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O’Brian’s Great Voyage

1.

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.

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