Oct 4 2010 11:30am

“It could not have fallen more happily”: Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander

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.

Divers Extras

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.

Re-reading Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Steven Joyce
1. sjoyce
Typo: 1898 should be 1798. For a minute, I thought I has slipped into a rather strange timeline.
Rob Munnelly
2. RobMRobM
The books are fascinating and enjoyable reading. I've read them all and my wife's brother in law is in the middle of his second re-read of all 20-plus books. Love Jack, especially love Stephen as you learn more and more about his unusal background as the books develop, and enjoy all the many side characters. Well done all around. I just wish O'Brien as a more likeable sort in real life, as he was reputed to be an epic sh*t.

Angela Korra'ti
4. annathepiper
I have a special fondness in my heart for M&C. I came into these books courtesy of Russell Crowe fandom, and I dove into this one when the 2003 movie came out--which I mention only because it was my springboard into the awesome that is these books.

And the very first scene is what sold me on Aubrey. I was just so ridiculously charmed that he was so caught up in the music that he was physically engaged with it, tapping his knee, waving his hand around, etc. I remember thinking "I DO THAT! I love this guy!"

Later on, when he and Stephen play together for the first time on the ship, my other favorite moment in the book shows up--not only because of the delightful dialogue about "I must insist that that note is not A" and the bit about 'yay! You didn't hit the chair OR the lamp!', but also just because of the sheer joy these boys have in playing music together.

I must heartily recommend to any Aubrey and Maturin fans that you should if you haven't already find the series of albums that are collections of classical pieces that fit in beautifully with all of these books. They're called Musical Evenings With the Captain (Vols. 1 and 2) and A Musical Evening in the Captain's Cabin, and they're all pieces by various composers that were comtemporary to Aubrey and Maturin's time: Corelli, Locatelli, and others. Makes for lovely listening. :)
Tim Nolan
6. Dr_Fidelius
The comedy is one of the finest things of the series. I'm sure I'll spot jokes in the re-read that I never noticed before. O'Brian's not one to nudge you in the ribs, reminding you that you're supposed to be laughing - if you don't pay attention the humour will fly right over your head.

On the other hand, you have Jack's fondness for a terrible pun - even the worst of them make you grin, purely from the joy he takes in making them.

Huge thanks for the map link by the way. There are plenty of things in the books you don't need to know to enjoy them, but now and then I do have to look things up; some of the action scenes are difficult to understand without at least a vague idea of naval manoevres.
Michael B Sullivan
7. Michael B Sullivan
Typo: 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.

Note "captures," presumably meant "captured."
Michael B Sullivan
8. Rush-That-Speaks
When A. saw me going through the house with a copy of Master and Commander, she said, "You know that's not just a series of books, right? It's a major lifestyle decision. You start reading those and you grow a new space in your brain devoted to them." She is quite right.

I thought Stephen's becoming a spy was onscreen in this book, actually. I mean, he goes off into Spain when they have to leave him, and he comes back with all this information, which he then actively takes to people who use it. I guess that isn't formal, though.

And I was expecting Dillon's death, because I could tell O'Brian didn't know this was a very long series, and it would need a very long series to deal structurally with Dillon in any way other than killing him off, given the way he is with both Jack and Stephen. But I was rather sad as I'd have liked to see the other-- would have been more complicated.

I must must must find the second book.
Michael B Sullivan
9. DavidA
"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."

Most of Jane Austen's brothers were sea officers in the Royal Navy -- one rose to become Admiral of the Fleet. I've always enjoyed the thought that these Aubrey-Maturin books were the books Jane would have written if she had been able to join the Royal Navy and go to sea with her brothers.
Jo Walton
10. bluejo
Rush: Yes, Stephen is implicitly a spy. In the later volumes, it's explicit. In later volumes he does more complicated things over long time periods too. The books are self contained (in a forever bailing sort of way) but they develop a plot arc that goes between volumes.
Patrick Garson
11. patrickg
I have to say, I love this series, but I did find the first one far more of a slog than any of the subsequent novels. O'Brian goes a little nutty with the sailor talk in this one, I felt (the literal sailor talk, mizzen this, f'c's'l'e that etc etc). I was shocked when I looked up the boat in question, and it was only thirty metres. I thought, "Wtf?! Do they have a different frigging name for every square inch?"

This all said, it's still worth a read for the wonderful humour and characterisation. But when recommending to people, I always warn them that this one's a little heavy with the naval stuff and subsequent books read much easier. I feel like O'Brian was still getting his sea legs (Aubrey would be proud of that!).
Pamela Adams
12. PamAdams
I remember going very carefully through M&C trying to decide if Stephen is already a spy, or, as Jo suggested in the post, becomes one between books. I finally decided that he wasn't one, but forget just why. Perhaps his successful 'mission' led him to formally volunteer his services.
Hugh Arai
13. HArai
patrickg@11: Actually, they pretty much do have different names for just about everything you can come up with. "Pull the thing! ...and the other thing!" might work in the Princess Bride but it would be pretty much fatal in a real naval engagement. They have to be able to specify exactly what they're talking about without any chance of confusion.
Joe Romano
14. Drunes
Jo: I've wanted to try Patrick O'Brian for quite a while, but the truth is that I try to stay away from series -- too many other books on my "to read" list to make that type of commitment. But your comment about skimming got to me. It will be a few months before I read Master and Commander, but I'm planning on skimming it when I do. It's the only way I'd enjoy it! (And this is being said in the spirit of good fun.)
Kate Nepveu
15. katenepveu
Oooh, Rush-That-Speaks' appearance reminds me that they wrote my favorite review of M&C ever, which I now have a thin excuse to link to. 

I was surprised how engaged I was by Dillon; I literally had to stop myself from telling random people that I was worried about him. 

Michael B Sullivan
16. etv13
In addition to the fandom maps, I found Google Earth added a lot to my enjoyment; as well as the satellite photos, there are ground-level photos that gave me a really good idea of Port Mahon, and of the really incredibly vivid colors of the ocean around Mauritius. (You'd think, having grown up in Hawaii, I'd be prepared for that, but it still took me by surprise.)
Michael B Sullivan
17. tomaq
Thanks for this, Jo. I love this series. Like patrickg, though, I did find the first book hard to get into. It didn't really kick in for me till the second. But I recently re-read the first book with a lot of pleasure, & am on my second reading of the series.

I read most of the series aloud, first time around, to my wife, when she was pregnant and later nursing. I think I should be in the Guinness book for that...
Michael B Sullivan
18. a-j
Also agree with patrickg that M&C is not necessarily the best starting point for the reasons he gives.
I'd always assumed that O'Brian decided to turn Stephen into a spy when it was decided to write sequels and that he definitely is not in M&C. However, this piece made me re-consider. Stephen specifically denies being a spy to Jack, but then he would. He doesn't yet know whether Jack can be discreet. Alternatively, he denies being a spy because he assumes that the word refers to a paid agent which he most definitely is not. Finally, the idea that Stephen is an active agent would fit with the theme of treachery, betrayal and discovery that runs through the Dillon story.
Strongly second the recommendation for the Captain's Table recordings. Excellent. There's also a book of recipes for dishes referred to in the series and another of maps showing the voyages. Can't remember the titles off-hand, suppose people could check wikipedia or amazon, whichever they consider to be the lesser of two weevils.
Peter Ahlstrom
19. PeterAhlstrom
My preferred way to experience this series is the Recorded Books version narrated by Patrick Tull. He spoiled me for any other audiobook narrator. The way he captures the characters and the way his narration adapts to the POV is fantastic.
Pamela Adams
20. PamAdams
Re-reading right now. Stephen has just been appointed 'surgeon' and is complaining mightily- after all, he is a physician. Dillon, in a beautiful bit, goes on about all the things that sailors lie about, and winds it up with- You may say what you like, as long as you do your duty. This of course will reverbrate later with Dillon's own difficulties with duty and his various loyalties.
Michael B Sullivan
21. Cannonade
Thanks very much for linking to my mapping project. I am very pleased to hear that you liked it.

It is a work in progress that has run for many years and there are many years in ahead of me. This sort of thing keeps me motivated, that and my affection for these books.
Pamela Adams
22. PamAdams
The development of Jack and Stephen's friendship in the book(s) is what I love most. At one point in M&C, Stephen tells Dillon that Jack isn't yet a 'gremial' friend, but that he can see the good in him. (pauses to look up gremial- pertining to the lap or bosom)

Later, we see them teasing each other- Stephen asks Jack if his desire to be made post is due merely to a desire for symmetry (to have two epaulettes, rather than one). Jack immediately agrees with the statement, and adds that he also desires the additional eighteenpence per day. Can you imagine Stephen (or anyone) making such a comment to Dillon? First, his lack of humor would prevent him from understanding that it was a joke, and second, his strong sense of what is due his honor would require him to feel insulted. The result, another duel.
Michael B Sullivan
29. MattyK
I too came to the books from the movie - which is just a pale reflection of the awesomeness that is the whole set. Speaking of set - Amazon sells a nice boxed collector's set of five or six hardbounds, each containing several of the novels. It's pictured at the head of the post introducing this reread series. IIRC, relatively inexpensive given the many many hours of enjoyment you will derive.

And back to the movie: love it or hate it (and there are justifications for both points of view, I believe), I discovered two years ago that it is absolutely *superb* for testing your new surround sound home theater system. The subtle sounds of the rigging and the ocean are all around you. *Brilliantly* recorded.
Pamela Adams
30. PamAdams

I came to the movie well after I read the series- I enjoyed it, but kept wondering about the surprise in store for moviegoers turned readers when they met the real Stephen.
Michael B Sullivan
31. Ragar
The first book was a little difficult to slog through, however the key was to get use to the nautical terms and rememeber that, like all good series, you get invested in teh characters. Haven;t met a single person who read the first two books and failed to read the rest.
Elizabeth Bonney
32. Asperity
I'd just gotten about halfway through M&C and am very pleased to learn I'll have company on my first run through the series. Thanks!
Michael B Sullivan
33. MattyK
@Pam Adams:

Yes, that was exactly my main complaint about the movie. I think a lot of time and energy were invested in getting the setting and the atmosphere *just right* - which was marvelous, and a fitting tribute to the amazing job O'Brian himself did in that department in the novels. Other production values - I've already mentioned the audio, for instance - are similarly fantastic.

Characterization-wise, on the other hand, it was all about Jack Jack Jack, with Stephen present as a kind of foil rather than a fully-realized "second lead," as it were. I suppose there's only so much you can do in 120 minutes or so, but viewers definitely were cheated out of 'the real Stephen.'

But, we digress. This is a re-read, not a re-watch, and we should be talking about the books! I am greatly looking forward to Ms. Walton's next installment!
Michael B Sullivan
35. Jenavira
katenepveau@15 - "I'm very worried about James Dillon" has in fact become shorthand around my house for "I am far too wrapped up in this fictional thing to be concerned with your petty real-world troubles," ever since I read your reviews of the series.
Billy Martin
36. dawgriver
I've only ever listened to any of these books but for M&C and H.M.S. Surprise. As Peter Ahlstrom says above, there really is nothing like hearing Patrick Tull's narration and characterizations.

The movie, though I've watched it over and over is just wrong. Jack is a physically imposing man, Stephen his opposite and Barrett Bonden is most assuredly NOT a hobbit. The swab's a bare knuckle Brawler, for all love! But the visuals and audio are epic for all the film is not.

I drive for a living and these books Live with me. I've been through this series forwards and backwards a dozen times at least in the last 15 years and no other has ever left such a mark on me, except for Jordan's WoT and even it hasn't effected my vocabulary like the Aubrey/Maturin's ....
Bill Welch
37. moonmoth
I'm surprised that no-one has commented on what struck me when I first read this book: that Aubrey was being set up as an anti-Hornblower. Aubrey is musical, extroverted, makes friends, is lucky. Hornblower is tone-deaf, introverted, unhappy, keeps to himself and at least to begin with is not at all lucky. I thought that O'Brian might have been deliberately taking himself out of the shadow of Forester, which he did very successfully.
Michael B Sullivan
38. LizardBreath
I think the deliberate anti-Hornblowerness is real. Another aspect is that in M&C, Jack is a mathematical idiot, in contrast with Hornblower's mathematical facility. That really didn't work for a successful sea captain, so O'Brian had to (a bit implausibly) take Jack through a remedial math course that left him competent. (I read these so long ago that I've forgotten the details, but I'm pretty sure I have it straight.)

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