Master and Commander (1969): Patrick O’Brian


An Aubrey & Maturin Adventure: Book I

This encounter with Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin was long overdue: people have been recommending O’Brian’s books to me for years and he clearly inspires the same kind of fervent affection in his readers as Dorothy Dunnett does in hers. I’ve no good reason to explain why I haven’t read them before: it’s true that Napoleonic Europe isn’t my first port of call for a historical novel, but I grew up watching Hornblower, I’ve recently enjoyed the Temeraire novels (which are naval in spirit if not in detail), and the film of Master & Commander has been one of my favourites for over a decade (I still can’t imagine Stephen as anyone but Paul Bettany). It was time to see what all the fuss was about; and I’m very glad I did.

When Jack Aubrey is reprimanded at a concert in Minorca for drumming his fingers in time to the music, he conceives an immediate dislike for the pedantic, skinny, scruffy little civilian sitting next to him. But by the time the two men cross paths again the following day, Jack’s entire world has changed. He has finally been granted the command he longs for, in the form of the brig Sophie, and his goodwill expands to include the entire world, even the reserved, wary Stephen Maturin; who for his part is so startled by Jack’s bonhomie that, to their mutual surprise, they become friends.

It turns out they are both musicians – Jack with his violin and Stephen with his cello – and, moreover, that they can help one another out. Jack, gathering his officers for his maiden voyage on the Sophie, is short of a ship’s surgeon; Stephen, whose financial state is far worse than his pride would ever admit, is a Dublin-trained physician of mixed Irish and Catalan descent, passionately interested in botany and natural history and the workings of the world, and tantalised by the potential of ‘philosophical’ discoveries.

An impulsive invitation is accepted equally impulsively and soon Stephen finds himself boarding the Sophie, subject to the strange laws of naval life, where there are more words for a sail than any man can be expected to keep in his head, and where a rag-tag band of men living cheek by jowl must find a way to erase their differences and knit together as a community. There is danger and excitement on the horizon too: the breadth of the Mediterranean, with its convoys and frigates and, always hanging tantalisingly close, the prospect of a taking a prize and the financial security and promotion that follows.

Stephen could remember an evening when he had sat there in the warm,
deepening twilight, watching the sea; it had barely a ruffle on its surface,
and yet the Sophie picked up enough moving air with her topgallants
to draw a long straight whispering furrow across the water, a line
brilliant with unearthly phosphorescence, visible for quarter of a mile behind her.
Days and nights of unbelievable purity. Nights when the steady Ionian breeze
rounded the square mainsail – not a brace to be touched, watch relieving watch –
and he and Jack on deck, sawing away, sawing away, lost in their music,
until the falling dew untuned their strings. And days when the perfection
of dawn was so great, the emptiness so entire, that men were almost afraid to speak.

O’Brian really is an excellent writer. His sea-battles are vividly described with such terrifyingly accurate terminology that, if I read the words one by one, I didn’t have the foggiest idea what it actually meant, but strangely enough if I read it quickly and squinted slightly, I could see exactly what was going on in my mind: the sweeping of one vessel in front of another’s bows; the broadsides; the thrill of an engagement; the eye-watering, acrid smoke of gunpowder in the air. But battles are only one aspect of the novel. Indeed, there were several occasions where O’Brian gave himself ample opportunity to write yet another dramatic scene of engagement, but instead modestly avoided it and reported events simply through an entry in the ship’s log.

After all, despite the setting, this book isn’t primarily about battles and cannon-fire and manoeuvres against the dastardly enemy. These feature, sure, and they feature strongly; but what makes the book so engaging and moving is the kernel of humanity right at its heart. These men are sailors in the service of their country, but they are also individuals, troubled by qualms and old memories and secret ambitions; and the book, for all its military grandeur, has the same quietness at its core. O’Brian is interested to see how his characters grow and develop as people: the compressed, enforced closeness of shipboard life becomes almost a psychological experiment as the men must come to terms not only with their comrades but with themselves.

There is nothing two-dimensional about them: Jack, for all his swaggering confidence, suffers the deep loneliness of a captain whose very position of authority prevents him from relaxing in the comfort of an equal friendship. Stephen, for his part, is equally lonely and isolated, and finds Jack as fascinating as a study as he does indispensable as a friend. The real treat of the book is watching the growing affection and respect between these two; but it’s just one of a whole web of dynamics which animate this little drifting world.

The writing is suffused with the spirit of the times, not only in the exquisitely polite dialogue but even in the broader prose; and O’Brian comes up with some beautiful turns of phrase, not to mention some words so unfamiliar that I was running back and forth to my dictionary. And these weren’t necessarily nautical terms: I was especially tickled to see ‘flocci-naucinihili-pilification’, which is a word that featured on Dr Johnson’s House’s Twitter account just the other day, and which means ‘the act of deciding that something is useless’, presumably because once you’ve figured out how to spell or pronounce it you simply don’t care any more.

But I digress. O’Brian’s writing is full of evocative metaphors: the young, sleep-deprived midshipmen are ‘at that dormouse, lovebed age that so clings to its warm hammock’; while an officer itching for an engagement with the enemy develops ‘the contained look of a fox about to do something utterly insane’. There are also some rather splendid half-veiled insults: ‘He derives a greater pleasure from a smaller stream of wit than any man I have ever known’ was a particular favourite. And then there’s the dialogue. O’Brian writes exchanges that feel so real you almost hear them in your mind. That’s particularly true of the joshing intimacy that grows up between his two protagonists: Jack’s bluff, hail-fellow-well-met conviviality set against Stephen’s desert-dry teasing. Take this for example, as the two friends ready themselves for a party at the commandant’s in Minorca:

‘Must I put on silk stockings?’
‘Certainly you must put on silk stockings. And do show a leg, my dear chap: we shall be late, without you spread a little more canvas.’
‘You are always in such a hurry,’ said Stephen peevishly, groping among his possessions. A Montpellier snake glided out with a dry rustling sound…
‘Oh, oh, oh,’ cried Jack, leaping onto a chair. ‘A snake!’
‘Will these do?’ asked Stephen. ‘They have a hole in them.’
‘Is it poisonous?’
‘Extremely so. I dare say it will attack you directly. I have very little doubt of it. Was I to put the silk stockings over my worsted stockings, sure the hole would not show: but then, I should stifle with heat. Do you not find it uncommonly hot?’
‘Oh, it must be two fathoms long. Tell me, is it really poisonous? On your oath now.’
‘If you thrust your hand down its throat as far as its back teeth you may meet a little venom; but not otherwise. Malpolon monspessulanus is a very innocent serpent. … What a pitiful figure you do cut upon that chair, to be sure.’

If you’d told me beforehand that I would end up being charmed by a novel about life on board a brig (or is it a sloop?) as she ploughs up and down the Mediterranean harrying French and Spanish shipping, I might have been ever so slightly sceptical. But it’s true. As I said, I didn’t fully understand most of the nautical terminology, but that didn’t matter. This is a wonderful blend between adventure novel and character study, and if the other books in the series are just as good as this one, I think I’ve found yet another group of novels to fall in love with.

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10 thoughts on “Master and Commander (1969): Patrick O’Brian

  1. LondonBlacksheep says:

    I read them years ago. I decided to purchase the dictionary that goes with the series, can't recall the name now, and i would sit with that and an atlas as i read them, one after the other. Certainly captured by them, and Paul Bettany and Russell Crowe look silly as anyone else now. Patrick O'Brien doesn't come off as well as his characters, but we have him to thank for this vista portal into the life of the Royal Navy. Amazing.

  2. Heloise says:

    Glad you finally got around to reading this, and of course that you liked it, too! 🙂 An excellent post, and so much more vivid than mine on the novel; however, I can't help to feel some Schadenfreude about even native speakers struggling with the vocabulary. 😛

    I hope you'll stick with the series now that you got your appetite whetted, as from my own experience the succeeding novels not only are as good as this first one but do get even better.

  3. cofax7 says:

    Oh, yes! The novels get better and better as they go along, and the characterizations get richer and deeper.

    Also, if you have any fondness for audiobooks, the audiobooks are simply marvelous.

    O'Brien is just as good a researcher as Dunnett, but rather less of a Romantic, and his female characters suffer a bit by comparison with the men. But they're still simply marvelous.

    One last note is that the movie is made up largely of mashing together bits of several of the books, so as you continue on you will certainly find yourself recognizing particular scenes…

  4. The Idle Woman says:

    Yes, I certainly get the feeling that a dictionary or at least a large repro of the ship diagram at the beginning would be immensely helpful. I didn't know there was such a dictionary already in existence, however; thanks for flagging it. Quite tempted to save that for a second reading – having made it through Dorothy Dunnett without the companion books on my first read-through, I'm tempted to try the same here even if it'll feel like falling in at the deep end. Very much looking forward to the later books in the series.

    I already agree that Russell Crowe has been superseded by my own mental image of Jack, but Bettany's really going to take a while to shake off. 🙂

  5. The Idle Woman says:

    Better late than never, hmm? Yes, the terminology is pretty baffling, but as I just said in my reply to the above comment, I feel armoured by the fact that if I've made it through Dunnett I can make it through *anything* 😉 I really wasn't expecting such subtlety in characterisation and that's what's going to keep me at it with this series, assuming it continues (as you imply that it does). If it were just dramatic naval battles then I might have found myself flagging after a while. Wonderful stuff though.

    And so much dry humour – there were several occasions where I'd read something and suddenly realise that the characters had been gently bantering with one another for half a page before I'd caught on. Somehow it gives the lovely impression that these genuinely are real people and you're eavesdropping on them. Really enjoyable.

  6. The Idle Woman says:

    I'm still looking forward to that 'lesser of two weevils' conversation 😉 And yes, for all my liking for strong female characters, I recognise that on board ship during the Napoleonic Wars is probably not the best time to find such figures. But thanks for your added enthusiasm: clearly there's a lot of love out there for these novels and it's great to see people so passionate about them! Your audiobook recommendation is appreciated too – I tend not to listen to them myself, but perhaps other people who stumble across this post will find that helpful.

  7. The Idle Woman says:

    She seems to have done masses of these rereads! I always meant to read through her Rothfuss rereads but still haven't got round to that. Perhaps I should finish this series and then consult Walton before a second bash at it?

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