Re-reading Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series

Jack, you have debauched my sloth! Patrick O’Brian’s H.M.S. Surprise

H.M.S. Surprise is the third volume of the Aubrey-Maturin series. (Re-reads of the first two volumes can be found here.) It begins a little while after the end of Post Captain, and concerns the voyage of the frigate Surprise, under Captain Aubrey, to Kampong via India, to deliver an envoy. There’s some lovely stuff here as the series starts to get into its stride. This is where I feel it really gets going, and if you weren’t going to start at the beginning, this would work—you’d want to go back and read the earlier ones, but that wouldn’t be a problem.

The book begins with the supposed gain at the end of Post Captain being cancelled out—the captains are not to share in the bounty of liberated Spanish gold, due to a technicality. Stephen is much concerned with his spying, and is captured by the French and tortured in Port Mahon, where he is rescued by Jack in a gunboat captured by the Lively. Once back in England, Sir Joseph gives Stephen a mission for India to help him recover in the heat, and Jack gets given the Surprise to take him there. Jack’s still at risk of arrest for debt and although secretly engaged to Sophie cannot afford to marry her. Diana, meanwhile, is in India with Canning. The Surprise then voyages to India, where Stephen meets Diana. They go on to deliver the envoy, who dies, making the whole voyage useless. They fight an action with the French to protect some ships of the East India Company and return to India to refit. There Stephen kills Canning in a duel in which Stephen is wounded. Diana agrees to marry him but instead runs off with the rich American Johnson. Jack has enough fortune to marry Sophie and asks her to come to Madeira. The book ends with the two of them united aboard Surprise.

I always think of this book as being one long voyage, and am perpetually surprised to be reminded of the bit with Lively and on shore at the beginning. It is the first really long voyage in the series, and there’s some wonderful description:

It was strange to see how quickly this progress took on the nature of ordinary existence: the Surprise had not run off a thousand miles before the unvarying routine of the ship’s day, from the piping up of the hammocks to the drumbeat of Heart of Oak for the gunroom dinner, thence to quarters and the incessently repeated exercising of the guns, and so to the setting of the watch, obliterated both the beginning of the voyage and its end, it obliterated even time, so that it seemed normal to all hands that they should travel endlessly over this infinite and wholly empty sea, watching the sun diminish and the moon increase.

It’s much easier to write set pieces than to write about long journeys where nothing really changes, and O’Brian is very good at both of them. There’s one disconcerting jump here, between deciding to go on the voyage and being far out at sea, but apart from that we feel we travel with them, very close, and see time and distance from on top in a way that’s uniquely O’Brian’s and very effective. I have felt like that on voyages—not sea voyages, usually on trains actually, but I recognise that feeling of beginning and end being out of sight. O’Brian’s also very good on the practice required to make the gunnery and sailing good, and on how that pays off in battle. There are some excellent battles here, and some excellent botanising, the relationship between Jack and Stephen flowers wonderfully—especially Jack’s misplaced sympathy.

In Bombay, Stephen meets Dil, an Indian orphan who befriends him. They become friends, and he can’t think what he can do to help her. In fact, he gets her killed and it is his fault since he gave her the glass bangles she wanted. O’Brian doesn’t gloss over the reality here—she’s about ten, she’s intelligent, she helps Stephen, he likes her and because she’s a girl and an Indian orphan all he can do for her is bury her. Stephen loves liberty, hates Napoleon, hates slavery, but very often we see him completely caught up in his enthusiasm for animals and cut off from human interaction. Here we see this little microcosm of colonialism in action that culminates when he claims to be of her caste so he can bury her.

As far as romance goes, both of them pursue their women throughout the book, and in the end Jack gets the Sophie but Diana is whisked away from Stephen. After the duel, Stephen operates on himself to remove the cloth from the wound—doing abdominal surgery on himself is very impressive, but he takes it in his stride.

This is the first time we see the Surprise, the ship that is to play so large a part in Jack’s career. It’s not the first time Jack has seen her, though; he sailed on her as a midshipman.

I said in my initial post that these books are like science fiction in that you get completely immersed in an alien world. I think they’re like it in another way that you get completely immersed in an alien world that becomes familiar—because there are so many volumes, and because they’re all about the Navy and the Napoleonic Wars even though they’re very different the characters and the world become familiar. I’m used to this with things like the Atevi series and the Miles books but it’s much less usual in mainstream fiction.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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