Mentions of Patrick O'Brian's historical novels about Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin entered my awareness through an astonishing variety of venues—from the online Rec Arts Science Fiction newsgroup to my mother-in-law's dining table.
I read the beginning of Reverse of the Medal in a bookstore once, but there was too much a feeling of in medias res to engage me. In subsequent discussions readers repeatedly insisted that one must begin with the first volume, Master and Commander.
Okay, I thought. I'll save them until summer. A few days after school has let out, and I'm still so tired I can't quite face the pile of work I've put off for months to be dealt with during summer, I borrow the first five from my mother-in-law, sit down…and a couple hours later, I'm hooked. By the third book, specifically the Dil chapter, I'm reading with white heat intensity. I can't do anything but read, and I have to have them all.
What made them work so well? First, O'Brian's series is not twenty episodic novels. They are all one story, a roman fleuve composed of intersecting arcs. By ignoring the episodic form of novels (that is, each with an introductory sort of beginning, rising action that leads to a climax, followed by resolution), O'Brian was free to carry arcs through two and three and sometimes four books, so the reader never knows what to expect.
The second thing that made them work so well for me was their good nature. Though there are sharp, dark moments, and O'Brian's heroes are complex, they are also humane. Aubrey's vessels are basically happy ships— the community shaped by the wooden frame contains people who, when given the opportunity, will choose to do the moral thing.
Third: the period detail. Tolkien discusses in his essay "On Fairy Stories" how crucial inner consistency is for the creation of a secondary universe. O'Brian knows the early 19th Century. He has not taken his information from a single source or small set of secondary sources, often (in so many historical novels) so recognizable as to reduce the story to a blurred xerox. He knows the period so well that one can return to period works and experience that frisson of familiarity with concepts and phrases that might once have seemed alien—like in Smollett's Roderick Random and Marryat's clever but sometimes strange sea-going yarns, written while he was actually a post-captain, in the 1820s and 1830s. By clever use of point-of-view, O'Brian first lets the reader imaginatively experience what a ship is like inside, from the crowded conditions to the smells and bells. Then he takes us into action—introducing us to a vastly different set of rules, etiquette, and paradigm largely unperceived by landsmen.
Glimpses of the maritime world—the ever-changing alien environment whose outmost boundaries are the coasts that enclose our familiar homelands—show up in various sources, from Byron to Jane Austen, but to land-oriented folk the sailor's world is as strange as undersea life. It has its own customs, its own clothing, food, language, schedule—and its own awarenesses, which includes preoccupation with sea, sky, and tide that totally escapes those who never set foot off land. Weather is not an inconvenience, it's either a medium or a deadly menace, and that's a 24/7 constant. The ship is a tightly woven community whose bonds extend in a network not just through allies, but sometimes through enemies. Check out the friendly way the captains of the Shannon and the Chesapeake deliberately set up a ship battle off the coast of America—with deadly results, in The Fortune of War—an incident grounded in truth. And afterward, the remarkably unresentful way that the winners took care of the surviving losers, after dispassionately blowing away their captain and a shocking number of their crew. The etiquette involving who takes who as prizes, and how to treat prisoners, is as interesting as it is singular.
Fourth is the appreciation O'Brian conveys for music, mathematics, and science. Though the medical knowledge of the time was rudimentary at best, O'Brian charts a skillful course past grim and horrifying detail, managing to show the curiosity that natural philosophers had at the time—a curiosity that usually transcended political boundaries as German, French, and English natural philosophers cross back and forth despite the war to one another's homelands, discoursing on discoveries in their mutually-shared Latin, the language of scholarship.
I am drawn back to the first volume, which I have at hand, in order to track the course of my first reading. Exactly where did I first get hooked, and why?
On the first page, we get a description of Jack and Stephen, who chance to be sitting side by side during a concert at Government House at Port Mahon. We stay in Jack's POV as the first musical piece winds to an end. At the bottom of the page he turns to his seat-mate in a friendly way, pleasantly ready to see his enjoyment shared, and comments on the performance—to meet Stephen's cold, angry whisper, "If you really must beat the measure, sir, let me entreat you to do so in time, not half a beat ahead."
We are as surprised as Jack by this unexpected venom. Stephen's whisper hovers in that peculiar space between humor and danger. Humor at the image of Jack vigorously beating time in the air without realizing it—wrong time, too—and danger because this is the age of duels. It causes a deeper resonance, a reminder that many took music seriously in those days, when entertainment was largely something people had to do for themselves.
Jack tucks his hand under his knee—another glimmer of humor in this recognizable human reaction—and they listen to the second piece, but it's no good; at the end of the second he has not only been conducting again, but muttering pom pom pom under his breath. Stephen drives his elbow into Jack's side, who contemplates whether this thrust is, in fact, a blow? For of course a gentleman cannot countenance a blow. But this makes his remember his dreary situation—a penniless, debt-ridden lieutenant stuck on land with few hopes of a posting.
Meanwhile Mrs. Harte, the Admiral's wife, has begun a technically difficult piece upon the harp, but she does not stay a neutral figure, decorating the background. Quite suddenly O'Brian slides into her POV as she watches Jack's reaction to her playing. We feel her disappointment at his distracted reaction, which he so valiantly is trying to hide.
Bingo. Three characters, hardly a word of dialogue yet, but already the tangle of emotions, the prospects of danger, the unpredictability of what will come next, sends me racing on to find out what Stephen and Jack will do—and what's going on with Mrs. Harte?
Jack returns to his inn. We meet Mercedes, who obviously likes him, so we know Jack is attractive to women. But O'Brian manages to convey it without mawkish sentiment or dreary superlatives about her looks—or his. Jack opens the letter she gives him to find instead of the expected dunning notice that this is orders. He's about to take command of a ship! He is overjoyed, so happy he wants to spread joy around him; on an encounter with Stephen he apologizes so handsomely that Stephen responds with a complexity of emotions not quite discernible, but promising enlightenment later. How do we know? The only hint is the change of color in his face.
Stephen invites Jack for coffee, the waiter looks on Stephen with disapproval, which lets us know that Jack is not the only penniless one. They begin to talk, then Stephen's attention is whipsawed—along with the reader's—by a passing bird. He names it—Jack is confused—Jack asks, "Where? How does it bear?" which is the sailor's response, after Stephen's naturalist's answers. Neither of them understand the other, but their natures require them to try. Meanwhile I, as reader, am delighted by their cross-purpose talk.
Just a few pages in, but already the characters are taking on complexity. Jack is so likable that I must see him on board his first command—and by that time, I have lost track of my own world, and time, and have been transported back to that hot spring day in 1800.
Music runs as a subtheme through all the novels, binding together the two main characters.
Jack is tall, handsome, strong, smart, ignorant of anything much outside of the sea, cheerfully bigoted, and naturally good-natured—except when he's up against the enemy. Stephen is ferociously intelligent, distrustful, passionate about freedom as only someone can be who has been brought up under an atmosphere of enforced political dependence. Jack is open, Stephen secretive.
The men are complex, they age and change; Stephen never does really master the sea world, though at times he thinks he's got it, and many comical(and painful) moments ensue therefrom. Jack is bull-headed about political issues on land, and he has a roving eye, which gets him occasionally into trouble. Stephen is lethally subtle in the shadowy world of spies, an acute observer of human nature, and amazingly tolerant, except of bullying intolerance.The fact that Jack is a consummate musician when he is alone, and can only express his emotions through his violin.
I began to look forward to the recurring bits: Jack's puns, his turning of contemporary aphorism into truly funny Spoonerisms, Stephen's ignorance of the details of ship trim. Jack's reverting to Stephen's "Curtail" pun, the unresolved strain between the two on the matter of scientific exploration (Stephen wanting to explore, yet so often getting only a tempting glimpse of new territory—and Jack's kindly patronization of Stephen's incomphrehensible beetle-hunting) keep a steady thread of humor running through the novels. How many of us have just such nexi of contention with our nearest and dearest?
But O'Brian never permits the men to dwindle into Laurel and Hardy. Jack's reflection on aging and the seemingly inevitable loss of ability—while never seeing his own steady increase in wisdom; Stephen's sometimes profound alienation from the warp and weft of human intercourse, underscored by hints of his past—all contribute to insightful passages threaded with occasionally harrowing adventure. Love, children, attitude toward life and death, the changing world, human contradiction (characterized most frequently and entertainingly in the conservative, superstitious sailors who don't like change—yet are constantly inventing little ways to enable their ships and guns to perform even better), gender and social status, differing forms of beauty, and how it is perceived, are some of the many layers to this story.
O'Brian breaks many of the 'rules' of writing. He uses omnisicient voice, bouncing from head to head, with only the most rare slip into the voice of an external narrator. But he does this with a skill that echoes the subtle narrative presence of Jane Austen's best work. It was no surprise to discover that O'Brian considered Austen an influence.
Another rule he breaks, to the betterment of the novels, is the one about repetition. He is unafraid to have the same story or joke retold by various characters—or to repeat the entirety of a report or observation. Most of the time the retellings contain clues to the character of the speaker, clues that would escape the reader who hadn't already known the facts. For example, Jack's various repetitions of Stephen's 'curtail' pun, and how his auditors react—and how he reflects on it. These repetitions subtly underscore change, and character, providing unexpected moments of insight.
Less defensible caveats: Frequently—most frequently at the novels' ends—O'Brian resorts to sudden summations rather than showing us the scene, in order to bring a book (an episode) to a close. And there are some small continuity glitches.
Considering the books separately, I believe the last three, The Yellow Admiral, The Hundred Days, and Blue at the Mizzen, are the weakest. I think the Geoghegan episode in book 18 is the least successful small story-thread of all; the idea had been done before, and more successfully, in previous books. The character seems dropped in, rather than woven, unlike others who meet the same fate, and the ending of the sequence is predictable from the moment the narrator focuses extensively on him. Adding to the sense of a grafted incident, it has almost no repercussions other than a couple of mentions.
Book 19 smacks the reader with two very sudden shocks, neither of which are resolved in the fine way that O'Brian handles similar occurrence in previous books. Diana's death is kept entirely off-stage—so much that at first I thought it was not true, and we were getting an example of how, in these days of non-instantaneous communication, news could be distorted.
This novel is perhaps the most picaresque of all; there are incidents that seem to be there only to explain the workings of a ship, one after another, told in neutral or even mildly comic emotional tone, while the reader who is carried along by the profoundly strong emotional investment of 18 previous novels is waiting for the emotional backlash of Diana's death. Then there is the introduction of Stephen's new love, who seems designed to be perfect for him. A little too designed, too perfect. She is so accomodating she is bloodless, a robotic lady scientist, and I find myself wanting Diana to waltz in, throw her hat on the table, and say, "Dammit, Maturin, you cannot expect to be quit of me merely because I am dead!"
Bonden's death is another shock, with little after-effect other than one intense moment. Meanwhile, the name Geoghegan is used again; is this an oversight, perhaps, as Williamson's forearm (blown off while fighting pirates, then never referred to again through two books) seems to be, or is this a relation of the boy? (A word of explanation—a remembrance of the name—might have taken care of that question.) In rereading, I always intend to stop at the last page of the 18th, whose ending really felt like an ending to the previous books' arc. But when I get there, I hunger for more news of Jack and Stephen, so I read bits of the following books.
Midway in my reading, I chanced to look into the newspaper and discovered that the Tall Ships were going to be docking for a day or two just five miles away. So my son and I went to walk the smooth decks, feel the roll and shift, and look up at the masts, imagining what it was like to climb aloft, especially in terrible weather. I've always liked sailing ships, but this time I was surprised by how many things I recognized from my reading. As I stood there on that deck, I began to realize just how much work was involved in putting in a new mast, and how inventive these sailors were.
Does everyone who tries them like these books? The whirls and eddies of side reflections—how the young were trained, what happens to sexual and emotional development during long enforced separations, how language evolved and who understood what from given words—seem to belong to the reader who likes, if not Proustian pacing, a much more flexible structure. For me, O'Brian's mastery is displayed in his ability to braid the various story-threads into a whole bounded superficially by Napoleon's reign. No one's life is neatly resolved; the problems, and how they are addressed, alter as the characters age.
The pacing in O'Brian follows the ebb and flow of the sea. Some chapters race, others are contemplative. O'Brian frequently takes side-jaunts. Many are Stephen's scientific expeditions, most of which give time to focus on character development as well. But my favorites are the humorous incidents, so like Jane Austen, that crop up even in the most tension-fraught sequences, such as Jack's retelling of his acting Ophelia in a shipboard production of Hamlet. This is not even remotely the Hamlet that Elizabethan audiences saw. Here was this tense chase going on, the ship being fired upon, and I was laughing out loud. In another book, three characters discourse on the theory of novel writing while traversing dangerous territory in the Australian outback.
O'Brian is thoroughly grounded in his period detail and he does not coddle the reader. Stephen's private wish, on his first tour of the Sophie, to see Castlereagh dangling from one crosstree and Fitzgibbon from the other assumes that the reader is going to be aware of Castlereagh's position in the government—and of Lord Edward Fitzgerald's role in the ill-fated Irish Rebellion.
Knowing about Lord Edward Fitzgerald gives one added insight into Stephen, because his name comes up many times through the novels, providing a key to Stephen's hidden nature. It's stated that the two were related, and it is obliquely implied that Stephen was studying medicine in Paris when Lord Edward stayed with Thomas Paine during the early years of the French Revolution. Being related they have to have known one another, for Lord Edward had cleaved wholeheartedly to Charles James' Fox's admiration for the glorious precepts of the Revolution; in an orgy of high-minded oath-taking (that was the fashion during those days in Paris, for everyone was hyperaware of the fact that they were making history along with a new government and culture. Why, even women were making speeches, like the butcher's daughter Olympe de Gouges) Lord Edward and his high-born friends renounced their titles on the Champs du Mars in '90. Surely Stephen was there, weeping, with the other very young men, at the birth of the Rights of Man!
Stephen would also have been by when Lord Edward married le duc d'Orleans' bastard daughter. One who knows something of the Fitzgeralds' remarkable family—related, by cruel fate, to a goodly part of the English Government, which makes Lord Edward's betrayal and dismal death the more painful—and their c'est la vie attitude toward bastardy would understand something of Stephen's upbringing. These ardent spirits, so fired by inspiration before the Revolution turned bloody-minded in earnest, sailed back to Ireland and met, in '97-8, pretty much the same fate that so many visionaries—including Olympe de Gouges—suffered in Paris during the Terror Years.
Fitzgerald, King George, Talleyrand, Castlereagh…the great are kept firmly on the periphery of the action. Sir Walter Scott was the first historical novelist who kept his focus on the ordinary citizen, the one whose life is stirred by the eddying actions of the great, rather than inking out yet another imagined scene with the well-known figures of history, stuffing unlikely and orotumd speeches into their mouths, as poor Catherine complains to Mr. Tilney in Northanger Abbey. O'Brian does permit a brief glimpse of Talleyrand once, but slyly does not name him until pages later; the other prominent figures of the day are just around the corner, leaving our characters to react to (and cope with) the consequences of their actions.
Book 20 came out last November, and alas, it will be the last. Patrick O'Brian died just after the turn of the year. I put the book down hungry for more: what was Sophie's worry? Is George going to come out all right? Is Stephen really going to find happiness at last? What about Padeen—and so many others?
Well, those questions will not be answered now. But we do have 20 books to reread and to contemplate, with corresponding pleasure, and because O'Brian has moved beyond us, we are permitted to speculate about what happened next—and imagine, to our own satisfaction, how each thread might have come to a close. A generous parting gift, for which I thank you, Patrick O'Brian. Rest in peace.