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

The American navy was the staple diet of conversation: Patrick O’Brian’s The Fortune of War

The Fortune of War is the sixth book of the series, and while I think it would be a perfectly reasonable random place to start reading, I don’t think I’d recommend that. It’s a terrific book, one of my favourites, and it completely breaks from the pattern of the earlier books.

Spoilers start here.

Jack doesn’t command a ship in this book, how about that! This is a book with a wrecked ship, a long distance open boat voyage with thirst and cannibalism, two naval battles, lots of exciting spy stuff, and a desperate escape. But it’s utterly different from the previous volumes, which have all been genre sea stories in a way this just isn’t. We were comparing this series with Hornblower earlier—it’s impossible to imagine a Hornblower volume like this.

The other books so far have generally begun back in England at the beginning of a voyage. Here we go pretty much straight on—there’s a short gap between the end of Desolation Island and the beginning of this volume, in which the horrible old Leopard makes it to New South Wales, and leaves again. We begin as she limps into Batavia, almost despaired of. She’s such a wreck she’s demoted to a store ship, and Jack is sent home to take command of Acasta, a heavy frigate on the American station. Oh yes, war has broken out with the U.S.A., the War of 1812, which is greeted with delight because they see it as meaning more opportunities for prizes. They’re a little worried the army might do badly by land and disgrace the Navy, which would be a problem if Canada were lost.

Jack and Stephen travel homewards as passengers on La Fleche, a packet, which suddenly and unexpectedly burns one night. They escape in a little boat with the other Leopards. This is the first real shipwreck they go through—wreck as opposed to capture. They are rescued by Java just in time to be captured by the Constitution in a lively sea battle which Jack would have won if he’d been in charge. Jack is wounded and they are carried as prisoners to Boston.

In Boston they meet up with Wogan and Herapath—Jack is suspected of being a spy. Herapath’s father is a loyalist who is opposed to the war and offers to help them. Stephen meets Diana and finds he feels nothing for her, nevertheless he offers to marry her to get her away from Johnson, who is heading U.S. naval intelligence. They escape, killing two French spies and stealing all of Johnson’s papers—taking with them Diana’s diamonds,. They make it onto the H.M.S. Shannon just in time for her historic battle with the U.S.S. Chesapeake. The book ends with the victory.

This must be an odd book for American readers, with them set firmly as the enemy and allied with Napoleon. I like the way the pall of misery comes over Jack and the other British officers at the naval defeats, and how the army doing far better by land than anyone expected barely cheers them. I like the way everyone on the Java is discussing the U. .ships, and I am especially fond of the moment when Stephen talks at cross purposes and metaphorically when asked about the President, and talks about Madison when they are talking about the ship.

Boston is brought very vividly to life. I like the way their captors are kind to them, as the French were, and as Jack is shown being kind to his captives. It’s a very different kind of war. It’s great to see the plot from Desolation Island concerning Wogan and Herapath directly continued this way, and to see Stephen’s cleverness in giving them the poisoned intelligence having consequences that are dangerous to him. I also like Herapath’s father and the complexity of the situation there with the child.

I don’t like Diana. I ought to like her, because she’s a woman who kicked against the conventions women of the era were supposed to live by, but I cannot warm to her. I’ve never felt she’s good enough for Stephen, or really understood what he sees in her. She’s elegant and brave, but there’s nothing really that makes me understand why he’s so attached and so forgiving. It’s one of those romances where it doesn’t matter who the woman is or what she does, he just loves her anyway. And here where he finds doesn’t care for her, that the love has gone, I have to feel sorry for him:

He had known he would love her forever, to the last syllable of recorded time. He had not sworn it, any more than he had sworn the sun would rise every morning: it was too certain, too evident, no one swears that he will continue to breathe nor that twice two is four. Indeed in such a case an oath would imply the possibility of doubt. Yet now it seemed that perpetuity meant eight years, nine months and some odd days, while the last syllable of recorded time was Wednesday, the seventeenth of May.

I love the way he analyses himself, and the way O’Brian makes use of his diary and Jack’s letters to Sophie as a way of giving us angles on information. But it’s the kind of romantic passion that tends to irritate me, especially when the object of it is so undeserving.

I very much like the whole intrigue with Johnson and the French and Stephen—it’s as exciting as the sea chases, but in a very different way. There’s a lot of very good Stephen in this volume—and some wonderful Jack malopropisms.

I also want to note Stephen’s watch. It was confiscated from him, and he now either retrieves it or steals a very similar one from one of the Frenchmen he kills (“like the end of Titus Andronicus”) and he then retains this watch until the last volume, despite occasional dunkings.

On to The Surgeon’s Mate, and there’s no question now of putting the series down and reading something else in between.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She has a ninth novel coming out in January, Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. 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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