A Friendship of Opposites

Share this

Never one for naval yarns I didn’t at first spot Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels, which are set in the wars at sea against Napoleon and then the United States. But once I’d tried one I bought them by the handful. It was like that for most of his readers.

O’Brian was not successful at first; critics took him for a kind of retread C. S. Forester, and in fact his books did look a bit dated, published next to Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers for instance, or One Hundred Years of Solitude. A surprising few – Iris Murdoch, Charlton Heston, William Waldegrave and David Mamet, for example – were passionate about them from the start, but ten years passed before most of us realized something new and extraordinary had appeared. Now hardly anyone brackets him with Forester; rather, some compare him to Jane Austen for subtle and comic prose, or Tolstoy for the way he makes past speak to present. His sales have passed 4 million, in twenty languages or more, there’s been a film, and a whole sub-section of scholarship has bloomed, including a dictionary, a gazetteer, a cookery book, a critical bibliography, a recreation of Aubrey’s favourite frigate and a biographical skirmish or two.

At the beginning of the first novel, Master and Commander (1969), an overweight naval lieutenant, Jack Aubrey, is at a private concert next to ‘an ill-looking son-of-a-bitch’ who turns out to be Stephen Maturin, an Irish-Catalan doctor, prickly and brilliant. Jack takes badly Stephen’s demand that he stop beating time and for all love stop going pom-pom-pom! But before the inevitable duel he gets glorious news that he’s been appointed to his first command; suddenly he’s happy to apologize, lays on lunch, discovers that Stephen is for the moment on his uppers, and persuades him to join his new ship as surgeon. ‘Certainly,’ says Stephen, ‘for a student of human nature, what could be better? The subjects of h

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

About the contributor

Grant McIntyre who is now a sculptor, finds he can read far more widely that he could when he was a publisher.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

reading mode