Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/ Maturin Novels: An Overview
Reviewed by Dr. Robert C. Jones
Captain John Aubrey, Royal Navy, and Dr. Stephen Maturin—physician, naturalist, and intelligence agent—first met on 1 April 1800, in Master and Commander (J. B. Lippincott Co., 1970). The meeting is in the music-room of the Governor’s House at Port Mahon, Minorca. Then-Lieutenant Aubrey, silver medal of the Nile in his button-hole, is listening to Locatelli’s C Major Quartet, his bright blue eyes fixed on the bow of the first violin and his fist beating the time on his knee. Sitting beside him is Dr. Maturin, who gives Aubrey “a cold and indeed inimical look” and whispers, “If you really must beat the measure, sir, let me entreat you to do so in time, and not half a beat ahead.”
Despite that potentially disastrous exchange, Aubrey recruits Maturin to be the surgeon of his new command and the two unlikely adventurers—a fire-eating, violinplaying Royal Navy captain and a contemplative, cello-playing physician—begin their intertwined careers that have continued through a series of 16 novels, with no end in sight. Their creator, Patrick O’Brian, never suspected that the endeavors of Aubrey and Maturin would continue so long. In his author’s note to the tenth book—The Far Side of the World— he confesses that he had not known “how much pleasure he was to take in this kind of writing, and how many books were to follow the first.”
Nevertheless, 25 years and 15 novels later, O’Brian is still taking readers on what amounts to a Grand Tour of a marvelously recreated early 19th-century world: officers, seamen, courtiers, statesmen, clergymen, scientists, gentlemen, tradesmen; Rousseauistic philosophers, Sethians and Knipperdollings, scoundrels and heroes, ladies of society and ladies of the street; fierce battle action and deep-spun political intrigue—from spectacular single-ship actions in the Mediterranean to the thwarting of French interests in the Friendly Isles of the South Pacific.
At the heart of the series is the complex and deeply satisfying exploration of the friendship between Aubrey—“Lucky Jack,” a man of intense physical action, whose instinctive virtues seem to apply (as Maturin says, in a moment of reflection) “only at sea; in his maritime character”— and Maturin—a man of subtle and brilliant intellect, whom Jack once describes as a “sort of Admiral Crichton—whip your leg off in a moment, tell you the Latin name of anything that moves . . . speaks languages like a walking Tower of Babel, all except ours. Dear Lord,” he said, laughing heartily, “to this day I don’t believe he knows the odds between port and starboard.”
The evolution of their relationship— not always a smooth affair—brings a dimension to these books that elevates them above rollicking sea stories to serious, well-wrought novels, rich with discourse about life itself. This dimension is best explored through music. During their years in His Majesty’s service, whenever time and duty permit, Aubrey and Maturin customarily fill their evenings with it:
Few things gave them more joy; and although they were as unlike .... as two men could well be, they were wholly at one when it came to improvising, working out variations on a theme, handing them to and fro, conversing with violin and cello.
There also is an abundance of solid and satisfying action. This vital ingredient is derived, in large part, from the memoirs and letters of seamen, Admiralty and Navy Board records, and the publications of the Navy Records Society. In the author’s note to Master and Commander, O’Brian writes: “From the great wealth of brilliantly fought, baldly described actions I have picked those I particularly admire; and so when I describe a fight 1 have log-books, official letters, contemporary accounts, or the participants’ own memoirs to vouch for every exchange.” His reasons for so doing are that “the admirable men of those times, the Cochranes, Byrons, Falconers, Seymours, Boscawens .... are best celebrated in their own splendid actions rather than in imaginary contests; that authenticity is a jewel; and that the echo of their words has an abiding value.”
In novel after novel, one finds such gems of authenticity. In The Mauritius Command (the fourth in the series), is this account of Aubrey and his seamen from HMS Boadicea boarding the French ship Venus:
For a full minute he stood at the head of his boarders, while the Marines behind him plied their muskets as though they were on parade and the small-arms men in the tops kept up a fire on the guns .... Then he cried, “Boadiceas, come along with me,” vaulted on to the tom hammocks, leapt sword in hand across to the shrouds of the mainmast, slashed the boarding netting, slashed at a head below him, and so down to the Venus’s quarterdeck, followed by a cheering mass of seamen.
Before him stood a line of soldiers .... and in the second before the wave of Boadiceas broke over them a little terrified corporal lunged at Jack with his bayonet. Bonden caught the muzzle, wrenched the musket free, flogged three men flat with the butt and broke the line. On the deck be- hind the soldiers lay several bodies— officers—and in the momentary pause Jack thought he saw a French captain’s uniform. Then the aftermost group on the larboard gangway . . . turned and came for the Boadiceas with such a rush that they were swept back to the wheel, and the next few minutes were a furious confusion of violence, cut and parry, duck the pistol, kick and thrust and hack.
Complementing such accounts are sharply etched passages that describe the aftermath of action. In the 14th novel, The Nutmeg of Consolation, Jack and the crew of HMS Diane—stranded after being shipwrecked by a typhoon on an island in the Dutch East Indies—beat off, with heavy losses, an attack by Malay pirates:
As it usually happened after an engagement, a heavy sadness was coming down over his spirits. To some degree it was the prodigious contrast between two modes of life: in violent hand-to-hand fighting there was no room for time, reflexion, enmity or even pain unless it was disabling; everything moved with extreme speed, cut and parry with a reflex as fast as a sword-thrust, eyes automatically keeping watch on three or four men within reach, arm lunging at the first hint of a lowered guard, a cry to warn a friend, a roar to put an enemy off his stroke; and all this in an extraordinarily vivid state of mind, a kind of fierce exaltation, an intense living in the most immediate present. Whereas now time came back with all its deadening weight—a living in relation to tomorrow, to next year, a flag promotion, children’s future—so did responsibility, the innumerable responsibilities belonging to the captain of a man-of-war. And decision: in battle, eye and sword-arm made the decisions with inconceivable rapidity; there was no leisure to brood over them, no leisure at all.
Beyond such tautly written scenes of battle and its aftermath (surely worth the price of admission), one shares Aubrey’s and Maturin’s experiences in two wide and varied worlds: the Royal Navy of Nelson’s time and the world that it patrolled. In them, the reader discovers, for example, the early 19th century’s somewhat blase attitude toward medical hygiene. In Master and Commander, after dissecting a well- preserved dolphin, Maturin and his colleague, Mr. Florey, sit down to a haphazard meal, but find their carving knife too dull. Maturin searches for a sharper instrument. He finds one next to a sheet-covered human body that it was used to dissect.
“Perhaps we ought to wash it,” said Mr. Florey.
“Oh, a wipe will do,” said Stephen, using a corner of the sheet. “By the way, what was the cause of death?” he asked, letting the cloth fall back.
One also learns something about how much of an inspiration Horatio Nelson was to the Royal Navy officers who knew him, as Jack Aubrey does:
“I had the honour of serving under him at the Nile,” said Jack, “and of dining in his company twice.” His face broke into a smile at the recollection . . . .“Oh, you would take to him directly, I am sure. He is very slight—frail—I could pick him up (I mean no disrespect) in one hand. But you know he is a very great man directly .... He spoke to me on each occasion. The first time it was to say, 'May I trouble you for the salt, sir?’—I have always said it as close as I can to his way, ever since—you may have noticed it. But the second time I was trying to make my neighbor, a soldier, understand our naval tactics—weather-gage, breaking the line and so on—and in a pause he leant over with such a smile and said, ‘Never mind manoeuvres, always go at 'em.’ And at that same dinner he was telling us all how someone had offered him a boat cloak on a cold night and he had said no, he was quite warm—his zeal for his King and country kept him warm. It sounds absurd, as I tell it, does it not? And was it another man, any other man, you would cry out, ‘Oh, what pitiful stuff!’ and dismiss it as mere enthusiasm, but with him you feel your bosom glow.”
And, finally, one learns something about the human spirit itself. For that spirit, the mainspring and principal focus of the series, is interwoven into O’Brian’s ever- evolving double portrait of the extrovert Aubrey and the introvert Maturin—as admirably paired in their adventures as are their tastes in music.
When will that double portrait be finished? As one of O’Brian’s characters comments, “Often an unfinished picture is all the more interesting for the bare canvas .... there is at least one Mozart quartet that stops without the slightest ceremony: most satisfying when you get used to it.”
Here, then, is a fitting scene to conclude with: Stephen and Jack in the captain’s cabin of one of Aubrey’ ships, HMS Surprise, after supper. Jack “so playing that his violin helped the cello, yielding to it in those minute ways perceptible to those who are deep in their music if to few others ... . They swept into the next movement, the cello booming nobly, and carried straight on with never a hesitation nor a false note until the full satisfaction of the end.”
The titles in the Aubrey/Maturin series are: Master and Commander (1970), Post Captain (1972), HMS Surprise (1973), The Mauritius Command (1977), Desolation Island (1978), The Fortune of War (1979), The Surgeon’s Mate (1980), The Ionian Mission (1981), Treason’s Harbour (1983), The Far Side of the World (1984), The Reverse of the Medal (1986), The Letter of Marque (1988), The Thirteen Gun Salute (1989), The Nutmeg of Consolation (1991), The Tru- elove (1992), and The Wine-Dark Sea (1993). With the exception of the last title, all of the books are available in paperback from W. W. Norton.
Merchant Adventurer: The Story of W.R. Grace
Marquis James. New York: Scholarly Resources, 1993. 385 pp. Bib. Ind. Notes. Photos. $24.95 ($23.70).
Reviewed by Dr. Robert L. Schema
Written some 40 years ago by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marquis James—but only now published—this biography was commissioned by the Grace family to honor its patriarch—and founder of the Grace trading empire—William R. Grace.
Besides his commercial career, Grace was twice mayor of New York City (and involved in presidential politics), a faithful Roman Catholic, a loyal son of Ireland, and a true patriarch who oversaw the lives of his siblings and children. All these facets of Grace’s life are covered; however, James’ proclamation of Grace as “the man who did as much as any other to foster understanding between the peoples of the two continents of his hemisphere” reveals the book’s focus.
The author’s description of his subject as “the genius of his century in the Latin American trade” captures the international importance of Grace. He made his fortune in guano and nitrates; supplied the great railroad entrepreneur, “Don Enrique” Meiggs; sold Peru all kinds of sustenance during the War of the Pacific (1879-81)—including torpedoes and the services of former Confederates—and supported the winning Congresionalistas in the Chilean Civil War of 1891. Grace was active elsewhere in the hemisphere. He dabbled in the Brazilian rubber trade; he supplied the ill-fated transisthmus Costa Rican railroad; and he attempted to gain control of the construction of the transcontinental canal. By the late 19th century, his commercial empire dominated trade along the west coast of the Americas. However, unlike the other “gringo” adventurers in Latin America who earned and then lost great fortunes, Grace measured risk carefully and, therefore, was able to expand his business.
James’ characterization of Grace’s contribution to inter-American understanding might stretch things a bit, but not too far. Grace did use his influence for the good of all when he interceded with the U.S. government to help prevent war between Chile and the United States over the Baltimore Affair in 1891. His work on the first Inter-American conference in 1889 helped make it a success—although he had been ignored by politicians in Washington.
Not written by a trained historian (which, some may argue, enhances its value), Merchant Adventurer has a few loose ends. First, it focuses on what was morally good with the United States and U.S. business practices during the 19th century and ignores the bad. James significantly overstates the value of two torpedo boats (not cruisers, as stated in the text) to the Constitutionalista cause during the 1891 Chilean Civil War—perhaps because he did not understand naval technology of that era. Perusing the extensive endnotes, one cannot help but imagine the rich vein of materials related to Latin American naval and mercantile history that were left buried within the Grace papers because they did not serve the author’s needs. For example, Federico Blume—a Peruvian who built a submarine (which, according to some accounts, was technologically successful) for use in the War of the Pacific—is mentioned three times and quoted at some length on page 240, but without reference to a particular document.
Despite these idiosyncrasies, I strongly recommend Merchant Adventurer to readers who are interested in the economic evolution of the west coast of South America as well as those who want a better understanding of the growth of U.S. capitalism during the 19th century.
Books of Interest
By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired)
The Old Steam Navy: Volume Two: The Ironclads, 1842-1885
Donald L. Canney. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1993. Bib. Illus. Ind. Notes. Photos. $49.95 ($34.96).
This is the second volume in Mr. Canney’s technical study of U.S. Navy warships of the mid-to-late 19th century. With an accessible style, he describes the ironclads’ construction, machinery, armament, and rig—as well as the technological innovations that made them possible. This penetrating account of an over-
looked period of U.S. naval history will appeal to ship buffs, model makers, Civil War enthusiasts, and naval historians.
Mantle of Heroism: Tarawa and the Struggle for the Gilberts,
November 1943 Michael B. Graham. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1993. 384 pp. Bib. Ind. Maps. Notes. Photos. $24.95 ($22.45).
The self-sacrifice of a U.S. Navy captain in order to preserve the secrets of U.S. code-breaking is one of many riveting stories brought to life in this excellent new account of Operation Galvanic, the invasion of Tarawa. Graham has synthesized the Japanese and American views of this heroic and horrifying struggle, shedding new light on an old controversy and vividly recounting the preparations, execution, and aftermath of the bloody battle of Tarawa.
The Worlds of Christopher Columbus
W. D. Phillips, Jr. & C. R. Phillips. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. 334 pp. Bib. Illus. Ind. Maps. Notes. $29.95($26.95) $13.95 ($12.55) Paper.
Recounting Columbus’s exploits while placing these momentous events in their proper milieu, this book makes clear the achievements and failings of a man who changed the world. Columbus was a visionary who realized his dreams; nevertheless, his vision was flawed and his accomplishments very different from those he intended. Professors Phillips have collaborated to recount the life of this explorer while evaluating his actions in the context of his times and assessing his impact on the centuries that followed.
The Churchill War Papers: Volume I: At the Admiralty, September 1939-May 1940
Martin Gilbert, Editor. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993. 1390 pp. Append. Bib. Ind. Maps. Notes. $75.00 ($67.50).
Drawn from Winston Churchill’s personal archives, official British documents, and more than 100 public and private documentary collections, Churchill’s official biographer has compiled an extraordinary record of the first eight months of World War II, when Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty. Included are the full texts of Churchill’s Parliamentary speeches and radio broadcasts as well as his War Cabinet memoranda, departmental minutes and correspondence.