Oct 18 2010 11:23am

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

H.M.S. Surprise by Patrick O’BrianH.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.

Re-reading Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series: ‹ previous | index | next ›
1. xenny
"Jack gets the Sophie"

Did this start out as "Jack gets the Surprise" ?
2. HelenS
I'm always getting shocked by the part with Dil, because in my mind it happens much later in the series and I never expect it to be in this book. I think I have read all the books at least twice, and some of them a good many more times, but I still never have a very clear impression of what happens in which book after the first couple, and if you gave me a stack of cards with the book titles I would make a sad hash of putting the middle ones in order.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
HelenS: Me too. I tend to read them very fast and with no pauses, and if I hadn't read them out of order the first time I'd have no idea.
Sherwood Smith
4. Sartorias
In my own head, the early part aboard the Lively really belongs to book two, and Stephen's rescue closes the long storyline about Jack and Stephen. Even so, the third book, for me, is the one that catapults O'Brian to greatness--it hit me in the Dil segment.
Pamela Adams
6. PamAdams
I believe that HMS Surprise is where I started the series- I agree, it's a wonderful place to start. Plus, it contains my favorite line in the entire series. (The Dear knows I didn't expect you to use it for the header!)

Post Captain shows us Jack making his mistakes and almost ruining his life. Surprise is Stephen's book of errors. His mistakes are costly to others as well as himself- Dil, Diana, and, of course, Canning. Part (if not all) of his reason for doing the surgery on himself is that his bullet 'missed' in the duel- he killed Canning when he meant to let him live.
7. TG12
I always come back to HMS Surprise as being my favorite of the series, although admittedly, there is such a wealth of great material to choose from that it's difficult to say for sure.

It has so much that is great. O'Brian's lovely understated humor is in full flower (the justly famous "you have debauched my sloth" being just one example); the Stephen-Diana-Canning triangle, and its resolution; the friendship between Jack and Stephen; the world building (as we would think in a SF context) is top-notch--I don't know how closely the reality of early 19th century Bombay conformed to O'Brian's portrait of it, but the portrait that he does paint is rich and exuberant and exciting; and of course, both the quotidian details of shipboard life and the punctuation of the chase/battle with Linois.

Then there's the interlude with Dil, which strikes me each time like a magnificent punch to the gut. She's drawn so delightfully in just a relatively few strokes, and then she's gone. I always find Stephen's very understated devastation most affecting; the closing of the chapter with the Latin benediction ("now and in the hour of our deaths..."), followed by his tardy return to ship and Jack's (understandable) misattribution of his fallen countenance to the Diana matter. It's a very impressive bit of writing.

Anyway, great stuff in this installment.
j p
8. sps49
This is where I stopped the series. I am aware of the shared source material, but these books just felt too "same" for me, having read all of C. S. Forester's Hornblower books (including the Companion).

Has anyone here read both series?
Pamela Adams
9. PamAdams
The Aubrey/Maturin vs. Hornblower discussion would be an interesting one. Having read them both, I prefer A/M. Some of my reasons are: the dual point of view is more fun, and gives more depth. HH tended to be somewhat morose and depressive. Another is that O'Brian brings much more characterization to the smaller parts, especially that of the ordinary sailors. Think of how Bonden is taught to read in Surprise.
Tony Zbaraschuk
10. tonyz
Hornblower is a 20th century naval officer trapped in the 18th century. Jack and Stephen are 18th century figures trapped in the 18th century. I like both of them, by the way, though I think the A/M books are deeper and closer to the original period.

Stephen was performing cardiac surgery on himself, by the way, not abdominal surgery.

And, yes, Dil is a punch in the gut.
Tim Nolan
11. Dr_Fidelius
Hornblower is a 20th century naval officer trapped in the 18th century.

Exactly! I think O'Brian has spoiled Forester for me, just as The Wire has spoiled other cop shows. Everything else feels conventional, predictable, just another adventure set at sea. The Aubrey-Maturin books defy all your expectations of a story, from plot conventions to story and character arcs. All the important things are still there of course, it's just that O'Brian's so good they look like real life.
12. a1ay
Hornblower reflects the time he was written in; I have an edition of "The Happy Return" which demonstrates how popular it was in the printing history on the flyleaf.

First impression June 1939
Second impression August 1939
Third impression December 1939
Ninth impression January 1942
Type destroyed by enemy action April 1942
Tenth impression July 1942
Eleventh impression October 1942

Terrific. I picture Messrs Chatto and Windus standing amid the smoking ruins of their printing works.
"Hornblower type all shot away, sir!"
"Very good, Mr Windus. Be so good as to pass the word for the typesetter's mate."
"Aye aye, sir."
(turns to loyally labouring and slightly charred printer's assistants)
"Don't worry, lads. We'll have the next impression out before you can say Jack Robinson. Mr Bewdley! Holystone that dustjacket!"
Jo Walton
13. bluejo
A1ay: That's a wonderful image. The first time I had the "book destroyed by enemy action" error message from the British Library I didn't imagine German bombs at all, I imagined a masked and cloaked enemy of books sneaking into the library with evil intent.

I have never got into Hornblower, I've always found his depression dull and the descriptions of action long-winded. I've read two or three of them, but not for a long time. I think there are people who read Aubrey-Maturin as if it were just another naval adventure, but it really isn't. However, sps49, you should read beyond H.M.S. Surprise if you want to see how different it gets.
14. CarlosSkullsplitter
At some point I should plug John Biggins' four books about Otto Prohaska, a submarine captain for Austria-Hungary during World War One. They're marketed as 'hilarious', a deep mischaracterization, unless you were laughing out loud at Catch-22. But they are ironic and worldly and immersive, with an attention to the details of process both humane and familiar to the science fiction reader. (Jo, the narration is first-person tape recorder.)
15. reaeverywhereelse
"I should plug John Biggins' four books about Otto Prohaska"

I heartily second this recommendation. Unfortuantely, my local liabrary put them in deep storage because no one other than me wanted to read them.
16. a1ay
I confess to being a Hornblower fan rather than an Aubrey fan, mainly because CS Forester seemed to have mastered the art of beginning at the beginning, going on to the end, and then stopping; O'Brien always seems to start in medias res and finish terrifically abruptly. When I read "HMS Surprise" I actually thought that my copy had been bound with the last couple of chapters left out.

That said, Tonyz is spot on when he says "Hornblower is a 20th century naval officer trapped in the 18th century. Jack and Stephen are 18th century figures trapped in the 18th century. I like both of them, by the way, though I think the A/M books are deeper and closer to the original period."

A/M certainly seems more authentic - the corruption and pettiness that people like Cochrane wrestled with are rather more realistically to the fore, for example.

I didn't imagine German bombs at all, I imagined a masked and cloaked enemy of books sneaking into the library with evil intent.

"Without a constant supply of new Hornblower books, mein Fuhrer, the British will surely not resist for long..."

Related: Forester's pre-Hornblower book Death to the French, published in the US as Rifleman Dodd. Makes the Sharpe books look like the Mr Men books.
17. Doug M.
A third vote for the Prohaska books. They're just recently back in print!

Jo, trust me, you will like these.

Doug M.
Tony Zbaraschuk
18. tonyz
The Prohaska books are very fun (though I think only the first one is really comedic -- camels on submarines? -- and sent me on a reading binge for Stuff on Austria-Hungary, which like Burgundy is well on its way to vanishing out of our awareness altogether.

Forester is very good at story-telling, agreed. The Good Shepherd, featuring convoy command in the North Atlantic during WW II, is gripping and well-done. Then there's The General, about WW I... depressing, but what about WW I isn't? But he does tend to do individual stories rather than epic tales, for the most part. It's not that the Hornblower books aren't connected, but I suspect you could read any of them individually and in any order.

O'Brian benefits, somewhat, from being read in order, but more importantly the whole series sums to greater than just its parts: there's a long participation in an atmosphere.
19. DavidA
I would have to nominate HMS Surprise as my favorite of the series, but the choice is hard.

I have read all the Hornblowers and all the Aubrey/Maturin series (and O'Brian's two prototypes the Golden Ocean and the Unknown Shore) more than once, and there is no question in my mind that O'Brian is head and shoulders above Forester. The Hornblower tales are episodic adventure stories with interesting but ultimately not very rounded characters, told in workmanlike prose. O'Brian's work has a much longer arc developing over volumes, much more intensive world-building and much deeper exploration of characters. And his prose style is wonderful. I've said before, these are the books Jane Austin would write if she had been able to go to sea like her brothers.
j p
20. sps49
Okay, you all have convinced me, I'll start up again.

And y'all are a bunch of crack-ups!

I did laugh at Catch-22 in many places, but not all. Is this unusual?
Ambar Diaz
21. ambar
Nitpick: Dil's bangles were silver, not glass.

(I have embarked on my first reread, but I've outpaced Jo's reviews, so if the following episode is actually from another book, I apologize in advance.)

Besides Dil, the other thing that really stood out for me in the reread was the way that Diana running off with Johnson was inadvertently engineered by Aubrey. If he had not refused her passage in his ship, intending to protect Stephen, she wouldn't have been traveling in the same ship as Johnson. The "might have been" hits hard, especially since we are given the omniscient view that neither Jack or Stephen gets.
Pamela Adams
22. PamAdams

No, that's from Surprise. Like you, I'm reading ahead. I wonder if Diana, traveling on HMS Surprise, would have stayed with Stephen, or if she would have found some excuse to leave.
Ambar Diaz
23. ambar

I like to think they would have had more happy years together, but like you, I suspect Diana needed to "hit bottom" before she could appreciate Stephen properly, and she wasn't there yet.
24. David Sucher

I've read every one of them,
Liked them all.

Forester is quite good.
O'Brian is extremely good. Maybe even a lot better than "extremely."
25. Expat Brit
Thank you Ambar, for the silver bangles comment, now I don't have to make it. As far as Hornblower is concerned, Forester tells you what the characters are like. With O'Brian, one has to learn about them, and that may take, well 20 books to get it all, because, like us, they were still growing thoughout their lives. Hornblower was complete in his first book.
26. July20plot
The A-M series is one of the first book series that I ever really got into as a kid, the rest of my friends were reading Harry Potter and I was going through naval battles and love triangles. I'm also going to reccomend John Biggins' works, not just because they're my favorite historical novels but because the author himself is a very good friend of mine.
28. Maddlew
Perhaps it's that there is so much good in both Aubrey and Maturin, and so much humility. The development of both characters is so thorough that when you are well into the series there is no question of their reality. Maturin, so brilliant you wonder why he is so uncharismatic.
And Aubrey on land....
I don't know which book, he was walking a great distance to visit a former benevolent captain and came across a large tortoise butting against a smaller one, the collisions making a "Tok, tok," sound. "Tyranny!" he exclaimed.
As he was passing he saw the larger tortoise mount the smaller one, he then averted his gaze, mumbling, "I had no idea."
The language and humor that O'Brian introduces us to makes what we gain so much more valuable because it is hard earned. I will have to read it all again because I missed so much as I was learning this world. "Surprise" was when I first started flowing without training wheels and Maturin's experience in India was I think familiar because of previous readings from Maugham and Forster, of course distinct in so many ways.
Their's is such an odd relationship because they are so ham-handed in the other's area of expertise but the contrast makes their friendship so marvellous. I was so saddened by O'Brian's passing but we are so fortunate for what he's given us.
Jim Hardy
29. JimZipCode
Surprise is like the 12 Labors of Stephen. It's the most devastatingly sad of all the books. I adore it. It's my favorite, unless I have Deso Island or Post Captain in my hand right at the moment. It's rhythmic in a way: it bouys up with lightness and humor, then it crashes down with a hammering blow right at Stephen's heart, over and over like ocean waves, culminating in the note at the end.

Two of the most bravura pieces of writing in the entire series are right here. The most obvious is Stephen's India chapter with Dil, where he meets up with Diana again. That is stunning, and if one had to choose only one chapter of O'Brian to lend a judgemental friend who will give the series only one chance, that might be it.

The other is the joyous business early on, where Stephen asks Sophie to write a letter to Jack, telling him that he has gotten the Suprise for them, "Ha, what will he say to that!" and we see Jack reading the letter in front of Pullings, and springing into action, and then telescope back to Sophie finishing the letter, and Stephen telling her he thinks she has put in more than he said, etc. That paragraph or two or three is dazzling. Even the very first time I read that, I remember I thought "Wow. I'm in the hands of a master here."

(Remember Diana saying to Stephen "Oh my god, what have you done with your hands?" Remember Blaine describing Mrs Williams as "the most unromantic beast that ever urged her squat bulk across the face of the protesting earth"? Remember Jack telling Bonden that Stephen operated on himself, and Bonden saying "There's surgery for you." So many joys in this text. "My understanding does not extend to the word 'overlap', but no doubt it is so.)

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