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O’Brian’s Great Voyage

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?”

I am.”

How 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?”

In America.”

Where did it bud?”

In France.”

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):

  1. *

    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).

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