Aubrey & Maturin: Book II
Heloise has been gently encouraging me to continue with Aubrey & Maturin ever since I posted on Master and Commander and I have finally kept my promise that I would do so. To be honest, in the aftermath of The Mammoth Hunters this proved to be the perfect book: full of adventure and incident, populated by wonderfully endearing but flawed characters, and written like a dream. I’m swiftly coming to realise that O’Brian is one of those authors whose books you can turn to with a happy sigh, like easing into a warm bath, because you know that as a reader you don’t have to do any work at all: just sit back and enjoy.
As the book opens, peace between France and England is declared. It is 1802 and, while bells ring out in England, the mood at sea is more subdued. For a naval man, peace is a double-edged sword: he loses his livelihood and there is no compensation or guarantee of further work. But things aren’t quite so bleak for Jack Aubrey, former captain of the Sophie, and his good friend Stephen Maturin, surgeon. Jack spots an advertisement for a pleasant house to be let in Sussex, in country that he knew as a boy, and they take up residence with some of their other sea-going friends. It promises to be a jolly shore stay. But unfortunately the presence of a naval gentleman in the quiet Sussex countryside can’t go unnoticed. Before Jack knows what’s happening, he’s been wound in by the ambitious Mrs Williams, a widow with three daughters yet to be married – the eldest, coincidentally, a blonde sweetheart named Sophia – and another girl under her roof too: a cruel, manipulative temptress of a widowed niece called Diana Villiers. Aubrey and Maturin are to find themselves up against entirely unforeseen challenges: feminine wiles, outright boldness and, worst of all, the green-eyed tint of jealousy.
About half the book takes place on shore, and much of the rest is spent grappling with the emotional turmoil of our heroes’ romantic intrigues – as well as Jack’s slight debt issues, which mean he hardly dares set foot on shore for fear of being swept off to the Fleet Prison. It feels as though O’Brian is doing a Jane Austen and loving every moment of it: ‘Mrs Williams was a woman, in the natural course of things; but she was a woman so emphatically, so totally a woman, that she was almost devoid of any private character.’ However, Jack is no Mr Darcy to weather the storms of the female temperament: on the contrary, he threatens to take on water and sink right away, and it’s rather wonderful to see how helpless he becomes when removed from his element of the sea. But it’s also poignant to see how our two friends are affected by the calculating Diana, who plays them off against one another with verve, and comes exceedingly close to destroying one of the most beautifully-rendered fictional friendships I’ve come across.
O’Brian’s novel moves gently, with an ebb and flow, and there are times when one gets slightly bewildered by the sheer density of nautical jargon; but I’ve learned to take it in my stride and, when phrases do come up that I recognise, like ‘splice the mainbrace!’ I’m all the happier for it. Yet despite this stately pace, the novel packs a huge amount into its 500 pages. We have, as I’ve said, romantic jealousy, unrequited love, and yearning looks across crowded ballrooms; we also have spies waiting on Spanish coasts by moonlight; a near-duel; frigates chasing treasure-fleets across the sea; urgent discussions of Catalan independence; tense meetings at the Admiralty; infestations of bees; a daring escape while dressed as a dancing bear; an attempted hold-up by the most incompetent footpad in London; and all manner of delicious moments which mix old-fashioned derring-do with a tongue-in-cheek humour. Where O’Brian succeeds particularly well is in conjuring up the sense of a community, almost a family, aboard these crowded ships. We pass through several vessels in this book, but each has its own character and its own personalities – though of course Jack and Stephen stand supreme. It is high time that Jack gets his own command and, judging by the title of the next book in the series, I hope this will happen soon.
These two friends, with their affectionate bantering, boyish clumsiness (Jack) and esoteric interests (Stephen), have a flesh-and-blood feel about them, and this truly is a delightful book, a worthy successor to Master & Commander. Will Jack be able to get to grips with his feelings about the delectable Miss Williams? Will he ever get his much-desired promotion from the beleaguered Admiralty? And will anyone be able to capture Stephen’s bees? Heloise will be glad to know that my fondness for Aubrey & Maturin remains undimmed and – despite my almost complete ignorance of naval terminology or warfare – I will, in due time, be setting my course for the next in the series: HMS Surprise.
Last in this series – Master and Commander