In Aldous Huxley’s first novel, Crome Yellow, a man of action recounts an escapade of his youth, and comments that such things are only really agreeable to look back on after the event. Nothing is exciting as it happens. Warriors in heroic times only knew what they had been through when they heard about it from the bard in the mead-hall. Armchair warriors who have never performed such feats can nonetheless become connoisseurs of them at second hand. In the same way, it is possible to become an expert on the apparatus of the old-time naval world—backstays and top-gallants, twenty-four pounders and hardtack—without having the faintest idea how to fire a gun, reef a sail, or fother a ship’s bottom. Naval novels today are unique among the genre in this engaging respect: author and reader are alike innocent of the experience graphically conveyed by the one and eagerly appreciated by the other.

This may seem a good reason for not taking such books very seriously. The Marryat who wrote Mr. Midshipman Easy and the Melville who wrote Moby-Dick had themselves been to sea, as frigate officer and as a whaling hand: they knew what they were talking about. So too with Joseph Conrad. But that is scarcely relevant to the genre of nautical fiction today, which can seem more like the genre of science fiction or fantasy, even of “magic realism.” The fashionable thing in the theory of the novel at the present time is to do it, so to speak, without hands; to recognize the totality of fiction, its arbitrariness, its success not in relation to “life” but in purely literary terms. On the other side the new historicism has created a genuinely authoritative style of fiction—Gore Vidal and Simon Schama are formidable exponents of it—which researches the legend of the past while demonstrating the seductive unknowability of the real thing. Gore Vidal’s Lincoln is a special and incontrovertible masterpiece of such a kind.

Like his compatriots J. G. Farrell and John Banville, Patrick O’Brian does not really fit into any of these more up-to-date categories. In their own different ways they are at once too traditional and too idiosyncratic. Loosely linked by the theme of an empire in its decline, the novels of Farrell’s trilogy—Troubles, The Siege of Krishnapur, The Singapore Grip—were a great success from the fashion in which they combined fantasy and erudition with an original imagination of how a particular culture saw itself, spoke, and showed off to itself. They made something new, fresh and hilarious, out of being bookish. In his own subtle and leisurely style Patrick O’Brian does something of the same sort, making extensive use of the pleasure that fiction addicts find in feeling at home, recognizing old faces, old jokes, the same social occasions and regimes, the same sort of exciting situation. His most time-honored ploy is the two-man partnership, the accidental coming together of a dissimilar pair—Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Holmes and Watson, Hergé’s Tintin and Captain Haddock—who from then on are indissolubly wedded in terms of the reader’s expectations and the novels’ success.

O’Brian’s couple are Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, who meet at Port Mahon in Minorca in the year 1802, when Jack is a lieutenant in the British Navy hoping for promotion to commander, and Stephen is a bit of a mystery man, a half-Irish half-Catalan scholar in medicine and botany, down on his luck. After a mild quarrel at a concert—passionate music lovers both, Jack will play the violin and Stephen his cello throughout many a subsequent saga—they take to each other, and Jack offers Stephen a berth as surgeon in his first command, the fourteen-gun sloop Sophie. Master and Commander, the first in a series now approaching its fifteenth volume, inaugurates a relationship which will continue through the vicissitudes of the service in every ocean and latitude, through marriages and bankruptcies, promotions, dismissals, windfalls, and losses of prize money, until with The Nutmeg of Consolation (the name is that of a jewel of a little corvette built in Borneo to replace the shipwrecked HME Surprise) we end up on the shores of Botany Bay, among the convicts of the new colony of Australia.

In strict terms of time and sequence the war against Napoleon should by now be over, and the Treaty of Ghent signed that ended the war of 1812 between England and the USA. But O’Brian has cunningly allowed history to expand, as it were, so that his own episodes can continue while the larger process marks time. In a recent introduction he confesses to this method, for he is too sound a chronicler to play fast and loose with what actually occurred. In the middling novels of the series there are memorable accounts of historic actions, like those of the French and English frigates and East Indiamen at Mauritius, and the unequal but epic fight in the Indian Ocean between HMS Java and the USS Constitution. The Fortune of War actually ended with the battle outside Boston harbor of the Shannon and Chesapeake, while The Surgeon’s Mate opens with the burial at Halifax of Captain Lawrence, the Chesapeake’s gallant commander.


But by the time we reach The Nutmeg of Consolation such main events have tactfully withdrawn into the background and the chief action—a very thrilling one to be sure—is an attack by Dyaks and their pirate queen on the shipwrecked crew of the Surprise. (This frigate was Jack’s favorite command and gave her name to the third novel in the series.) The flora and fauna of the far Orient, and of Australia itself, are of the deepest interest to Stephen and his chaplain assistant, and The Nutmeg ends with a marvelous account of the duckbill platypus and the hazardous consequences of being bitten by one. Mr. O’Brian’s following will wait in expectancy for a new development in the next novel.

The above may give the idea that adventure is paramount in the series,and that the novels are further examples of the naval-romantic genre inaugurated by C.S. Forester with the exploits of Captain Hornblower, and copied since by several inferior cutlass-and-carronade performers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many of the Hornblower books were superb examples of their craft, and Forester remains unequaled for dynamism of narrative and precision of encounter: his single ship actions are surely the best ever described. O’Brian’s technique and achievement are of quite a different kind. For a start, although he is dutiful about giving us marine warfare, meticulously reconstructed and fleshed out from the dry pages of naval historians like Beatson and James, his real interest is in the ships and the crews, in naval custom, habit, and routine, the daily ritual of shipboard life and the interplay of personality in the confinement of a wooden world. His ships are as intimate to us as are Sterne’s Shandy Hall or Jane Austen’s village of Highbury in Emma. Like Jane Austen, O’Brian is really happiest working on two or three inches of ivory and turning into art the daily lives of three or four families in a locality—except that his village happens to be a wooden ship of war at the apogee of a great Navy’s world sea power in the days of sail, and famous for the skill and discipline of its officers and men. Jane Austen, two of whose brothers ended up as admirals, would have understood all this very well, and would no doubt warmly have approved O’Brian’s spacious but modest undertaking.

Stephen is being shown over the Sophie by young Mowett, a midshipman with a taste for writing verse, by no means a rare accomplishment at a time when learning to play the German flute was a popular relaxation in the gun room, and captains might stitch petit point in the lofty seclusion of the great cabin.

“You are studying trigonometry, sir?” said Stephen, whose eyes, accustomed to the darkness, could now distinguish an inky triangle.

“Yes, sir, if you please,” said Babbington. “And I believe I have nearly found out the answer.” (And should have, if that great ox had not come barging in, he added, privately.)

“In canvassed berth, profoundly deep in thought,
His busy mind with sines and tan- gents fraught,
A lid reclines! In calculation lost.

His efforts still by some intruder crost,” said Mowett. “Upon my word and honour, sir, I am rather proud of that.”

“And well you may be,” said Stephen, his eyes dwelling on the little ships drawn all round the triangle. “And pray, what in sea-language is meant by a ship?”

“She must have three square-rigged masts, sir,” they told him kindly, “and a bowsprit; and the masts must be in three—lower, top and topgallant—for we never call a polacre a ship.”

“Don’t you, though?” said Stephen.

In one sense the technique—clueless landsman much respected nonetheless as a doctor—is as time-honored as it is in Smollett, but O’Brian contrives to give it back a sort of innocence, which goes with his extraordinarily adroit individualization of minor figures. Two novels later in the series Jack is giving a dinner party on board his new command (he has just become a post captain) and is as relieved as a suburban hostess would be that the burgundy and the plum duff (“Tiggy-dowdy” to the service) are doing their job in loosening tongues and promoting social ease. Stephen is in conversation with the marine lieutenant, a Highlander called Macdonald, and they are growing a little warm over the Ossian question, Stephen pointing out the absence of manuscript sources:


“Do you expect a Highland gentleman to produce his manuscripts upon compulsion?” said Macdonald to Stephen, and to Jack, “Dr. Johnson, sir, was capable of very inaccurate statements. He affected to see no trees in his tour of the kingdom: now I have travelled the very same road many times, and I know several trees within a hundred yards of it—ten, or even more. I do not regard him as any authority on any subject. I appeal to your candour, sir—what do you say to a man who defines the mainsheet as the largest sail in a ship, or to belay as to splice, or a bight as the circumference of a rope? And that in a buke that professes to be a dictionary of the English language? Hoot, toot.”

“Did he indeed say that?” cried Jack. “I shall never think the same of him again. I have no doubt your Ossian was a very honest fellow.”

“He did, sir, upon my honour,” cried Macdonald, laying his right hand flat upon the table. “And falsum in uno, falsum in omnibus, I say.”

“Why, yes,” said Jack, who was as well acquainted with old omnibus as any man there present.

Not only do the natural passions—indeed obsessions—present in any small community receive at the author’s hands the most skillful and sympathetic testimony, but he makes graphic if unobtrusive display of the diversity of types, interests, and nationalities always present in a naval context. The hazards too. A day or two later Stephen has to amputate Macdonald’s arm after a cutting-out expedition, and they take up their conversation again in the hospital.

O’Brian is equally and fascinatingly meticulous on questions of geography and natural history. The Nutmeg of Consolation is embroidered with the flora and fauna of the East Indies; and an extraordinarily gripping sequence in the previous novel, The Thirteen-Gun Salute, recounts the danger to a sailing vessel of approaching too near in a calm to the nine-hundred-foot cliffs of Inaccessible Island, which rise sheer out of the depths of the South Atlantic not far from Tristan da Cunha. Whalers had been drawn by the mountainous swell into the giant kelp at the cliffs’ foot and perished with all hands. The crew of the Surprise are enjoying a routine Sunday morning when this danger threatens, and are plucked from divine service by the urgent need to get out the boats and row the becalmed frigate clear into safety. It is then revealed by a white-faced carpenter that the long boat had a couple of rotten strakes which he has cut out, and not yet had time to replace. Like the young captain in Conrad’s The Shadow Line, who fails to check that what is inside the bottle in the ship’s medicine store is indeed quinine, Jack Aubrey is faced—and not for the first time—with the implacable crises of life at sea, to survive which every last detail must be kept in mind and under eye. There is nothing in the least approximate or merely picturesque about O’Brian’s handling of any marine situation, or even the most conventionally spectacular kind of naval action. In Master and Commander he took us, together with the unskilled Sophies, through every detail of the drill required to fire a single gun of the broadside.

Of course he has his failures—what novelist embarked on so amply comprehensive an undertaking could not have them? The women are a problem; although it seems unfair they should turn out to be, for Jack’s amiable fiancée and then wife, his far from amiable mother-in-law, and Stephen’s own heartbreaker, Diana Villiers, with whom he is on and off through several books, are as vigorously and subtly portrayed as the men, and come alive as much as they do. No more than Conrad is O’Brian what used to be called a man’s man, and he has as many women as men among his fans. Nonetheless it is with a feeling of relief that we leave Jack’s Sophia in the little house near Portsmouth, or Diana in Mayfair, and embark upon our next commission. The reason is plain. It is not that O’Brian’s women are less interesting than his men, but that a single domestic background is essential to the richness and vivacity of the work. Not being a bird, as the Irishman said, O’Brian cannot be in two places at once, and he cannot successfully locate the women in one background and his seagoing population in another. Were he able to take his ladies to sea (he does have some memorable gunners’ wives and East India misses) it would be another matter, but here history is against him—naval wives often took passage but could not be closely involved in the life of the ship—and O’Brian has total respect for the niceties of contemporary usage and custom.

Another important narrative theme is more suitably ambiguous. Almost unknown to Jack, at least in the earlier books of the sequence, Stephen is an undercover agent of naval intelligence. Nothing improbable in that, and it does lead to some interesting situations, although the reader may feel that such goings-on are there more for the benefit of plot and adventure than real assets to the felt life of the fiction. The two traitors inside the Admiralty who are a feature of the later novels bear a not altogether comfortable resemblance to more recent traitors like Burgess and Maclean. There are moments, too, when Stephen’s erudition and expertise in all matters except love become a little oppressive, as does Jack’s superb seamanship and childlike lack of business sense. But these are the kinds of irritation we feel at times with those who have become old friends. Stephen and Jack have their occasional quarrels too, and their moments of mutual dissatisfaction.

For indeed the most striking thing about the series is the high degree of fictional reality, of Henry James’s “felt life,” that it has managed to generate. This may be partly because we grow accustomed and familiar, as in the homelier case of the comic strip; and yet the more surprising and impressive virtue in the novels is their wide range of feeling and of literary sensibility. At least two tragic characters—Lieutenant James Dillon in the opening novel, and the erratic Lord Clonfert who makes a mess of things in The Mauritius Command—have their psychology subtly and sympathetically explored; and there are some scenes too in the series of almost supernatural fear and strangeness: two pathetic lovers seeking sanctuary on a Pacific island, or the weird and grisly chapter, like something out of Moby-Dick, when a Dutch seventy-four pursues Jack’s smaller vessel implacably through the icebergs and mountainous waves of the great southern ocean. And no other writer, not even Melville, has described the whale or the wandering albatross with O’Brian’s studious and yet lyrical accuracy.

The vicissitudes in Jack’s naval career—the many fiascoes and disasters as well as the occasional triumphs—come from naval careers of the period, like that of Lord Cochrane and his brother, who was dismissed from the service for alleged financial irregularities. Such resourceful heroes often made a second career for themselves—Cochrane became a Chilean admiral in the South American war of liberation—and there seems every hope that Jack and Stephen may turn up in those parts when their author can no longer put off the conclusion of hostilities in Europe. Most historical novels suffer from the fatal twin defects of emphasizing the pastness of the past too much while at the same time seeking to be over-familiar with it (“Have some more of this Chian,” drawled Alcibiades). O’Brian does neither. Indeed “history” as such does not seem greatly to interest him: his originality consists in the unpretentious use he makes of it to invent a new style of fiction.

That unpretentiousness has become a rare asset among novelists. The reader today has become conditioned, partly by academic critics, to look in Melville and Conrad for the larger issues and deeper significances, rather than enjoying the play of life, the humor and detail of the performance. Yet surface is what matters in good fiction, and Melville on the whale and on the Pequod’s crew is more absorbing to his readers in the long run than is the parabolic significance of Captain Ahab. Patrick O’Brian has contrived to invent a new world that is almost entirely in this sense a world of enchanting fictional surfaces, and all the better for it. As narrator he never obtrudes his own personality, is himself never present in the role of author at all; but we know well what most pleases, intrigues, and fascinates him; and there is a kind of sweetness in his books, an enthusiasm and love for the setting of the fiction, which will remind older readers of Sir Walter Scott. It is worth remembering that Melville too worshiped Scott, and that the young Conrad pored over the Waverley novels in Poland long before he went to sea.

This Issue

November 7, 1991