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The Godfather of Sail

Philip Reeve explains why you should set a course for wherever books are sold and stock up on the novels of Patrick O'Brian.

"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*.

Master and Commander is also the title of the first book.  It begins in 1802, when a young naval commander, Jack Aubrey, meets penniless physician Stephen Maturin at a concert in Port Mahon, Gibraltar.  Despite their shared love of music they are very different characters - almost exact opposites, indeed, for Jack Aubrey is big, straightforward, friendly, good-looking, a pretty conventional English Tory, an excellent seaman but a little naive ashore, while Stephen Maturin is small, rather ugly, reserved, physically clumsy, deeply intelligent, a keen naturalist, and a political radical of Irish/Catalan descent who took part in the failed rising against British rule by Wolf Tone's United Irishmen in 1798.  But somehow they hit it off; Stephen sails as surgeon aboard Jack's brig the Sophie as she cruises the Mediterranean in search of French and Spanish ships, and a deep, enduring friendship begins that will be the subject of a further twenty novels.  War is always the excuse for the stories - Jack is ordered off to frustrate French or American plans in just about all of the world's oceans, and Stephen, finding that his hatred for Buonaparte exceeds his distaste for the British Empire, becomes an intelligence agent - but they are not simply war stories.  They are not really about plot at all, although the plots are good, and often nail-bitingly tense.  The real heart of the books is the characters; those two great central characters and all the lesser ones - hundreds and hundreds over the course of the whole series - who orbit about 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.

To a newcomer this naval lingo may be one of the most noticeable things about the books, and perhaps off-putting.  All this talk of double preventer backstays, futtock shrouds, bowlines, topgallants, studdingsails and flying jibs can seem a bit bewildering, and even the helpful diagrams which appear at the front of the more recent editions can't pack in a hundredth of the details.  Luckily for non-nautical readers we have Dr Maturin on our side; he is as bewildered as we by these reams of grommets, knees and catheads; even more so, perhaps (I don't think he is ever really sure of the difference between port and starboard) and the things we actually need to understand - the importance of gaining the weather gage in battle, for instance - are patiently explained to him by his shipmates in terms which even we can grasp.

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.

I suppose that if I were a proper reviewer I would be pointing out faults as well as high points, but to be honest I can barely think of any.  It's true that some of the books end rather suddenly, but that's just a good reason to start the next one.   It's true that The Hundred Days, the penultimate book, written very soon after the death of Mrs O'Brian, comes perilously close to jumping the shark when it abruptly kills off several major characters, hustling them off-stage with barely a goodbye.  It's also probably true that the female characters are less engaging than the men: it seems that you have to be outwardly beautiful to qualify as an O'Brian heroine, which is odd in a writer so attuned to his characters' inner lives.  Stephen's great love, Diana Villiers, can be particularly annoying; forever running off with richer, better looking men, and forever being forgiven.  What does he see in her, I wonder? But I don't mean that as a criticism of Patrick O'Brian;  I'm just infuriated by Stephen Maturin, who seems now like a real person to me, and who I wish would settle down with some nice, sensible lady naturalist instead (indeed, towards the very end of the series just such a lady is introduced, so he might have done so had the story not been cut short by O'Brian's death).

And that, I think, is what makes Aubrey/Maturin so readable and so re-readable; the characters come to feel like old friends, and it is always good to be back in their company.  The series may have ended but, like Blandings Castle, 221b Baker Street or Bag End, the stern cabin of HMS Surprise will always be there waiting for us, a small, comfortable space upon a vast ocean, filled with music and laughter and good conversation and the smell of fresh coffee and toasted cheese.

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.


Sarah said...

Okay, I'm sold! Thanks for the write-up!

Gil said...

Well put; you captured my sentiments exactly. If there were O'Brian conventions, I would be there in costume with the enthusiasm of a Trekkie. I have been deliberately avoiding my third voyage through the series like an alcoholic resisting drink one day at a time. I can hardly fight the temptation, but do my best building a wall by reading other books. Once I cast off the lines and re-start, it will be without moderation. I will chain-read the the books as if there were no tomorrow. O'Brian had a love of Austen and is said to have written with Austen first editions on his writing table. The most succinct description of his style that I have seen was written by another blogger: "like Austen but with explosions."

Thomas Taylor said...

Which they are the best historical novels ever!

I started reading this series because I was writing a seafaring adventure of my own and wanted to steal O'Brian's research. I ended up reading nothing but for weeks on end, so I suppose I paid heavily for my thievery. And I know I'll pay again.

Cannonade said...

Well said! A glass of wine with you sir.

I am an avid Aubrey/Maturin cartographer at The Patrick O'Brian Mapping Project, slowly working my way through the series over many years and coincidently have just started on the Ionian Mission.

CaroleMcDonnell said...

Great post. I know what you mean about infectious writers. And YES, Paul Bettany was way too "hot" to be Marturin.

The Aethernaut said...

I've always been a bit lazy about starting this series as there are just so many books it feels as if I might actually die before I finish the series. Now I'm convinced that there isn't a moment to lose and I must find a kindly benefactor who's prepared to buy them all for me.

Steve R. said...

It's a series I have intended to look up for some time. I love the film, but point taken about Paul Bettany. I will definately add to my reading list.

philip reeve said...

Cannonade's 'Patrick O'Brian Mapping Project' is excellent and well worth a look, especially for readers like me whose grasp of geography isn't always all it might be. And if I had an iphone I'd have his P O'B Quotes App, too.

Cannonade said...

Thanks very much Philip :)

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