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