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
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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 his inquiry shut up together, unable to escape his gaze, their passions heightened by the dangers of war . . . their isolation from women, and their curious but uniform diet. And by the glow of patriotic fervour, no doubt’ – with a nod to Jack. So the diminutive sloop Sophie acquires a doctor, scientist and – as it turns out – undercover agent, far above her station. Their friendship survives war, disaster and rivalry in love, problems with politics and snoring, ‘very grave differences in domestic behaviour’ – and continues to the last line O’Brian wrote, in his twenty-first, unfinished book. It’s a friendship of opposites. Jack is worse than fallible ashore, but at sea he’s a phenomenon, a natural leader whose men will follow him anywhere. He’s decisive, open, forceful, and runs a crack ship without flogging, since ‘a happy ship is your only hard-fighting ship’. He’s no blue-light, psalm-singing, tract-and-cocoa captain (as, interestingly, Jane Austen’s brothers were); to him just to be on an enemy deck, sword in hand, brings a wild and savage joy. Above all he has the miraculous quality of luck, ‘not . . . commonplace good fortune, far from it, but a different concept altogether, one of an almost religious nature, like the favour of some god or even in some cases like possession; and if it [comes] in too hearty it might prove fatal – too fiery an embrace entirely’. Stephen, on the other hand, is a secretive savant with pale reptilian eyes and a tea-cosy wig, addicted to opium and coca. Unlike Jack he’s very effective on land, but aboard ship he is always falling down hatchways or into the sea. When the men discover his lifesaving skill at surgery, they look on him as a kind of shaman. Even Jack says having him aboard is like sailing with a piece of the True Cross. ‘I seen him whip a man’s skull off,’ says Able Seaman Plaice, ‘rouse out his brains, set ’em to rights, stow ’em back again, clap on a silver plate, and sew on his scalp, which it was drooling over one ear, obscuring his dial, with a flat-seam needle and a pegging awl . . . I seen him sew on a man’s arm when it was hanging by a thread, passing remarks in Greek.’ Different as they are in every way, each sees in the other a man who will venture anything for what he knows is right; both are men of integrity, humane where possible but ruthless where not, clear-sighted about the world’s hazards and their own weaknesses. Each can enhance life for the other: Stephen is not just a doctor, he’s a natural philosopher on terms with half Europe’s Enlightenment, and his travels with Jack bring him to flora and fauna he would never otherwise see (or dissect). Meanwhile, as captain, Jack is enveloped with a deference ‘different in kind from that accorded to a fellow human being’ which surrounds him ‘like a glass bell’. As his particular friend Stephen can make this isolation bearable, especially as both are musicians, Jack on his violin, Stephen on his cello – battered instruments patched by the ship’s carpenter and bowed if need be with strands from the longer pigtails aboard. On the other hand Jack is a Tory and Stephen a radical through and through, against authority even at sea – ‘Do away with subordination and you do away with tyranny: without subordination we should have no Neros, no Tamerlanes, no Buonapartes.’ ‘Stuff,’ says Jack. ‘Subordination is the natural order: there is subordination in Heaven . . . and so it is in the Navy. You have come to the wrong shop for anarchy, brother.’ Of course, the friendship serves a purpose in the novels’ structure too. Fiction is full of wonderful duos – Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Holmes and Watson, Tintin and Haddock – which give bearings on events from two sensibilities. It’s the same with Jack and Stephen, and there are other advantages besides. Because neither understands the other’s world, we get the benefit of their explanations (not that it really matters if we don’t know a shroud from a sheet, and can’t guess why a simple thing like a cunt-splice wouldn’t take a man-o’-war’s bosun long). More important, as Stephen’s work as spy and political agent comes to dominate the action, O’Brian can transport him, and us, in Jack’s favourite ship the Surprise to confront a range of hazards at the ends of the earth, when otherwise they’d be blockading France year in year out, in foul weather or fair, with the rest of the Navy. Eighteenth-century life at sea was extreme in almost every way, still more so aboard a ship as small as the Surprise. She is a captured French frigate, old but fast; only 130 feet long though she carries around 250 men, with a few boys and maybe the gunner’s wife to look after them, plus sometimes a hen or two and a goat. Jack’s cabin has space and light, but below decks is dark, crowded and smelly. Friction is always a risk between so many ‘incompatible tempers mewed up together in a box’, sometimes for years, but for officers goodwill is helped on by dinners, in full dress whatever the temperature, with plenty of claret and port to drink and maybe soused hog’s face or drowned baby to eat (or after months at sea more likely albatross soup or sea-elephant fritters). Above deck there’s a different world: the Surprise carries an acre of sail and thirty miles of rope, and has a wonderfully beautiful rig, especially on a fine calm day ‘with the sun shining through and across all its curves, convexities and infinite variety of brilliantly lit or delicately shadowed white’. Below decks may be airless and fetid, but from the mastheads lookouts can survey 700 square miles of open sea. A complex wooden world like this needed skilful handling. It had to cope with war, of course, but also with weather. Of the two, weather was likelier to send a ship to the bottom. There might be no wind, so she’d drift on an oily, heaving sea, ‘figurehead simpering all round the compass and . . . nearly rolling her masts by the board’. Or there might be far too much wind, as in the scene here. Stephen has appeared on deck, unprepared for the terror about to confront him.
Under the low grey tearing sky, half driving rain, half driving spray, the whole sea was white – a vast creaming spread as far as the eye could see . . . For a moment the whole could have been a wild landscape, mountainous yet strangely regular; but then he saw that the whole was in motion, a vast majestic motion whose size concealed its terrifying dreamlike speed.The crew struggle to hold the ship straight before the wind so she won’t broach to and capsize. Stephen looks towards the stern and sees
a grey-green wall towering above the taffrail, racing towards them – swift inevitability. He strained his head back to see its top, curving beyond the vertical as it came yet still balancing with the speed of its approach, a beard of wind-torn spray flying out before it.O’Brian was a master narrator of action: storms, battle, or both together. I’ve never felt so personally present as when reading the passage where Jack is pursued in the South Seas by a faster, heavier gunned Dutchman, the Waakzaamheid. This time too they are running before a gale, chased by vast waves a quarter of a mile apart and taller than the ships themselves – waves with a reach of a thousand miles or more. When finally the Dutchman’s bow is just yards from Jack’s stern, the two captains staring at each other over mountainous peaks of green water, the gunners aim single shots on the rise and fall, knowing that one lucky hit could split a sail or carry away a mast, leaving the enemy helpless in a frantic sea. Of course that sort of battle was not the norm: far commoner were point-blank broadsides, big guns roaring away, recoiling and jumping, six-foot splinters scything across decks in the smoke, spars crashing, constant shouting. The screaming wounded would be carried below to Stephen, cutting and sawing and stitching in his surgery far below the waterline, his loblolly boy collecting limbs and guts to put over the side after the fight. Broadsides would be followed by boarding – Jack savagely joyful on that enemy deck, invariably flanked by his huge coxswain Barrett Bonden, once a prize-fighter, and by Awkward Davies, another giant, a man of ‘dark subhuman rage’ with a line of foam at his lips, hacking at living and dead alike. Jack would have his luck. He would need it to take the prizes that temporarily enriched him and still more briefly his men, and he would need it even to survive, with catastrophe and death always inches away. Stephen’s life is not much less eventful than Jack’s. He could make himself rich by running a medical practice in London or Dublin or even Barcelona, but he prefers to travel the world for the sake of science. And doing that gives him cover for intelligence work he prefers to do without pay, driven by hatred of Napoleon and an obsession with Catalan independence. He’s no foot-soldier either; he has made himself one of the Admiralty’s chief assets – worth a ship of the line to us any day of the week, says the First Lord. That’s because he’s not just a spy but a dab hand at political advice, the ideal man to forestall a coup or nobble a dubious neutral. Naturally Jack grows aware of his work, though they don’t talk about it, and to start with is rather in awe. He ‘had supposed he knew him through and through in the old uncomplicated times, and he loved all he knew; but now there were new depths, an underlying hard ruthlessness, an unexpected Maturin; and Jack was quite out of his depth’. The greater Maturin’s success, though, the more he’s a target, and the more he needs his friend’s help. Let’s leave the two of them for now, not in danger but in a fine passage of O’Brian’s descriptive writing. Stephen is remembering moments of calm on the little sloop, near the start of their friendship,
in the warm, deepening twilight, watching the sea; it had barely a ruffle on its surface, and yet the Sophie picked up enough moving air with her topgallants to draw a long straight whispering furrow across the water, a line brilliant with unearthly phosphorescence, visible for quarter of a mile behind her. Days and nights of unbelievable purity. Nights when the steady Ionian breeze rounded the square mainsail – not a brace to be touched, watch relieving watch – and he and Jack on deck, sawing away, sawing away, lost in their music, until the falling dew untuned their strings. And the days when the perfection of dawn was so great, the emptiness so entire, that men were almost afraid to speak.Two further articles on the Aubrey/Maturin novels follow in Issues 42 and 44.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 40 © Grant McIntyre 2013
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.