It’s quite clear from Master and Commander that O’Brian hadn’t the least idea in the world of spending the rest of his life writing another nineteen books about these people. It’s equally clear that he hadn’t run out of things to say about them. This is the first book in the series, and definitely the best place to start—it’s where Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin meet, and it’s where O’Brian chose to begin to follow them. I do think you can pick up the series anywhere—I did—but you might as well start at the beginning.
If you skim, do not bother trying to read these books, you will not have the faintest idea what is going on. These are books that call for focus and attention.
In O’Brian’s earlier YA books about Anson’s voyages, The Golden Ocean and The Unknown Shore he chose to write about midshipmen, young men going to sea and having adventures. When he sat down to write Master and Commander he chose two men in their late twenties, already qualified. Stephen Maturin is a physician and a naturalist, Jack Aubrey is a lieutenant who becomes master and commander of His Majesty’s Ship Sophie at the beginning of the book. But O’Brian does not choose to begin with this promotion and his delight in it, and with the open-hearted friendship he offers to Maturin. Instead he begins with a concert in Port Mahon in 1800, where the men meet enjoying the music and almost challenge each other to a duel. It’s almost like The Three Musketeers, where D’Artagnan engages to fight all three of his future friends, Jack and Stephen come together through music and in antagonism.
It’s music that’s the bond between two such different men, of course, before the bond gets to be the sheer length of time they’ve been together. Music makes them sympathetic to each other. I think O’Brian chose to show us Jack despairing of promotion and in a black mood so as to make the most of the transformation. Jack has two natures, at land and at sea. At sea he is happy, healthy (apart from the occasional wound) and successful, at land he is quite the opposite. He is out of his element dealing with people stuff when he isn’t the one in charge. Yet while his promotion brings him such delight—and O’Brian writes delight splendidly—it also almost immediately makes him feel lonely, which is another reason he cleaves to Stephen.
On Stephen’s side, he’s destitute and thrilled to be offered a job and the potential to become rich through prize money. Stephen is half Irish and half Catalan. We learn in Post Captain that he’s “somebody’s natural son” which is to say illegitimate, but that’s not mentioned here. He is a physician, he has been to Trinity College Dublin, he’s a Catholic, and he was involved in the rising of the United Irishmen in 1898. His present obsessions are with the natural world—flora and fauna, and secondarily observing people. He isn’t yet a spy—that transformation happens off the page between the first and second books, in a typically O’Brian way.
Stephen’s past plays a large part in this book, larger than ever afterwards, because of the presence of James Dillon, another Irishman, an old friend, a secret Catholic and a lieutenant aboard Sophie. The balance of the book is Stephen between Dillon and Jack, liking both of them when they do not like each other. This is resolved only by Dillon’s death, which surprised me the first time. Few authors spend as much time on a character as O’Brian does on Dillon only to have them knocked on the head in a boarding action. But this is one of O’Brian’s trademarks. He does not hesitate to kill his characters, even characters who have been prominent for many books.
O’Brian writes in an idiosyncratic omniscient point of view that recalls but does not mimic the style of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The characters speak in what appears to be quite authentic Austen-esque dialogue—not that Austen’s characters ever discussed the range of things they discuss. O’Brian has his characters use period phrases and turns of speech: “I should like it of all things” and “I am with child to see a dew pond.” The narration, however, is modern and glides from one point of view to another, not head-hopping but hovering between heads. This is the hardest of all forms of omni to write. A lot of omni is a special case of first person—you have a narrator, like Paarfi of Roundwood, who may or may not be a character and may or may not intrude at any given moment, and who knows everything because who’s telling this story anyway? Then there’s the Dickensian, or “best seller” omni, where each section is from one point of view in tight third, but where the point of view is chosen as is most convenient to the author to reveal or conceal as seems most useful. There’s also is the camera eye omni, that sees everything but never gets drawn close to anything. There is a variant of that I call Lymondine, which can be seen in Dorothy Dunnett and Guy Gavriel Kay, where you’re usually very closely in somebody’s head but occasionally you pull right away and get a distant perspective. O’Brian’s glide is closest to that, but it’s also really different. He draws in and out almost imperceptibly. It’s very effective and very addictive. I find myself having to struggle not to use it after I’ve been reading him.
The plot of Master and Commander isn’t as surprising as some of the later books, but it isn’t very standard either. Jack and Stephen and Dillon capture prizes in the Sophie, Jack runs afoul of Admiral Harte (and has a liaison with his wife) Dillon has a crisis of conscience when he’s supposed to fetch some Irish rebels out of a ship, the Sophie fights a battle with the xebec Cacafuego, more than twice her size, and defeats her, though Dillon is killed. This is regarded by everyone as something amazing, and Jack hopes to be made Post. However, Harte does him a bad turn and this does not happen. Then the Sophie is captures, and the book ends with Jack being court-martialed for the loss of his vessel, the happy ending being that he is considered to have been justified.
Jack has an adulterous relationship with Molly Harte, who is also two-timing him with a colonel, as well as being married. He seems to care about her. Stephen has no romantic entanglements at all. There’s no seeing anything romantic in Jack and Stephen’s relationship—we have an openly gay Master, Marshall, who admires Jack but Jack doesn’t see it—Dillon accuses him of a “want of penetration” in not seeing it. There’s also a seaman accused of sodomising a goat.
Minor characters introduced here who become important parts of the continuing series are the midshipmen Pullings, Mowett, and Babbington, Admiral Harte, fellow captain and friend Heneage Dundas, the steward Killick, the helmsman Barrett Bonden.
In thinking about the book as a whole and as part of the series, I keep thinking about the wonderful vignettes of minor characters. Some of them are hilarious, such as the twelve year old ship’s clerk, Richards, telling his family about the Cacafuego action.
“I very nearly said to him ‘Goldilocks’ — for we call him Goldilocks in the service, you know, in much the same way as they call me Hellfire Davy or Thundering Richards...”
It goes without saying that Richards doesn’t address Jack as Goldilocks, and that nobody ever calls him either of those names either. It’s interesting to consider why this piece is here. It’s funny, of course, and funnier if you have all of it and in context. And it’s characterisation of course—but for a very minor character who’s never seen again. It’s part of O’Brian’s desire to show us how people of all classes and conditions relate to what’s going on. I am reminded of Kitto talking about the difference between Greek tragedy, which contained nothing but what it needed, and Shakespeare, who put things in because they were the way people were. O’Brian is Shakespearean, in that and in other respects.
There’s no map in this volume, but fandom has provided one—I think these are terrific, do go and help them out! I looked at this several times as I was reading. You don’t need to know where Port Mahon is in relation to Crete or Barcelona to enjoy reading, but it doesn’t hurt to know.
On 1st April 2000, I went with a group of friends to Portsmouth to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of Jack being given the Sophie. We ate lunch and tea in naval inns, walked on the Hard, and went around the Victory. I thoroughly recommend this to anyone who can get there, even if they’re not lucky enough to have such a great group of people to go with.
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.