For those that don’t know Patrick O’Brian’s works, and who may not have read my other posts on Aubrey/Maturin, I will quickly summarize. Patrick O’Brian over the course of several decades wrote 21 books based on Lord Cochrane an active frigate captain in the Napoleonic wars.
The novels depict the life and adventures of two characters Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey, and Dr. Stephen Maturin. Jack obviously is the model for Lord Cochrane. Stephen is pure genius invention on O’Brian’s part. Jack is the man’s man, fighting captain eager to win fame and glory by capturing prizes and winning battles. Jack who picks up trigonometry and calculus later in life becomes a master sailor and navigator, which also allows him to become a brilliant naval tactician. While Stephen a Catalan/Irish physician is a natural philosopher and an intellegence agent for England against Napoleon. Due to his mixed parentage and keen intellect he speaks French, Catalan, Castillian, some Portuguese, Latin and Greek, and knows the name of every bird and beast that can walk, fly, or swim.
I began the Aubrey Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian with zeal. I pushed through the first 10 books two years ago. As I got closer to the end I slowed down, wanting to savor each book like chocolate. But alas, I have finished the whole box in one sitting like a glutton. Now I am only left with splendid memories in my head of each book. Moments where my life was full of stress and I thought I couldn’t bear it any longer, I would get out of bed and go to my reading chair in the living room, flip the light on, and open one of Patrick O’Brian’s novels. Aubrey and Maturin managed to collapse the weight of life long enough for me to decompress and finally fall to sleep, dreaming of our dear HMS Surprise at sea, with a fine top gallant breeze moving her along at 10 knots and only deep blue under hull for a thousand miles in any direction. For those of us that have played at sea, the wind and the waves put us at ease. It gives us a sense of joy to be in an environment so wild, so tempestuous, and ultimately that free.
Some of the best days in my life have been on open water with the wind at my back away from complications on land. Both Aubrey and Maturin as characters were deeply flawed. But their friendship and their ability to go to sea allowed each of them to endure O’Brian’s sometimes malevolent story driven machinations.
Here are but a few (spoiler warning) :
- Aubrey is accused of defrauding the London Stock exchange and is disrated from the navy and thrown in the pillory.
- Aubrey looses his fortune to a fraudulent prospector who misleads him into believing there is Silver on his property
- Stephen in the grips of a serious Opium addiction accidentally kills a man during surgery
- Stephen while trying to evade French intelligence services is forced to allow a small Mediterranean town to believe he has a mistress, which of course is instantly reported back to his wife Diana. Who consequently runs off to Sweden with a handsome young army officer.
- Once reconciled Diana and Stephen have a child while Stephen is at sea. The child turns out to be autistic which causes Diana to abandon the child and run off with a new lover.
- Once reconciled again. Diana dies in a carriage accident on the way home from the Harbor.
With each of these knife wounds, it’s easy to see why going to sea might provide some refuge. And while listed out like this above, it looks melodramatic, O’Brian’s style is often to portray these events out of narrative, and characters often discuss them after they’ve occurred. The force of the novel’s is in my opinion in the portrayal of two very flawed, but seemingly real characters. Jack who is Dionysian, and Stephen Apollonian. Jack represents the baser instincts that crave food, women, wealth, and violence. Stephen craves knowledge, wisdom, and peace. Also each possesses certain traits. Jack is open, honest, friendly and eager to please. Where Stephen is quiet, introspective, sullen, if not mercurial. I’ve said this before, but the reason why this works so well, is that no one person is all of these things, and we see a little of ourselves in each character.
All in all, I of course enjoyed every battle and cutting out action and would reread each many times trying to picture in my head how each ship would tack, and jibe to gain an advantage. I love hearing about quick tacks and raking the other ship’s stern to cut up their rudder, rigging, and sails. Often the HMS Surprise was outmatched against larger more heavily armed ships, and it was a master stroke of writing to continually hammer home the fighting qualities of Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey, and his crack crew who could fire three broadsides in five minutes to the other ship’s two.
I also found great delight in Stephen’s subtle schemes and discoveries as an intellegence agent for the Navy. His diary written completely in code, and his ability to walk off the ship and in most cases begin to blend in wherever he was.
Some might dismiss these novels as pure genre trash, but I would challenge any reader to find better examples of character development. Not to mention that the character development takes place through 21 books. I’ve certainly read other books that have moved me as well. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Jose Saramago’s Blindness, William Faulkner’s-The Sound and The Fury, Cormac MacCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. However, finding 21 books that capture your imagination so vividly, conveys so much information about life in another time and another place with such accuracy is not likely to happen again in my lifetime.
The last unfinished Novel, simply titled 21 left me feeling a little sad that O’Brian couldn’t finish it. It felt like someone got a bite out of the last chocolate right as I was ready to take a bite.