roman fleuve--and sea novel. He brings formidable depth of learning as well as great storytelling skills to an account of one of the high points in the history of the British Navy, and a thrilling historical period of two decades when the fate of Europe hung in the balance.