On any approximately proportionate view of history, of the kind that may become more gradually available to us as the long day of the twentieth century wanes, the Napoleonic conflict would deserve to be called the First World War. Never before had two great powers and their volatile allies mobilized their societies so extensively to contend for mastery over so immense a reach of the earth’s surface. Great engagements were fought at the gates of Moscow, in the Baltic, at the mouth of the Nile, in Italy, Turkey, and Spain, but the reverberations extended, by way of proxy fighting, to China, Australia, and other barely charted latitudes. Both North and South America, and the intervening Caribbean basin, were drawn in, and found their internal politics conditioned by French and English rivalries and allegiances. Hitherto obscure archipelagoes and islands such as the Falklands and Mauritius became decisive. Local nationalisms were inflamed and manipulated from Chile to Ireland. Macaulay later wrote of Frederick the Great that, as a consequence of his perfidies, scalpings occurred by the Great Lakes and butcheries on the coast of Coromandel. How much more true is this of the long struggle between imperial and Georgian Britain and Jacobin and Bonapartist France. Conflicts to which tradition has awarded other customary names—the Peninsular War, the War of 1812—were in actuality subplots of this great contest. Stendhal, Tolstoy, Wordsworth, Beethoven, and Goya all spent themselves trying to set down some of it.
This astonishing global tumult, which also involved important battles over religion and ideology, and which gave rise to convulsive changes in the technological and scientific apparatus available to men and to governments, is the macrocosmic context that was chosen, with great daring and address, by the late Patrick O’Brian. His fictional settings and allusions range—to use rather a paltry term—from the towns of Andalusia and Albania to the convict settlements in Botany Bay, the colonial outposts of Hong Kong and Calcutta, and the forts and monasteries of the Andes: from China to Peru as was once said by another author. But precisely because the deciding element in this war was that of sea power, he also summons the decidedly microcosmic atmosphere of the decks, holds, and cabins of a seagoing fighting machine.
It was the sloops, frigates, and men-of-war of the Royal Navy which first blockaded revolutionary France and then, by supplying her enemies and terrifying her friends, wore her down. A certain autonomy had to be given to commanders so far from home base, and this epoch marks the transition of British oceanic tactics from something quite like piracy into something more nearly resembling a professionalized if still highly mercenary imperial discipline. A person holding official seal and warrant in such a gigantic war could still appear in the character of a free-lance or aquatic knight-errant, though he would have been prudent to bear in mind, as Captain Aubrey must do in The Mauritius Command (1977), that members of the Board of Admiralty were also important shareholders in the East India Company. In the figure of Jack Aubrey, and that of his co-conspirator Stephen Maturin, O’Brian contrived over the space of twenty novels to present this first world war in all its grandeur and scope, yet meticulously shaped to human scale. A warship “cleared” for action is a vessel in which the men’s hammocks are swung into the rigging, and in which the partitions separating the officers’ cabins are removed. Thus we have a chance to meet—as naval officers did and as army officers did not—the members of the lower orders. Barrett Bonden and Thomas Pullings, promoted by pluck and ability, become recognizable players as the chapters (they are in some ways chapters rather than books) knit themselves into a sequence.
Beseeching the delegates at the Democratic convention in 1980 to remember a recently departed so-called happy warrior, President Jimmy Carter outdid even himself for prodigious bathos by bidding them keep a moment of silence for “Hubert, Horatio—Hornblower.” The absurd slip was impressive subliminal testimony to the work of C.S. Forester, whose earlier set of novels had magnetized readers by the same combination of historical narrative and individual drama. (Ernest Hemingway once said that he recommended Forester to every literate person he knew.) Aside from his authorship of such classics as The African Queen, Forester produced eleven novels to make up the Hornblower saga. The periods are slightly discrepant—Hornblower joins the navy in 1793 while Aubrey and Maturin meet in the early 1800s—but not the least sense in which O’Brian may be called daring is the extent to which he invites comparison.
Indeed he does rather more than invite it. Rereading the first fifty pages of A Ship of the Line (1938), I found Hornblower consumed with worry about a shortage of able-bodied crew for his commission, concerned about the coast of Catalonia, overwhelmed with love for a senior officer’s wife (while assailed with unworthy second thoughts about his own), gnawed with anxiety about promotion, highly offended at the role played by parliamentary and political corruption, obsessed with the real gold in his epaulettes, proud of the engraved sword presented him by the Patriotic Fund (which he has to put straight into pawn), preoccupied by the slow rate of fire from his broadsides, and haunted by the pressing need of capital that can only come from a successful capture of an enemy merchant vessel or “prize.” He makes regular use of expressions like “handsomely, there,” and “give you joy.” He has a rather irritating manservant aboard ship, but feels a deep peace when he can be alone and look out of the stern windows in his private cabin. The opening also features a stupefying official banquet with many toasts, at which he does not shine socially. And all of this, as I say, in fifty pages.
Anybody who has experienced even partial immersion in the O’Brian odyssey will instantly recognize that this, in every detail and respect, is the world of Captain Jack Aubrey. Moreover, Forester’s sequence followed Hornblower up the ladder of promotion from Mr. Midshipman Hornblower to Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies, a struggle for advancement in rank which O’Brian emulated with almost pedantic fealty from Master and Commander (1970) right up to last year’s concluding Blue at the Mizzen, where Aubrey achieved admiral’s status with an entitlement to the pennant described in the title. The only salient differences, on a first inspection, are that Hornblower is thin and phlegmatic while in respect of the humors Aubrey is rotund and jovial, Hornblower suffers dreadfully from seasickness while Aubrey does not, and, though both men dislike having clergymen aboard, Hornblower is a stern agnostic and student of Gibbon, whereas Aubrey thinks that a dose of religion is at least good for morale.
O’Brian gains an edge, however, with his appetite for stark realism. “The traditions of the Royal Navy,” that “former naval person” Winston Churchill is supposed to have said while stationed at the Admiralty, “are rum, sodomy and the lash.” Like Hornblower (and like Lord Nelson himself) Jack Aubrey is no fanatic applicant of the cat-o’-nine-tails and the ritual flogging, a topic that has generated a whole specialist literature for certain aficionados in the English market. But he does have a robust attitude toward the making of babies and he does attend, in a way that would discountenance Hornblower fans, to the promptings of his male generative member. So does his accomplice, the good Dr. Maturin. So indeed do the inhabitants of the lower deck.
O’Brian avoids anything too lurid or graphic, but he takes the facts of life very much as they come, and these narratives are salted, as one might say, with illustrative incidents of every sort of carnality (including the bestial, since animals had to be shipped for milk and protein) and also of the gross reality of attending to bodily functions in a confined and hazardous space. We are spared neither the scent of the bordello, nor the pox-ridden customers of the ship’s surgeon, nor the reek of the head and the privy. As for rum, we come to appreciate how shrewd were the severe British Sea Lords who mandated a stunning daily draft of it as the only indulgence permitted afloat.
There is another respect in which O’Brian repeatedly outclasses Forester, and that is the political and cultural. “I knew no harm of Bonaparte, and plenty of the Squire,” once wrote G.K. Chesterton, who even as a Tory quite understood that the government of Pitt had been fighting social revolution as well as “the Corsican usurper.” (It was the Duke of Wellington who, after Waterloo and the Congress of Vienna, became the great postwar antagonist of the Reform Bill.) Not since Thomas Flanagan produced The Year of the French (1979) to open his Hibernian trilogy has any novelist so well evoked the subculture of radical and millenarian sects, the boiling-up of revolutionary and Utopian ideas, that formed so strong a current in the English life of that period. (One says English, though in fact the concept of a Briton, or of the British, was being forged out of stubborn Welsh, Scottish, and Irish materials at that very time.) Dr. Stephen Maturin is the sensitive register of these political pressures and temperatures.
By the time we are introduced to him, he has already outlived by luck his sympathy for the rising of the United Irishmen—Flanagan’s great subject—in the quixotic French-backed revolt of Wolfe Tone and Lord Edward Fitzgerald in 1798. He is, moreover, a Catholic in a time of English penal laws against Papacy, and of part-Catalan bastardized parentage during the changes of alliance between Castilian Spain and the Parisian Directory. His protean Celtic/Pyrenean identity supplies the ideal counterpoint to Jack Aubrey, who is a bluff and unreflecting Tory in the service of a navy dominated by Whigs, utilitarians, and other sophists and calculators.
O’Brian is not always easy to cite, because his many terse moments of wit and aptitude require context for their explication, and because he allows himself so much time and room for the development of his tale, but here for example is what Jack Aubrey finds when he is returned to English shores in Blue at the Mizzen, during one of the several truces that punctuate the long war to which he devotes his life:
It is true that Jack’s game dwindled strangely; but on a nearby estate, which had been subjected to rigorous enclosure—no common land with rights of grazing, cutting fern, taking turf—there was not so much as a single rabbit to be seen. Then again, although the Corn Laws endeavoured to keep the price of wheat at å£4, taxing imports accordingly, a great deal of American and Continental food now came in, legally or illegally, and farming was no longer a very profitable business. The landowners suffered, of course; and most of the farmers suffered even more; but the people who were really ground right down into misery were the men, women and children who worked the land—those who had not so much as a decent garden left after enclosure.
Meanwhile Maturin encounters the home base of the sect that commands the allegiance of so many crew members of HMS Surprise. One needs an edition of E.P. Thompson at hand to follow his nose for the scent of plebeian nonconformism.
“There is the Sethians’ chapel,” he said, nodding in the direction of a white building with enormous brilliant letters of brass on its face. “Seth,” they read. “What is Seth? Who is Seth?”
“He was one of Adam’s sons, brother to Cain and Abel.”
In a few strokes, then, O’Brian has thickened and deepened his text by reminding us that this was the era of William Blake and his Muggletonian transcendental faction, and of the bitter and melancholy rural poetry of John Clare. The good ship Surprise is described as “an ark of dissent” in The Wine-Dark Sea (1993), containing as it does “Brownists, Sethians, Arminians, Muggletonians and several others, generally united in a seamanlike tolerance when afloat and always in a determined hatred of tithes when ashore.” Later, when a radical French officer escapes Aubrey’s custody en route to Argentina, it is freely acknowledged that Mennonite sympathies among the hands have allowed him to do so.
It is Maturin who makes all the difference here. For a sidekick, Hornblower had only the dogged Mr. Bush, a character of John Bull-ish stoicism. Jack Aubrey ships out with the Georgian equivalent of a Straussian intellectual, a man of many parts but with a good many of them hidden. To Jack he shows his command of medicine and natural history and the classics, but beneath the waterline he is also an intelligence expert familiar with complex codes, and a closet revolutionary. In the very first novel of the series, Master and Commander, Maturin is shocked to find himself on the same ship as a former subversive associate, and fears exposure. When the two men are left alone at last, they recall the recruiting oath of the United Irishmen, a test that begins:
“Are you straight?”
“As straight as a rush.”
“Go on then.”
“In truth, in trust, in unity and liberty.”
“What have you got in your hand?”
“A green bough.”
“Where did it first grow?”
“Where did it bud?”
“Where are you going to plant it?”
The answer to the last question, not disclosed until later, is “In the crown of Great Britain.” Without quite forsaking his radical republican past, and while cleaving very strongly to the cause of Catalan independence, Maturin has come to detest Bonapartism and he sails, pro tem, under King George’s flag. He puts me in mind of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s analysis of Edmund Burke: an Irishman wearing English patriotic colors against France, the better to plead by indirection for the cause of Ireland, India, and the American colonies.*
Front-line fighters and espionage agents may need, and display, entirely different styles, but they possess one essential piece of hard-won experience in common, which is that they are both in great danger from their superiors. Confined as he is in a wooden shell, Jack Aubrey may still count himself a king of infinite space while he is out on the ocean. Nonetheless, a twitch upon the thread held by the Admiralty and he can be court-martialed and dishonored, or reduced to penury and shame by a malign superior. As for Stephen Maturin, an indiscretion may be enough to expose him and his network of European informants to ruin, while any treachery in the sinuous world of the London spymasters will condemn him to torture and/or death. We get a hint of that universe in The Fortune of War (1979), where a Mr. Wallis is described as “an old, tried colleague, with no vices but the parsimony, meanness, and cold lechery so usual in intelligence.” Not one of the twenty novels fails to discover our heroes fatally jeopardized by their “own” side. In Desolation Island (1978), the fifth in the series, we find the following:
In former days Jack had cuckolded the Admiral, an unscrupulous, revengeful man who would not hesitate to break him if he could. During his naval career, Jack had made a great many friends in the service, but he had also made a surprising number of enemies for so amiable a man: some had been jealous of his success; some (and these were his seniors) had found him too independent, even insubordinate in his youth; some disliked his politics (he hated a Whig); and some had the same grudge as Admiral Harte, or fancied they did.
This is actually a recapitulation—O’Brian is the only author I know of save P.G. Wodehouse to include so many of them—of the state of affairs four books earlier, in Master and Commander, when a medical colleague explains to Maturin how matters stand for Aubrey:
“Our friend is famous for his dash, his enterprise and his good luck rather than for his strict sense of subordination: and some few of the senior captains here feel a good deal of jealousy and uneasiness at his success. What is more, he is a Tory, or his family is; and the husband and the present First Lord are rabid Whigs, vile ranting dogs of Whigs. Do you follow me, Dr Maturin?”
“I do indeed, sir, and am much obliged to you for your candour in telling me this: it confirms what was in my mind, and I shall do all I can to make him conscious of the delicacy of his position. Though upon my word,” he added with a sigh, “there are times when it seems to me that nothing short of a radical ablation of the membrum virile would answer, in this case.”
“That is very generally the peccant part,” said Mr Florey.
(This fine Latinity, some sly Boswellian allusions, and some general physical accounts of his scruffiness and bookish disorder always make me visualize Dr. Maturin as Samuel Johnson.)
Maturin has his own vicissitudes. In HMS Surprise (1973), the third of the series, he has his fingernails torn out by vindictive French interrogators in the Balearic Islands, while in Treason’s Harbour (1983), the ninth volume, he is dangerously compromised by a Bonapartist mole planted deep in the British Admiralty itself. As each story begins, it is customary to find Jack fighting a rearguard action against the naval bureaucracy and Stephen in the toils of a deep-laid conspiracy that is being bungled by British intelligence. Though this puts the middle and later books somewhat into the category of the formulaic, it also helps one to understand the addictive, cultish following that has crystallized around the O’Brian “Gunroom” site on the World Wide Web. One sign of mastery and command is the ability to create a familiar world-within-world for the reader: O’Brian had this faculty in lavish measure. Even the repeated expressions and ritualized orders—“Give you joy of it,” “A glass of wine with you, Sir,” “Hoist the topgallants,” “Where away?”—come to acquire a soothing and reassuring patina.
These features, one must also say, are a weakness of the series. Since we “know” that Aubrey and Maturin will outlive each scrape, there is often a relaxation of tension and several of the books conclude with the flatness of a “to be continued…” serialization. There are large pieces of unfinished business: in Desolation Island Maturin discovers among the convicts a “Mrs Hoath, the procuress and abortionist [who] seems to me to have thrown off what little humanity she may have been born with, and by long perseverance to have reached a depth of iniquity that I have rarely seen equalled, never surpassed.” One instantly longs for a further introduction which never takes place. In The Fortune of War two incidental seamen on two different vessels are both given the single name of Raikes. O’Brian’s lulling, almost hypnotic reiteration of his set pieces (Jack and Stephen’s cello and violin duets, the sextant observations at noon, the rousing out of the special bottle of wine, gunnery drills, changes of the tide, loading of stores) are so automatic that they occasionally dull his own pen.
In a Calvino-like manner, O’Brian seems to make his anticipatory self-criticism in The Nutmeg of Consolation (1991), fourteenth of the novels and dedicated to Robert Hughes’s pioneering work on Botany Bay. The two botanizers Martin and Maturin find themselves reflecting upon what one can only term the sense of an ending:
“As for an end,” said Martin, “are endings really so very important? Sterne did quite well without one; and often an unfinished picture is all the more interesting for the bare canvas. I remember Bourville’s definition of a novel as a work in which life flows in abundance, swirling without a pause: or as you might say without an end, an organized end. And there is at least one Mozart quartet that stops without the slightest ceremony: most satisfying when you get used to it.”
Stephen said: “There is another Frenchman whose name escapes me but who is even more to the point: La bêtise c’est de vouloir conclure. The conventional ending, with virtue rewarded and loose ends tied up is often sadly chilling; and its platitude and falsity tend to infect what has gone before, however excellent. Many books would be far better without their last chapter:or at least with no more than a brief, cool, unemotional statement of the outcome.”
I choose to think of this as still another instance of O’Brian’s amplitude of trust in the reader: the fact remains that six books later he rather matter-of-factly hoisted Jack Aubrey’s flag to the Admiral’s rank, signed off, and then (on January 7 this year) died.
Nonetheless, Maturin’s polymathic reach—multilingual, highly politicized, ethnically hybrid, and hypereducated—make him the ideal fictional vector. His skill as a physician gives him automatic access to the lower deck, which holds him in near-superstitious awe and affection for his virtue as trepanner and bone-setter and curer of pervasive venereal infection. He is capable of compressing a great deal into a short insight. “Protestants,” he notes in HMS Surprise, “often confessed to medical men.” As a taxonomist and natural historian, he occupies that rather odd interlude between the expeditions of Captain James Cook and the voyage of the Beagle; he anticipates Darwin while revering Cook (and goes as far as Australia to classify marsupials, also helping to rediscover Captain Bligh of the Bounty, who we are inclined to forget had sailed with Cook and who survived four thousand miles in an open boat before making landfall in Timor). Jack, meanwhile, pushes ahead with his study of the then-mysterious subject of longitude, and collects salinity samples for Humboldt as late as the voyage in The Truelove (1992). He has no patience with any science that offers no immediate practical application.
From Dean King’s enterprising but decidedly unauthorized biography we are to collect, as Jack Aubrey might phrase it, that there exists an emotional connection between Maturin and his progenitor. Patrick O’Brian changed his name from Richard Russ in an attempt to remake his life; acquired a second identity by removing himself to Catalonia and writing a biography of that nation’s favorite son, Pablo Picasso; spent much time under sail; translated Simone de Beauvoir, among others, into English; composed a study of Sir Joseph Banks, the great naturalist who voyaged with Cook; and for some reasons of unexplained distaste would not discuss his wartime service with British military intelligence. In addition, he suffered distraught relations with family and lovers, more than once severing both ties altogether. It seems a defensible thesis. Here is Maturin being plagued with a fit of melancholy, in the closing passages of Post Captain (1972):
Such potentiality, and so much misery? Hatred the only moving force, a petulant unhappy striving—childhood the only happiness, and that unknowing; then the continual battle that cannot ever possibly be won: a losing fight against ill-health—poverty for nearly all. Life is a long disease with only one termination and its last years are appalling: weak, racked by the stone, rheumatismal pains, senses going, friends, family, occupation gone, a man must pray for imbecility or a heart of stone. All under sentence of death, often ignominious, frequently agonizing: and then the unspeakable levity with which the faint chance of happiness is thrown away for some jealousy, tiff, sullenness, private vanity, mistaken sense of honour…
This, too, is a fairly exhaustive taxonomy. Yet when the doctor’s spirits are recovered he takes immense delight in the albatross, the aardvark, the sloth, the turtle, and the whale, and never loses his sense of outrage at the foulness of slavery and oppression. It’s true that he needs his laudanum and his coca leaves to keep going, but a dryish sense of humor often buoys him up also, offsetting the heavy puns and awful malapropisms that Jack Aubrey uses. (“Autre temps—autre merde,” he muses at one juncture, while never failing to hug himself at the production of such sallies as “the lesser of two weevils.”)
One might legitimately surmise that O’Brian’s mood swings and prejudices took something of the same form as do Maturin’s. He allows himself two major slashes at the reputation of the peerless Lord Nelson—a man esteemed this side of idolatry by Jack Aubrey—once for supporting the African slave trade and once for his cruelty and perfidy in putting down the republican insurgents in Naples (the same episode that is depicted more fully in Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover). Lord Byron is often mentioned with approval, as are the barely discernible future struggles for liberty in Greece, Malta, and other places where the British Empire colonized Europeans. In Treason’s Harbour we read of a Mr. Holden who
had been dismissed the service for using his ship to protect some Greeks fleeing from a Turkish punitive expedition: he was now acting for a small, remote, ineffectual and premature Committee for Greek Independence, and since the English government had to keep on terms with the Sublime Porte he was a most unwelcome visitor to official Malta…
—while in The Wine-Dark Sea, where the ship touches at Sierra Leone (founded before Liberia as a state for free slaves), Maturin is in a positive rage about the Middle Passage and its overseers:
It is a retrospective passion, sure, but I feel it still. Thinking of that ill-looking flabby ornamented conceited self-complacent ignorant shallow mean-spirited cowardly young shite with absolute power over fifteen hundred blacks makes me fairly tremble even now.
The more pragmatic Jack (“perhaps it comes more natural if you are black”) cannot quite approve his friend’s unpunctuated Irish polemic, but we learn that this leathery old Tory has fathered a son with an African woman, and that he dotes on the boy.
O’Brian is also at some pains to undermine the “Hearts of Oak” image of the Royal Navy of the period, pointing out repeatedly that a large number of those hauling on the ropes were not the sons of Anglo-Saxon yeomen and bowmen, whether forcibly impressed into the service or otherwise. Bengalis, Finns, Italians, Poles go to make up the ship’s complement—this is not the least respect in which the influence of Joseph Conrad can be felt. And, speaking of the impressment of seamen, the acerbic Maturin registers very strong objections to the British habit of stopping American vessels and impounding their crews. In the confrontations with the USS Chesapeake and Constitution, in fact, the doctor feels his loyalty palpably engaged on the other side.
And in several of the novels—perhaps most notably in The Far Side of the World (1984), the tenth of the series—we get a clear prefiguration of the rise of another great maritime power, which has learned in the same way (and from the same empire) as would Admiral Mahan that command of the oceans is essential. O’Brian’s accounts of American whalers and their nautical prowess evoke and equal Melville; on another hand the conduct of British and American seafarers when wrecked on the same island suggests Defoe, and also, perhaps, William Golding. In The Fortune of War, having seen the New World in action, our gallant captain makes the largest concession that is allowable to him:
Nelson had never much cared for the use of fighting-tops in battle, partly because of the danger of fire, and until recently everything that Nelson said was Gospel to Jack Aubrey. But on the other hand, he had seen the Java carried into battle in obedience to the great man’s dictum, “Never mind manoeuvres: go straight at ’em,” and it occurred to him that although Nelson was always right where the French and Spaniards were concerned, he might have had other views if he had been at war with the Americans.
(It comes back to me that I met Pat-rick O’Brian at a reception in the Decatur Room off Lafayette Square in Washington: he showed the liveliest admiration for the memory of the commodore.)
Some readers affect to be repelled by the astonishing amount of technical and archaic language (what on earth are those “fighting-tops” mentioned above?) charting the movement of the ship and of the winds. The diagram of the sailing tackle of a square-rigger, thoughtfully appended in the most recent editions, is more intimidating than otherwise: a glossary of terms would be of greater assistance.
“Almost ready, sir,” said the sweating, harassed bosun. “I’m working the cunt-splice myself.”
“Well,” said Jack, hurrying off to where the stern-chaser hung poised above the Sophie’s quarter-deck, ready to plunge through her bottom if gravity could but have its way, “a simple thing like a cunt-splice will not take a man of war’s bosun long, I believe.”
This is all very well, until the futtock-shrouds come in a few pages later on, or until we read the command to “scandalize the foretopsailyards.” As a navy brat myself, brought up in Portsmouth and Plymouth and Malta and on tales of the “wooden wall” which had been “England’s sure shield,” I know most of the words to the songs that appear in these pages, and I understand that bosun is shorthand for boatswain, but in the passage above the only term that is absolutely clear to me is “bottom” (though I dimly apprehend that a “stern-chaser,” louche as it sounds, is a brass cannon). However, I recommend persistence. For an instance, take this paragraph from The Far Side of The World:
It took fifty-seven men to haul the foresheet aft, to tally and belay; and as the strain increased so the Surprise heeled another strake, another and yet another, until she showed a broad streak of copper on her windward side, while the howl in the rigging rose shriller and shriller, almost to the breaking-note. And there she steadied, racing through the sea and flinging a bow-wave so high to leeward that the sun sent back a double rainbow.
This is almost invisible writing, but it brings even a landlubber to the feel of a crucial rope tautening under his hand, imparting velocity and direction. In The Surgeon’s Mate (1979) there is a brief lovely sentence worthy of the Iliad, where Maturin feels “a change in the brig’s progress, a greater thrust that raised her general music by half a tone.” This everlasting tuning explains without sentiment why life afloat was so harsh and exhausting and subject to such horrific, absolute authority. One false guess about the weather and it was all over. Many terms we employ unreflectingly—from “first-rate” to “piping down” to “bitter end”—acquired their use in these circumstances and are given their original provenance in these accounts. One also recalls that the British Admiral Byng, executed by firing squad on his own quarterdeck for insufficient zeal, is the occasion for the laconic French maxim pour encourager les autres.
Perhaps I have not said enough about the microcosmic. O’Brian gives us minute accounts of human relations on land and sea. His trusty scheme is of course the time-honored one of the buddy movie or the literary double act, and he milks it to the utmost. Aboard, Jack saves Maturin from drowning, from falling into the hold, from dangerous innocence and from all manner of shot and shell. On land, Maturin rescues the gullible Jack from French patrols (once farcically disguising him as a dancing bear), from English card-sharpers and swindlers and other urban predators, including ominously modern versions of the political police. The two men come close to a falling-out over a woman, the fatally solipsistic Diana Villiers, a lady brilliantly realized as undone by her physical splendor, her intelligence, her pride, and her lack of means. Her violent death in The Hundred Days (1998) is read by some as a tribute to O’Brian’s own wife, who died in the same year. One of the novels (Post Captain) is indeed set largely on shore and negotiates the shoals of English social relations.
O’Brian we know was a tremendous admirer of Jane Austen: in the figure of Jack Aubrey’s mother-in-law he created a woman so profoundly false and irritating that she could well have been of the party at Mansfield Park. The tedium and hypocrisy of contemporary courtship is captured to a satisfying degree (those infinitely laborious removals from one torpid country house to another dull spa): the reader shares with the narrator’s subjects the mounting desire to smell gunpowder and rigging again. I do not think, however, that Miss Austen would have allowed herself some of the broad yet private jesting in which O’Brian indulged: not every gentle reader will know that some of his quaint English village names (Swiving being the roughest example) are in fact common obscenities of the period.
Within the microcosm of the service, however, O’Brian succeeds in something that Kipling, say, could never attempt without embarrassing himself. He is able to give an unaffected account of demotic talk; accurate one feels sure, and uncondescending. Here is an extract, admittedly in reported speech, in which a second mate enlightens Maturin about climatic conditions on the Grand Banks:
As to the fog, it was caused by the cold Labrador current setting south, then rising over the Banks and meeting the warm air of the Gulf Stream—the Doctor had heard tell of the Gulf Stream?—and so brewing up a fog almost continual. Some days you would say the whole sea was steaming like a pot, it brewed so fast: and that was why the wind did not blow it away—it was brewed afresh continual.
It is O’Brian’s lack of cant that makes up for his occasional overreliance on coincidence, his tendency toward repetition, and his lapses into boyish seafaring homespun (most marked on those occasions when our heroes run into female warriors in torrid zones). He keeps before him the essential realization that men like warfare and relish plunder, and pine away for the lack of it. In The Thirteen-Gun Salute (1989) Jack Aubrey remembers with “a fulness of being, like no other… every detail of blows given and received.” In almost every book there is either an outbreak of peace or a rumor that hostilities have been suspended, and in each instance the response is a moan of disappointment, because the chance of enrichment or advancement has been thereby snatched away. In Desolation Island a Turkish crew member—a castrated man to boot—is convicted of thieving and sentenced to be tied to a grating, stripped, and flogged:
The bosun’s mate brought the cat out of its red baize bag: nine hearty strokes, nine appalling falsetto screams of a shrillness and a volume enough to mark the day as quite uncommon, and to gratify that part of the ship’s company which took pleasure in bull-baiting, bear-baiting, prize-fighting, pillories, and executions—perhaps nine-tenths of those present.
This is not sadistic or prurient, but a blunt recognition of the callousness without which the muster could not have been called, nor the sails spread. The presence of women aboard ship is never depicted as anything but toxic and calamitous. The fortunes of war are shown to be a matter of caprice; when Jack Aubrey winces at the foundering with all hands of an enormous Dutch battleship he is thought by his brother-officers to have become temporarily unhinged. The fate of men dragged from dank rural jails to fill the naval quota is sometimes described but usually in such a way as to leave the vilest parts to the imagination: the fate of transported convicts—including political and labor union prisoners who appear in The Ionian Mission (1981) and The Nutmeg of Consolation (1991)—is described in such a way that you can almost smell it (though the pathos of Maturin’s lost Irish servitor Padeen in the latter volume is O’Brian’s only lapse into outright sentimentality).
And, once Bonaparte has been defeated, both Aubrey and Maturin (in The Wine-Dark Sea and Blue at the Mizzen) sign up for a fresh set of contingent hostilities in Spanish America. Maturin may have the excuse of taking the side of liberty—his contacts with sub rosa Masonic orders are very finely traced, and form a credible continuation of his surreptitious political commitments—but for Jack the motive is simple mayhem with the chance of an admiral’s pennant at the end of it. This, you feel with the same growing pressure that tautens the sheets and masts of the narrative, is how it really was.
The Wine-Dark Sea is of course meant to put us in mind of Homer, and in The Far Side of the World a young officer confesses to having looked into Chapman’s version while stationed in Gibraltar. Maturin, naturally, has read Pope’s edition, and has conned Virgil and Horace. It was evidently O’Brian’s intention to transcend the naval yarn and to show for another generation “the man of many resources” (or “many wiles,” as Pope has it) who “saw the cities and learned the thoughts of many men, and on the sea suffered in his heart many woes.”
See Conor Cruise O’Brien’s introduction to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (Penguin, 1986). See also his The Great Melody (University of Chicago, Press, 1992). ↩