"Why are you both reading Patrick O'Brian?" asked my son Sam the other day, spotting that his mother is reading Master and Commander for about the third time while I'm on The Ionian Mission for what must be the fifth. It's a reasonable question, and one which might be echoed by anyone who hasn't encountered O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin books, for to a casual observer they must appear to be cut from the same militaristic cloth as CS Forester's Hornblower yarns or Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe novels. Hopefully the fact that we've both read and re-read the Aubrey/Maturin novels is proof that they offer something more than just tales of derring-do in the Napoleonic Wars. If I had to find a comparison I would say that they are more like Jane Austen, except that Patrick O'Brian excelled at writing battles, tempests, and shipwrecks, which were never really Jane Austen's strong point.
The series began back in 1970, gradually grew in popularity through the eighties, and achieved huge acclaim in the '90s from the sort of critics who would usually sniff at books like these, followed by more widespread fame in the noughties with the release of the film Master and Commander, a pretty good screen version, although (or perhaps because) it doesn't follow any one book but mixes elements from many of them*.
O'Brian's approach to character is subtle; often he doesn't tell us what people are feeling; he just shows us what they do, and leaves it to us to work out why they do it. They don't read like characters whose attributes have been thought out and noted down on index cards before the author set to work; they are inconsistent and perverse; they grow, and age, and make mistakes; the heroes sometimes behave in ways which make us think less of them, although they never lose our sympathy; apparent villains sometimes reveal a kinder side, or at least some reason for their villainy. And they all speak and think in a wonderful, rich, utterly convincing Georgian prose. It isn't necessary for a historical novel to feel as if it were written in the era it's describing, but it's impressive when you find one that does. (It's also rather infectious: I'm always warning Sam to put a coat on to preserve himself against the falling damps. Sometimes he'll pop into my office to report, "Mummy's compliments and wittles is up.')
The series is also surprisingly funny; when I started reading them I hoped to be entertained, and I expected to be informed, but I didn't expect to laugh out loud so often. Some of the comedy is quite broad - a reliable source of fun are the zoological specimens which Stephen brings aboard - wombats on deck; a beehive in the main cabin; a three-toed sloth which acquires a taste for rum ("Jack! You have debauched my sloth!") - but most of it springs from the foibles and failings of the characters, and it grows funnier as we come to know them; Jack's tendency to mangle proverbs and quotations, and his infectious delight in his own bad jokes; the endless grumbling of his servant Killick, Dr Maturin's continuing inability to grasp the basics of seamanship and the nautical jargon which his shipmates spout, and the sly pride with which he uses the few scraps of naval terminology he does possess to baffle fellow travellers even less nautical than himself.
Personally I find this cascade of odd, archaic, highly specialised words one of the many delights of the series, but I'm sure that some readers are equally happy to treat it as background detail; you no more need to understand sails and rigging to enjoy O'Brian than you need grasp the hand-wavey physics of Warp Drive to watch Star Trek. And anyway, it is not all ships and sea: the books spend much time on shore as well; with Jack Aubrey's wife and children and his deliciously vile mother-in-law, with Stephen's contacts in the worlds of intelligence and natural philosophy, and with a vast array of characters met in foreign ports, some recurring, some mere passing sketches; admirals and ship's boys, noblemen and paupers, Frenchmen, Americans, Turks, Parsees, Chinese, Africans, even a pahi-full of Polynesian lesbian separatists, all vividly brought to life with a few words, making the series not just a portrait of the British navy but of the entire early nineteenth century world.
The tone changes subtly about half way through, when the Napoleonic Wars are running out and Jack Aubrey is in danger of being promoted to the rank of admiral, which would make him more concerned with administration than adventuring: time seems to slow down, reasons are found to halt the progress of Jack's career, and Stephen becomes rich enough to buy the lovely frigate Surprise. Perhaps the later books are more historical romances than historical novels. But none of that dents a fan's enjoyment in the least.
Patrick O'Brian's novels should be available just about everywhere. (Nowadays there are even special editions without ships on the cover - for the ladies, I presume, or people who don't want to be seen reading sea-faring tales.) He also wrote several unrelated novels, and an excellent biography of Picasso.
*I thought Russell Crowe made a rather good Jack Aubrey. Paul Bettany did a creditable job as as Dr Maturin, but he was just too good-looking, and too clean: I imagine Stephen looking more like Hugh Laurie's baleful Dr House, but dressed a in blood-stained frock-coat and a vile wig, under which he's keeping a dead shrew which he plans to dissect later. One of the striking historical details of the books is that Stephen, for all his scientific brilliance, has no inkling of germ theory - how could he, being a man of his time? His filthiness is a running joke, and he thinks nothing of eating dinner or opening up a patient with same knife he's just used to dissect a decomposing dolphin.