Oct 4 2010 11:30am

“Not a moment to be lost”: Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series

On my way to MilPhil, the 2001 Worldcon in Philadelphia, I was re-reading The Fortune of War, Book 5 of Patrick O’Brian’s twenty volume Aubrey-Maturin series. On the bus in Newark taking me to the connecting plane, I saw a stranger reading Book 18, The Commodore. “Are you going to Worldcon?” I asked. She was. I therefore contend that the Aubrey-Marurin books, while ostensibly historical novels about the friendship between a naval captain and a ship’s surgeon during the Napoleonic Wars, are in fact SF. If that’s going too far, then at any rate they have the fannish nature, they are naturally appealing to people who like to read SF and for much the same reasons.

I do not normally read Napoleonic sea stories, they are not my thing. I started reading these when they were recommended to me by Pamela Dean, and you wouldn’t think they’d be her thing either. She recommended reading them in order,“if you’d normally read the chapters of a book in order,” and really she’s absolutely right. Nevertheless, I went on to read the eighteen books then in print in totally random order, as inter-library loan delivered them to me. Sorting out the meta-order, which is utterly apparent if you read them normally, became the thing I did to get myself back to sleep when I woke up in the night. For some reason, I couldn’t find The Nutmeg of Consolation for months, and trying to deduce the events of it drove me mad. I eventually bought it—the first one I bought.

My second read was in order. Waterstones, then my local bookshop, did a promotion selling the first book for a pound. I then read all of them in order, buying the ones that weren’t on the shelves in libraries in walking distance. When I lived in Sketty, there was a library about a hundred yards away, on the street I lived on. There was also a central library in town, about a mile away. I used to walk in and get the bus back: books are heavy. So I read them in order, which was nice, and I owned about half of them. Then my husband started reading them. He was working in Cambridge at the time, and coming home for weekends, and he started taking one with him for the train journey. He bought me all the ones I didn’t have, filling in the gaps so that I had a complete set.

I have just started what is either my fifth or sixth re-read.

The thing that’s so great about these books isn’t that they’re historically accurate and give a picture of the whole planet at the turn of the nineteenth century. They certainly do that, but if that were all I wouldn’t get homesick for them. It’s not the character portrait of the two very different central men—bluff, good-natured Jack Aubrey with his desire for riches and promotion, and the Irish naturalist doctor Stephen Maturin. They are great portraits, and change splendidly over time, and I’m very fond of both of them, faults notwithstanding. It’s not the way O’Brian contrives to gives you information in an interesting way after you want it and before you need it, though I admire that extremely. Nor is it the way he does such astonishing things between volumes and when you’re not looking, such that you see the consequences and not the events. It certainly isn’t the nautical jargon—I’m sure Jack knows what cross-catharpings are, but Stephen and I couldn’t care less. It’s not the plot—though the books have very good plots and the series as a whole has the most excellent swell of plot that runs through it. It’s not even the fact that Stephen calls Jack “my dear” in the least affected way possible.

The truly great thing about these books is that they suck you into their world and while you are reading you are entirely caught up within it, and it is as alien and fascinating a world as anything you might find around another star. And you don’t question it, it’s absolutely real, and you are head down inside it. I want to compare them to Cherryh and Bujold and Vinge and Brust.

If you haven’t read them then you are very lucky because you can still read them for the first time. Having said that, they are books I find much more comfortable to re-read knowing what’s going to happen than I did the first time through—O’Brian has a tendency to throw things at you hard that can leave you breathless.

What I usually do is alternate the first few with other books and then get so immersed in O’Brian that I can’t stop. I’ve just re-read Master and Commander and will be doing a weekly read-along of the series starting today and featuring every Monday. This series of posts will be with spoilers, as there’s no other way to talk about them. It starts with Master and Commander.

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: index | next ›
1. IanMcDonald
Now you're talking!
Kate Nepveu
2. katenepveu
For audiobook listeners, let me plug Patrick Tull's readings--perfect voices and pacing and let me understand all the action and jokes and everything else in a way that I couldn't on the page because I would start glazing over at the jargon and not being a spatial visualizer.

Man, now I miss Jack and Stephen something fierce.
Angela Korra'ti
3. annathepiper
YES! :)

I'll be happily devouring these posts then. I adore Aubrey and Maturin, and this'll be an excuse to prod myself into getting caught up on the series. I'm only up to book 10!
Tim Nolan
4. Dr_Fidelius
Delighted that you're doing this read-along. Like Anna I'm only halfway through; I'm trying to ration myself to no more than one a month.

The same thing struck me about the series being like science fiction. I'd never thought about it before, but historical fiction needs the same world-building skills as SF or fantasy.
Jill Hayhurst
5. pericat
Wahoo! I adore this series. Read it through several times, and listened to it several times. Kate is right, Patrick Tull's readings are wonderful, wonderful, really just awfully good.
6. DavidA
Oh, what joy. The post above perfectly expresses so many of the things that make this series so great, and why I love it so. Patrick O'Brien is a wonder. And Jo Walton is a wonder -- she does this kind of thing so often, seemingly so effortlessly, revealing why a particular book is good, what it's like to read it, and how it does what it does, about books and writers of every sort and genre. I am so grateful.

And yes, Patrick Tull is a third wonder. I wouldn't want to experience these books for the first time in audio format, but at leat two of my "re-reads" of this series have been by listenting to Patrick Tull telling them to me like one great, long tale.
Del C
7. del
In the Eighties I enjoyed telling people about O'Brian because I wanted more people to know about him, but when everybody found out about O'Brian I was a bit put out. When I said I wanted people to find out about O'Brian, I meant I wanted them to find out about him from me. But he wasn't my secret any more. 

The "my dear" is partly time and partly place, and very Irish. Cornish men also used to call other men they hardly knew "my love" without embarrassment, although they wouldn't do it now I think.  (ObLOTR: this is where Sméagol gets his habit of calling Déagol "my love" from—it's not as slashy as the fangirls think) 
Jo Walton
8. bluejo
DavidA: Thank you.

I can't imagine listening to these at audiobook speed. It would take forever!
Kate Nepveu
9. katenepveu
It took me about four years to listen to them all, but I was rationing them out.
10. PlanetJane
Yes, yes, yes! Despite being a complete SF geek and one of those annoying PO'B fans who keeps giving everyone a copy of Master & Commander the way a drug dealer would give away crack samples, and despite a blog post of my own on the subject
I never made the connection, either. But that's absolutely it: this series is the very epitome of world-building.

I must be on my fourth time through (though I tend to skip The Reverse of the Medal because it's just too damned heart-breaking) and I never figured that out. Huh.

Jo, you are the blogger of the world!
Pamela Adams
11. PamAdams
There were Aubrey/Maturin panels at some Worldcon or another- I remember attending.
12. MeiLin Miranda
Huzzay! You have hit upon it very neatly: Mr O'Brian was the world-builder of the world, so to speak. And a flower on your head, @katenepveu, for mentioning dear Mr Tull. Patrick Tull's unabridged readings of the canon got me through some very difficult times indeed, and are if not the pinnacle of audiobooks, very near the top.
Kate Nepveu
13. katenepveu
Oh, yes, two other useful resources:

The Butcher's Bill, which is an index of all the deaths, injuries, actions, crew, etc. in the series (very helpful for "when did we see so-and-so last?")

A Guide for the Perplexed, which translates all the non-English phrases in the series.
14. Lance Knobel
I was lucky enough to latch onto the series in the '90s when O'Brian was still alive.

Max Hastings, the journalist and historian, organized a gala evening to celebrate O'Brian in the Painted Hall of the Royal Naval College in Greenwich. Attendees walked in to the strains of a cellist and violinist playing the same music Jack and Stephen play on board, the food was all food from the novels, and we were treated to speeches from William Waldegrave, readings by Robert Hardy and, of course, a speech by the man himself.

I found myself sitting across from an admiral in the Royal Navy. It was that kind of crowd.

Extraordinary experience.
Andrew Barton
15. MadLogician
I love this series, I read the whole thing from when it first came out.

Several other writers of seas war stories of this era have drawn on three or four notable incidents of the war because they're too good to leave out. O'Brian came after these and includes the usual suspects, but his characters are so strongly established that seeing how they deal with these situations makes the stories fresh and new.
16. IanMcDonald
I hope you're also going to look at Lobscouse and Spotted Dog:Which It's a Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey/Maturin Novels, which has a proud place on the cookbook shelf at McDonald Acres, and from which we have entertained many over the years.
Rob Munnelly
17. RobMRobM
@14 - I have to ask: did they serve spotted dick? Inquiring minds want to know. Rob
Jo Walton
18. bluejo
RobMRobM: I have often eaten spotted dick (English school dinners) and it's just a steamed sponge with raisins in, not half as horrible as the name. I want to know if they served soused hog's face!

IanMcDonald: I don't have that book!
19. tomaq
I almost fell out of my chair the first time Jack said "Make it so."

Also want to echo a comment to your next post: Taking the plunge into PO'B is indeed a major lifestyle decision.
20. a-j
Brilliant that you're doing a re-read. I discovered these courtesy of an article in the UK newspaper The Daily Telegraph by novelist Timothy Mo in the early '90s. Been recommending them madly pretty much ever since. Onto 5th or 6th re-reading now.
Lance Knobel - seriously jealous. I saw the highlights of that evening on TV.
21. OtterB
Well, drat. Wish I'd caught up on my reading before I went to the library earlier. I've never read these, and I wouldn't mind reading along. Though I doubt if I'll be able to keep up the pace, perhaps I'll try.
22. Janice in GA
I also first encountered O'Brian back in the early 90's. I kept seeing his books in the bookstores and consciously turning my face away from them. I don't know why. I did the same thing with Pratchett. I finally broke down and bought M&C, and later, Hogfather.

I am now wholeheartedly devoted to both authors.

I went through the books like a fire through a paper factory, though I had to wait while the last few were written. When Mr. O'Brian died, I was pretty sad at the thought of not being able to read new adventures of Stephen and Jack. It was like a couple of friends had moved away and left no forwarding address.

I have a copy of Lobscouse and Spotted Dog, and I find it very entertaining. One of the authors (Lisa Grossman) is now devoting time to designing unusual sock patterns and to handspinning and knitting. Polymaths are fascinating.
23. Sailor's Child
Spotted Dick is not properly a steamed pudding although that is the form it's usually cooked in now. It is a suet based pudding and when I was a child it was cooked the proper way - boiled in a cloth tied at the top, and there was always a ceremony reserved for children of patting its bottom before it went in to cook. It made for a heavier texture with a slick, shiny outer coating to the finished pudding and any leftovers were served up fried the next day intead of fried bread with eggs and bacon. Heaven!

This is certainly the form for naval puddings, boiling being one of the commonest forms of cooking in the sailing navy and undoubtedly led to one being christened "boiled baby".

Boiling puddings was a form of cooking not reserved to naval ports (I grew up in Plymouth) - Laura Thompson refers to them in "Lark Rise to Candleford" where a suet pudding was put to boil in a cloth with the small amount of meat that was the common country lot. The father got the meat and the rest of the family the pudding cooked in the meat broth. And the pudding was eaten first as it was filling and satisfied the appetite faster than the vegetables to follow. Don't be fooled by "the roast beef of old England" - unknown to the working poor in the 18th and 19th centuries. The three square meals a day was a common enough reason why men enlisted in the navy as an escape from starvation ashore.
Mig Archey
24. Quilld
Wow. A great idea and something to look forward. Your timing couldn't be more fortuitous, Jo, as we just finished our first complete reading of the series in my household less than twelve hours ago. We listened, mostly to Patrick Tull and agree with his other endorsements. The occassional other reader, when no Tull was available through our library system, only made us value his delivery more.
Doug Faunt
26. n6tqs
Probably more life-changing for me than most-
Because of the books, I took a 2 week trip on "HMS" ROSE in 1998,- NYC, Bermuda, Norfolk VA (and was paired with Patrick Tull on watch). ROSE was very close to the description of SURPRISE in the books (and is now renamed SURPRISE after her role in the movie).

Because of that trip, I've now spent about 6 months at sea as crew on square riggers, hope to do ANOTHER Atlantic crossing this spring, and am working on my USCG AB(Sail) license.
27. David Sucher
So wonderful to run across your posts; and what's surprising to me is that just a week or two ago I started re-reading the books. For no particular reason. They were sitting there in a nice neat row and I was bored for a moment. I am into the third book in no order and now I suspect I should go back to the first one.

Anyway, thanks and I look forward to reading your posts.

See you again soon.


My own most vivid memory, fwiw, was the broach and sinking _in a flash_ of that Dutchmen they'd been chasing (or vice verse) in the Southern Ocean, in one of the later books. Still chills me.
Yvonne Eliot
28. Yvonne
@BlueJo - Thank you for the revisit! I've only made it through the first few books but loved them.
@katenepveu -- Thank you for the links!
29. JohnArmstrong
Jo - someone else who loves and has re-read the series umpteen times - Keith Richards
30. Mary Ellen
I'm so delighted to rediscover your blog in time for my (3ed or 4th) reading of O'Brian. After many long waits for inter-library loans, I have finally decided that even with my limited book shelf space, these are books I cannot live without. So now I've bought the whole series up to the Reverse of the Medal used from Amazon, and I know I'll buy the rest as well. Although I never write on books, I'm tempted this time since there is so much rich language and so many things to learn. Perhaps I'll just stick little Post-it Notes all over the place, interleaved with gleanings from the web, such as your commentary.

I agree wholeheartedly that it is the total emersion in a complete (and largely alien) world that is a major part of the series' fascination. I am really envious of #26 who has actually journied on the HMS Rose, but at least here in Boston I can visit the USS Constitution any time I like (she's just been refurbished and rerigged and is looking beautiful).

But I must leave you here, my dear, the Blue Peter has been hoisted, the tide is turning and there is not a moment to be lost....
Joshua Rush
31. JSydCarton
Thank you Ms. Walton, I believe I shall use this post as a good way to introduce these books to my friends. It is far more eloquent than I could be.

I've been listening to them on audio book at work. Helps the day go back much more quickly. I would recommend the readings done by Simon Vance. He has a certain theatricality to his performance. It's easy to forget you are listening to a book and not a full cast radio drama.
32. Simon@syd
Re-reading is extremely rare for me. This is I think the only exception, all the more amazing because it is no small read. I guess it is the meatiness of the writing. Also, it is a funny thing but you can pick up a page at random and start reading - why is that? It is not as if it is easy to read. At book 14 (Nutmeg) on my first re-read.
Jim Hardy
33. JimZipCode
Sorry I came upon these mini-review 4 years later. I return to O'Brian again and again; have dipped into these books so many times I've lost count. They first caught my attention because of a feature in the Washington Post by Ken Ringle; I think at that time Wine-Dark Sea was about to come out, or had just come out. The local B Dalton (!) had the paperbacks, so I bought them one-by-one, and then switched to the hardbacks when I got to Wine-Dark Sea. So for the last few, I actually had the pleasure of reading them as they came out.

I agree that "they are naturally appealing to people who like to read SF and for much the same reasons." I made this point about 15 years ago or so on the POB listserve mailing list, saying that these books would appeal to sf readers because of the "other lands / other times" aspect of them. The world is just unfamiliar enough that it's exciting just to explore it. They feel more like alternate history than historical novel – of course as POB gets more elastic with time later in the series, they sort of are.

So: good on ya for doing this series! :-)
Jim Hardy
34. JimZipCode
I read Forester when I was younger, the whole Hornblower series in chrono order (by pub date, not by series chronology – Midshipman toward the end, not the beginning), also The Good Shepherd and African Queen and probably some others. They are taut and excellent.

O'Brian is worlds better, in my opinion. Humor and characterization and a more varied palette of emotional tone. Forester might be better at pure suspense & action, maybe; but maybe not, and O'Brian hits all the other notes too.

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