31 August 2006


Patrick O'Brian's naval mastery (Robert Messenger, New Criterion, 5/05)
The Royal Navy stumbled badly on the outbreak of war against America in 1812. In August, the USS Constitution sank the HMS Guerrière. In October, the USS United States captured the HMS Macedonian, and in December the Constitution sank the HMS Java off the coast of Brazil. The tiny American navy—six frigates were all the capital ships it mustered on the outbreak of war—was managing what the much larger and more experienced fleets of Napoleonic France, Spain, and Holland had failed to do: beat the British in a straight fight.

When the eighteen-gun brig USS Hornet sank the equal-sized HMS Peacock in under fifteen minutes in February 1813, the navy of Nelson seemed to have lost its aura of victory. But, honor was restored on June 1 when Captain Philip Broke and HMS Shannon captured the USS Chesapeake, one of the U.S. Navy’s frigates, in a short violent ship-to-ship action just outside of Boston harbor. Shannon’s disciplined gunnery killed so many of the Chesapeake’s officers and crew that the British were able to board and easily capture a ship that carried many more men.

It has never been established why the American captain, James Lawrence, took his ship out of safe harbor and into action that June day. He may have wanted to test his youthful crew and take them away from the temptations of port or perhaps he simply underestimated the professionalism of the Royal Navy after the string of U.S. victories.

While history doesn’t answer the question, fiction can. In his novel The Fortune of War—the sixth in the Aubrey/Maturin series—Patrick O’Brian created impetus for Lawrence’s impetuousness. He goes into battle to recapture Dr. Stephen Maturin who has escaped from Boston with papers that describe the whole of the French-American intelligence operations in England and Europe. Lawrence’s failure becomes, in O’Brian, a double victory for the British— in the naval and the clandestine war....

Over the course of twenty books, we follow these two through great victories and shattering defeats, through wealth, poverty, success and failure in love, and family. We grow to love them because of the delight the author himself takes in their adventures. The books are more reminiscent of Jane Austen—especially her most naval novel, Persuasion—than of C. S. Forester. It is almost a cliché to compare O’Brian and Austen. (O’Brian enthusiasts like to point out the similarity between the names JAne AUsten and JAck AUbrey.) It is easy to imagine the Bennet girls turning up for a dance, and a chance to meet eligible naval officers, at Aubrey’s residences at Melbury Lodge or Ashgrove Cottage, just as it is easy to imagine Maturin visiting an old friend at Lyme Regis and meeting the families from Uppercross Cottage, or Admiral Croft or Captain Wentworth or William Price appearing at one of Aubrey’s ports of call. O’Brian wrote up as history what Austen wrote up as life.
It is now de rigeur to compare O'Brian with Austen, and far be it from me to complain. As much as I love the O'Brian books, though, I notice that no one ever introduces Jane Austen by comparing her to Patrick O'Brian. In the end, O'Brian is done in by the demands of genre. Aubrey cannot be promoted, nor can he be allowed to keep a fortune. Maturin may never grow too disgusted of spying for the hated British Empire, nor wholly succumb to one of his many addictions. Stung by criticism, O'Brian towards the end starts killing off important characters, and some minor characters sail off never to be seen again, but relatively early in the series we see that we have reached equilibrium. The characters are who and what they are, fated to grow in some ways, contract in others, but never to suffer essential change.

This is, oddly enough, one of a number of similarities between the Aubrey/Maturin books, and Star Trek, which was loosely based on the Horatio Hornblower books. Genre demands that Aubrey be kept in frigates just as Kirk must be kept on the Enterprise. The familiar members of both crews must be preserved, though red coats and red shirts can both be killed off promiscuously. The technologies are similarly arcane. O'Brian, of course, has a leg up on understanding the nuances and implications of his technology, but if suddenly transported into one of these fictional worlds, we would be more likely able to operate the USS Enterprise than HMS Surprise. Even the characterisations are similar, Aubrey and Maturin between them splitting up the roles given to Kirk, McCoy and Spock. As I've noted here before, O'Brian's great novel -- legitimately mentioned with Austen's great novels -- is the first four books, through The Mauritius Command. The other sixteen are simply extraordinarily well-written genre novels.

More pertinently, Austen inspired O’Brian’s artfully simple writing. Each had a great gift for characterization and for drawing the reader into another world:

"I never was a great reader,” said Jack. His friends looked down at their wine and smiled. “I mean I never could get along with your novels and tales. Admiral Burney—Captain Burney then—lent me one wrote by his sister when we were coming back with a slow convoy from the West Indies; but I could not get through with it—sad stuff, I thought. Though I dare say the fault was in me, just as some people cannot relish music; for Burney thought the world of it, and he was as fine a seaman as any in the service. He sailed with Cook, and you cannot say fairer than that.”

“That is the best qualification for a literary critic I ever heard of,” said Yorke. “What was the name of the book?”

“There you have me,” said Jack. “But it was a small book, in three volumes, I think; and it was all about love. Every novel I have ever looked into is all about love; and I have looked into a good many, because Sophie loves them, and I read aloud to her while she knits, in the evening. All about love.”

“Of course they are,” said Yorke. “What else raises your blood, your spirits, your whole being, to the highest pitch, so that life is triumphant, or tragic, as the case may be, and so that every day is worth a year of common life? When you sit trembling for a letter? When the whole of life is filled with meaning, double-shotted? To be sure, when you actually come to what some have called the right true end, you may find the position ridiculous, and the pleasure momentary; but novels, upon the whole, are concerned with getting there. And for that matter, what else makes the world go round?”

“Why as to that,” said Jack, “I have nothing against the world’s going round: indeed, I am rather in favour of it. But as for raising your spirits to the highest pitch, what do you say about hunting, or playing for high stakes? What do you say about war, about going into action?”

“Come, Aubrey, you must have observed that love is a kind of war; you must have seen the analogy.”
Aubreyana is coming to be as immersive a fictional world as Star Trek. There are sites in which O'Brian fans discuss the books (and everything else) at great length; fan books that collect recipes for the meals served throughout the books (including those involving rats); cds of the music played by Aubrey and Maturin; and any number of websites collecting favorite passages from the books (including my favorite "Aubreyism": Autres pays, autre merde (other countries, other s***)). Mr. Messenger lists some of the many references that have sprung up to help the reader navigate the books, but misses my personal favorite, Anthony Gary Brown's Persons, Animals, Ships and Cannon in the Aubrey-Maturin Sea Novels of Patrick O'Brian. This book delivers exactly what the title promises: a list and explanation of every person, animal, ship and cannon named in the Aubrey/Maturin, you should excuse the expression, canon.

Looking into the passage Mr. Messenger quotes above, we learn the following about the real life Admiral Burney:
Burney, Admiral

A Captain under whom Jack Aubrey had once served, and who had himself sailed with Captain Cook. His sister was a novelist (FW 2).
James Burney (1745?-1821), a son of the composer Charles Burney (1726-1814), sailed under *Cook, as Midshipman and, from 1773, Lieutenant. Made Post in 1782, he was placed on the retired list in 1804 and not promoted Reear Admiral-still on the retired list-until 1821. His sister, Fanny Burney (1752-1840), spent her youth in the glittering literary societry cultivated by her father and published her own first novel Evelina in 1778, then going on to enjoy success with Cecilia (1782) and Camilla (1796), all about the entry of beautiful young women into the world of social experience. Fanny, also a prodigious essayist and letter-writer, in 1793 had married an exiled French Royalist General, d'Arblay; during the Peace of Amiens of 1802, they visited France but were arrested and interned until 1812. Brown at 65.
Not only is there a Captain Burney, but he really had a sister and she was really a novelist. More to the point, it turns out the Fanny Burney, whose novel Aubrey considered sad stuff, is a important novelist called, by Virginia Woolf, the mother of English fiction. The joke within the joke within the joke is that being as fine a seaman as any in the service is good qualification for being a literary critic.

O'Brian's life was likely not a happy one. O'Brian spends a surprising amount of space, for sea novels, bemoaning the lot of the writer. Publishers and book-sellers are dismissed, again and again, as descritable cheats who look only to mulct the poor writer of his fruits of his labor. (In the best of these, a sea officer-poet is complaining about publishing delays: "I was about to say they were the most hellish procrastinators--:" "Oh how dreadful," cried Fanny. "Do they go to--to special houses, or do they...") Given that a second minor theme running through the books from beginning to end is the uselessness of the aristocracy, it is somewhat ironic that the forturne O'Brian finally won with his pen ended up with his stepson, Count Nikolai Tolstoy.

At the end of his life, his writing also brought him infamy. A biographer discovered that he had abandoned his first family, including his desperately ill daughter, in order to run off with another man's wife (the erstwhile Countess Tolstoy). I am deconstructionist enough to let the books speak for themselves. Knowing that Jack Aubrey would dismiss O'Brian as a mere scrub does not, I find, much effect my enjoyment of his work. It does render parts (as when, for example, Stephen's wife abandons their seemingly autistic daughter or Stephen brushes asise another character's confession to infancticide as of no moment) retrospectively troubling.

I don't hesitate, though, to give O'Brian the last word:
'As for Gibbon, now,' said Stephen when they were settled by the fire again, 'I do remember the first lines. They ran "It is dangerous to entrust the conduct of nations to men who have learned from their profession to consider reason as the instrument of dispute, and to interpret the laws according to the dictates of private interest; and the mischief has been felt, even in countries where the practice of the bar may deserve to be considered as a liberal occupation." He thought - and he was a very intelligent man, of prodigious reading - that the fall of the Empire was caused at least in part by the prevalence of lawyers. Men who are accustomed over a long series of years to supposing that whatever can somehow be squared with the law is right - or if not right then allowable - are not useful members of society; and when they reach positions of power in the state they are noxious. They are people for whom ethics can be summed up by the collected statutes. Tully, for example, thought himself a good man, though he openly boasted of having deceived the jury in the case of Cluentius; and he was quite as willing to defend Catiline in the first place as he was to attack him in the second. It is all of a piece throughout: they are men who tend to resign their own conscience to another's keeping, or to disregard it entirely. To the question "What are your sentiments when you are asked to defend a man you know to be guilty?" many will reply "I do not know him to be guilty until the judge, who has heard both sides, states that he is guilty." This miserable sophistry, which disregards not only epistemology but also the intuitive perception that informs all daily intercourse, is sometimes merely formular, yet I have known men who have so prostituted their intelligence that they believe it.'


Brit said...


First, thanks for posting something about O'Brian. I could talk about this all day, and I've never really got my Aubrey thoughts in order, but here are a few of them:

There are two obvious justifications for the Austen comparison: the language and dialogue (concise, unpretentious but perfectly formed); and the human insights and domestic dramas of the gun room.

You say, "O'Brian's great novel -- legitimately mentioned with Austen's great novels -- is the first four books, through The Mauritius Command. The other sixteen are simply extraordinarily well-written genre novels.

I think that's very nearly true, but not quite. For me, the heart, the essence, of the series is in books 4 and 5: The Mauritius Command and Desolation Island.

The first justifies the Austen-sur-mer tag as a study of the psychology of men, male heirarchy, and the odd ways of expressing bravery and cowardice - aside from Maturin, Lord Clonfert is the best character he created - and it bears comparison to anything Austen wrote about women.

Then comes Desolation Island, which is the first, and best, of what you might call the O'Brian 'genre': it's a mixture of spy novel, romantic intrigue, naval warfare, domestic warfare, chase movie and shipwreck/survival epic.

Then it is almost true that the rest of the series are novels in this same genre (but not quite - the exception is book 15, Clarissa Oakes, which is set on one long voyage with no battles and is pure Austen-sur-mer). Not that the extended genre series is a bad thing - there are few joys in life to touch immersing yourself in an O'Brian, with the spin-off CD playing soft and a nice glass of something beside you of an dank British winter's night.

But yes, you do wonder where O'Brian would have taken the series had he not died halfway through book 21. The characters do develop and mature, but nothing is resolved, which is both irritating and a blessing for the reader, since you get so attached to the Aubrey that it would seriously hurt to see him killed off.

M Ali said...

I tried one of the Aubrey books out after enjoying the movie, but didn't stick with it. All the details on 19th century shipping didn't grab me.

Much prefer Sabatini's Captain Blood books.

David said...

Ali: The advice generally given is to start with the second book, Post Captain, which is mostly landbound. After a while, the sailing terminology just sloughs off and, when it does matter, you can usually figure out that it simply means "He fell from something very high onto something very hard."

Brit: Then what do you do with The Surgeon's Mate?

If the first four books are to be considered a single novel, then the main character is Jack Aubrey. Those books are the story of the maturation of Jack from unruly, impatient, ungovernable Lieutenant into a sober, skilled, disciplined Post-Captain and family man. The final nail in young Jack's coffin is when older Jack must act as Commodore and command others. It is Jack's success at making this transition that makes Cochrane's failure so poignant.

For the next 16 books, Jack is pretty much unchanged and Maturin comes to the fore.

Brit said...

Yes, I suppose that is an angle. Aubrey does mature further after his financial disasters and his arrest, and then there are his affairs, illegitimate son, and various spats with Sophie, but yes, after the first few books Maturin is the interesting character.

M Ali:

The first book is the worst for the nautical jargon. O'Brian rarely compromises even after that but soon you get used to it, and Maturin remains resolutely ignorant throughout the series, so the key things are always explained to him, and thus the reader.

I did however regret that the c**tsplice didn't reappear after Master and Commander.

Brit said...

Two moments in the series that gave me a jolt:

1) After their advisor gets eaten by crocodiles (I think it's The Ionian Mission but haven't got them to hand), it turns out that he'd stolen Jack's prized chelengk. Aubrey says simply: "Oh the poor fellow!" as he pockets it.

2) The horribly abrupt death of Bonden in the penultimate book. After all that, he gets one half of a sentence.

And the best running joke is Aubrey's inability to re-tell accurately, and to refrain from uncontrollable mirth whilst attempting to re-tell, Maturin's immortal pun about the dog-watch being cur-tailed.

Hey Skipper said...


Your review of the Aubrey series is a brilliant piece of writing in its own right, never mind it taught me a slew of things about the series that had simply never occurred to me.

I guess I'm just going to have to start over.

Given that I am far less discerning, I was completely untroubled by the limited opportunity for character development, just so long as he kept cranking the books out.

M Ali:

Per Brit's suggestion, I bought "A Sea of Words" which serves as a glossary for the series, as well as providing historical background. I struggled with the terminology at first, until I learned to suss that, as Brit said, this sequence of words means "someone fell from something high onto something hard."

Also, once I became familiar with the dialect, I found the books to be occasionally very funny, in a very British way.

Brit said...

The end of The Letter of Marque struck me as being a suitable ending for the series - Jack gets his naval commission back, Maturin is back with Diana, there's no real cliff-hanger.

I'm very glad O'Brian carried on, since I could happily have read the series indefinitely, but I wonder if he originally intended to?

David said...

Brit: I once read that O'Brian said that he wanted to write 20 books in the series and come full circle at the end. Strangely enough, that's my reading of Blue at the Mizzen. At the end of the book, like at the beginning of M&C, Jack is promoted. The last few paragraphs of BatM are ambiguous, and allow for the reading that Jack and Stephen have split; with Jack going on to the Cape to take up his command and Stephen staying with the South American revolutionaries. It is the perfect end to the series.

Brit said...

Have you read the unfinished 21st book - and if so, is it worth it?

David said...

I have and it's not.

There are two exceptions.

First, if, like me, you have a completeness mania. Once I've committed to a series or an author, I hardly ever abandon them, no matter how awful they get. I will probably read all of the truly meretricious "Sword of Truth" books and I kept reading Heinlein even after he lost his mind.

Second, if you are interested in the mechanics of writing. The book includes O'Brian's handwritten draft so you can follow along with the process of writing. You can see, for example, that when writing about a dinner party, he sketched out the table and noted where each character was sitting.

Oroborous said...

I don't think that it was so much that Heinlein got worse, it was more that they stopped editing him.

I enjoyed Number of the Beast on the first read-through, but even then I recognized that if I weren't already a Heinlein fan, that book wouldn't have been the best introduction to him.

A few years later, on a whim, I edited the book to exclude some of the more superfluous conversations, explanations, and scenes, and there's actually a pretty good action/adventure yarn hidden in there.

If you look at my favorites, such as Tunnel in the Sky, Friday, The Door into Summer, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, I don't think that they're fundamentally different from his last few works - it's just that they're much leaner than those last ones.

Kiki's Dad said...

That cove who wrote "A Sea of Words" was a deep old file for the most part, but he missed some basics.

Notice that "scrub" isn't even in it? And what would be a more likely slang expression that a modern veck would want to look up?

Sorry. Switched to Nadsat there for a moment.