Patrick O’Brian’s books bear favourable comparison with Proust, their digressions into matters other than naval warfare of the Napoleonic era being nothing less than delights. Never immersed yourself in the author’s world of wood, tar and canvas? What a pity
The purpose of this essay is to get you to read these twenty novels if you haven’t already done so. Maybe you are daunted by the sheer size of the assignment. In that case you can whet your appetite by watching the DVD of Master and Commander with excellent performances by Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany, though Bettany is not ugly enough or malevolent enough to be Maturin, and since the film is set aboard ship and at least half the action of the novels is on land, there is a lot missing.
Patrick O’Brian (above), the author, was neither Irish nor O’Brian. His name was Richard Russ and he was English. He told many lies about himself, documented in Dean King’s fairly long and, in some ways tedious biography, Patrick O’Brian: A Life Revealed (2000). But don’t worry. You don’t have to read it, since I have read it for you.
O’Brian (I shall call him that, since he did) was born near the beginning of the twentieth century and died at the end of it. He had no university education. The family finances were rickety and the children many, but that is really no disadvantage. P.G. Wodehouse didn’t have one either for much the same reasons and Dickens was poorly educated. A university education doesn’t seem to help.
This appreciation appeared in a recent edition of Quadrant.
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Master and Commander, the first book, was published in 1970 and Blue at the Mizzen, the last, in 1999. O’Brian died in 2000, having written a little of a twenty-first novel. Twenty-one books in thirty years is a pretty good work rate, over a million words.
O’Brian appears to have been a late starter, but he wrote novels from 1950, good enough for publication and selling quite well. Anyone who has read any of them can let me know.
Master and Commander opens with Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, who do not know each other, listening to a concert. Jack is unconsciously beating time and Stephen begs him to desist, which Jack does with an apology, but Stephen goes on to insist that Jack was beating time wrongly. The upshot is a challenge to a duel—shades of the Three Musketeers. But this is not to be. Jack gets news of his first command and is so full of good cheer he makes a full apology for what he has never done. Stephen makes peace and the great friendship begins with a dinner. There is a great deal about eating and even recipes, such as the one for plum duff, which I wouldn’t mind eating myself. No wonder we are both overweight.
One side of Stephen which is not touched on in the film is his dangerous and invaluable work as a secret agent. He does it for nothing because of his hatred of what he calls Bonapartism which he sees (correctly in my view) as inimical to freedom. No doubt at all that he would be a Brexiteer! Stephen’s contact at home is Sir Joseph Blaine, chief of naval intelligence, an intellectual and natural philosopher, which suits Maturin very well. Many splendid dinners the two of them spend together. O’Brian told a journalist that Blaine was based in part on Leslie Beck, his own unit director during the war, who shared Blaine’s philosophical scruples and practical ruthlessness.
I now propose to trace the places in the books that make up the main plotline in the film. The central action concerns the pursuit of Jack’s ship by a superior French frigate. However Jack ducks and weaves (and he is a master at ducking and weaving) the ship finds him out. There is a very similar situation in the books, but the avenging angel is a Dutch ship, the Waakzamheid (the word means watchfulness, wakefulness—very prescient), which destroys Aubrey’s rudder, as in the film, but loses the decisive battle and sinks with all hands.
The visit to the Galapagos Islands occurs during The Ionian Mission, and the midshipman, Reade, who gives Stephen assistance, can also be found there. He turns up in later books and will undoubtedly become a captain, possibly attain flag rank, since he has, as Jack has not, the social connections.
In fact there is nothing in the film which is not taken from the books, not the operation on the sailor’s brain, nor his tattooed knuckles with the injunction “hold fast”, nor the Jonah who brings bad luck until he commits suicide, nor even the terrible joke about the lesser of two weevils.
One thing not touched on in the film is homosexuality, in particular the pederastic use of pretty midshipmen. Aubrey disapproves of this but cannot believe that it is a hanging matter, so tends to turn a blind eye. No midshipman actually suffers, but the suffering of officers who love what they cannot possess is sympathetically portrayed and, to me, almost tragically touching. It is true that the two most dastardly villains in the series, who Maturin kills and later dissects, are pederasts, but that is incidental to their villainy. They do what they do for money.
O’Brian and Forester
Like many of us, I read C.S. Forester’s novels when still at school and much admired them, as I still do. I think I have read them all. Like Jack Aubrey, Horatio Hornblower starts as a mere midshipman and climbs to the dizzy heights of admiral, so their careers would be in parallel. Like Jack, Horatio cannot stay faithful to his wife; like Jack, he operates in the Baltic and the West Indies; like Jack, he admires Horatio Nelson, his namesake, only just this side of idolatry, though, as far as I now, Hornblower never actually met him, much less had him pass the salt, or give advice (go straight at ’em) concerning sea-battles.
Is O’Brian better than Forester? Yes, because he gives us so much more. His characters’ speech patterns, for instance. Here is a passage from Post Captain:
“Ain’t you got no respect for learning?” said Plaice. “Four books at once I seen him read. Nay, with these very eyes here in my head”—pointing to them—“I seen him whip a man’s skull off, rouse out his brains, set ’em to rights, stow ’em back in again, clap on a silver plate, and sew up his scalp, which it was drooling over one ear, obscuring his dial with a flat seam needle and a pegging-awl, as neat as the sailmaker of a king’s yacht.”
“And where did you bury the poor bugger?” asked Simmons with an offensive knowingness.
“Which he’s walking the deck of a seventy-four at this very moment, you fat slob …”
I can hardly tear myself away. The which construction, so ubiquitous, the past tense of see, ain’t for isn’t, dial for face, all still current, the use of learned terms like pegging awl (it is a kind of bradawl used for boots).
Forester has a kind of snobbery—seen in his treatment of Maria, Hornblower’s lower-class first wife, the daughter of an innkeeper, and the possessor of red arms from doing the washing no doubt—which O’Brian entirely lacks. It is surely inconceivable that Horatio should father a black man who becomes a learned cardinal of the church. And, though I speak from ignorance, O’Brian’s sea battles seem more realistic. Aubrey would never allow his ship to be entirely destroyed as the Sutherland is in A Ship of the Line, nor would he consider it disgraceful to be captured. These are the fortunes of war.
Forester is also bereft of jokes. Hornblower is a po-faced fellow and when Barbara, who becomes his wife, essays a pleasantry about his throat-clearing when embarrassed or lost for words he cannot summon up as much as a smile.
Initially critics tend to side with Forester, but as the Aubrey–Maturin series gets into its stride and they begin to understand the grand design, they are won over.
There is a Hornblower television series, though I confess I have not seen any of it. And of course there are many, many other series of books which cover the same ground.
O’Brian and Proust
O’Brian has more in common with Proust than you might think. First, both series of books are very long, well over a million words. Second, they start slowly and gain momentum, creating a whole universe. Third, they both discuss homosexuality with sympathy and some wit. You may remember the Baron de Charlus, pederast in chief, putting down some poor fellow who supposes him a mere baron. He informs him he has numerous other titles (he is a duke of something or other) but considers it vulgar to use them.
Proust took ten years to write his novel (or novels if you prefer), O’Brian some forty, but you must consider that O’Brian did not stay in bed all day. He had two families to support, and he wrote other books including a long biography of Picasso which needed much research.
I have to confess that Proust’s book, though undoubtedly a masterpiece, does contain some sections that move slowly, are even (gulp) a little boring. O’Brian is always interesting, and being interesting, as Thomas Mann says somewhere, is the first duty of a novelist.
Had O’Brian read Proust? Yes, he had—and reread him. Proust was one of his all-time favourites, along with Gibbon and Austen. O’Brian also considered if he could end his series, like Proust, by bringing it back to the beginning, but in truth he was too fascinated by his own novels to contemplate seriously any termination. I have little doubt there would have been a twenty-second novel after the unfinished twenty-first, and so on and so on.
The novelist’s passage of time
It would not be possible to squeeze in all the things Aubrey, Maturin and the various ships they sailed on did, in the years in which they are supposed to have done them. Aubrey is not yet a captain some time after 1805, and ten years later he has risen to the rank of admiral and sailed twenty voyages, one of which involves being shipwrecked on an island for a year. When we read the novels it does not bother us. O’Brian, wisely, eschews such things as dates. The war of 1812 with the United States is there, and Napoleon’s escape from Elba.
This is all the more true because when a captain was posted he joined an orderly queue from which there was no possibility of deviation. You moved up the list only as the men above you were eliminated by retirement or death. This may sound a rather fuddy-duddy way of doing things but it was really much more democratic than a system which supposedly rewarded merit but actually meant you could buy yourself advancement, as was the case in the Army.
So it is sleight of hand, in much the same way as in the works of P.G. Wodehouse, that the world changes but Bertie and Jeeves do not. How many men had gentlemen’s gentlemen in 1970? It happens with Richmal Crompton’s William too.
A possible model for Jack Aubrey
Thomas Cochrane, the tenth earl of Dundonald (so something of a nob), was, according to Dean King, “the Nelson of frigate commanders, fearless, cunning and admired by his men, whom he enriched with prize money as a result of their victories at sea. Like Nelson, Cochrane was never afraid to, when he believed he could, strike a blow for England by doing so.” But there were differences. Cochrane was a peppery Scot, rash, confrontational and disagreeable, whereas Jack was English to the core, bold but never rash, and always a most agreeable man, except when beset with enemies within the service, such as the slippery, mendacious and avaricious Admiral Harte, who did everything to harm Jack, in revenge for Jack’s affair with his wife Queeny.
Aubrey and Maturin: family affairs
Both Aubrey and Maturin are happily married, Jack to Sophie, to whom he is devoted, in spite of her shrewish, penny-pinching mother. Unfortunately, Jack’s devotion does not make him faithful and, as Sophie is extremely jealous (as well she might be), Jack spends quite a lot of time with the tin hat on, when Sophie discovers another affair—which is not difficult, since all his attempts at deceit are pitiful in their ineptitude. However, we are never in much doubt that things will come right in the end.
Maturin’s great love is Diane Villiers, Sophie’s cousin. She is dashing and smokes cigars, has no money and, initially, neither does he, so, like Becky Sharp, she needs protectors who will give her money in exchange for sexual favours. They are two Americans, the first of which, the nice one, Stephen kills in a duel, though this is a matter of regret to Stephen, who was pushed into it. The second is a sadist. And then there is the third protector, Jagiello, who they meet in Sweden. Jagiello is fair, as a Swede should be, charming and the possessor of such a pretty face that he is often taken for a homosexual. Stephen does not blame her for her behaviour, though you may be sure her aunt has more than enough to say. Stephen and Diane do finally marry, but then her audacity causes her death when she crashes her carriage and four horses.
Sometimes Stephen has money and sometimes he is skint. This is true of Jack also, who more than once comes within a whisker of being arrested for debt. At one time he instructs Stephen to move all his money from a safe bank to an unsafe one that offers unbelievable interest rates. Stephen does so but omits to get Jack’s signature. There does seem to be a God guarding the two of them.
I think the recurrent theme is enduring male friendship, something O’Brian would have liked to enjoy but never did—David and Jonathan, Damon and Pythias, whoever they were, William and Ginger, and Jack and Stephen. “Ah, Stephen, there you are!” says Jack. And there he is.
And I haven’t mentioned the music, Jack on the violin, Stephen on the cello, Jack the natural player, Stephen the one who has to work at it. Let us leave them playing Boccherini as they do at the end of Master and Commander. “Scrape, scrape!” grumbles Preserved Killick, but he is an ignorant, complaining pig.
John Whitworth, who lives in Kent, is a frequent contributor of poetry and prose