Oct 11 2010 11:34am

Out of his element: Patrick O’Brian’s Post Captain

Post Captain by Patrick O’Brian in Jo Walton’s Aubrey-Maturin series reread

Post Captain is the second Aubrey-Maturin novel, and O’Brian had clearly much more of an idea that he was going to be writing something long, and began setting up romantic complications. However, the problem with Post Captain is that it’s too long and gets out of control, it’s shapeless. It should have been two books. There’s just too much in it. I know I said you can start reading these books randomly—I did—but this really isn’t the best place to start. I think it’s probably the weakest book.

Here’s the map.

Post Captain begins a little while after the end of Master and Commander. Stephen has had time to become a valued spy, working for Sir Joseph Blain, and peace has broken out. (The Peace of Amiens, a brief break, and the reason the Napoleonic Wars are called “wars” in the plural.) Nevertheless, they appear to have just reached home after the end of the previous volume, Jack is still hoping for promotion from the Cacafuego affair and his prizes are still in court. Time has already become slightly elastic, though this is nothing to what comes later.

In any case, Jack and Stephen, rich with prize money, take up housekeeping at Melbury Lodge. They meet the Williams family, and become entangled with two of the women, Sophie and Diana. The girls are cousins. Diana is a widow who both Jack and Stephen are attracted to. Jack ends the book secretly engaged to Sophie. Before that there are a lot of squalls—first Jack loses all his money when his prize agent breaks. He spends the rest of the book in constant dread of being arrested for debt, and with Mrs Williams, Sophie’s appalling mother, firmly opposed to the match. He flees to France, and when war breaks out again flees from France to Spain disguised in a bear suit, with Stephen posing as the bear leader.

When he gets home the plums have gone, but he contrives to go to sea on a very odd ship, the Polychrest, known as the Carpenter’s Mistake. Affairs with Diana go badly, and she’s two-timing both of them with a rich Jewish financier called Canning. Jack and Stephen are trying to arrange a duel with each other. Meanwhile, things also go badly on the ship. To avert a mutiny, he leads the men in to attack the Fanciulla, they capture her at the price of their own ship. As a reward, Jack is made Post at last, and gets a job on the Lively as substitute captain. The duel blows over without effect after Jack is wounded, and the two men are on good terms again. Stephen does a lot more spying, and gets Jack’s ship attached to a fleet set out to intercept Spanish treasure ships, and we end the book believing that Jack’s fortunes have been restored and he can marry Sophie. Meanwhile Diana has run off with Canning.

There’s no shape to this plot, and while the characters and incidents are as good as anything in the series, the book as a whole is broken-backed. The duel and then the fact that they never mention that they’ve reconciled feels very strange. Usually when O’Brian has a lacuna like that it helps to shape the story, here it’s just an odd absence. The duel is the last real obstacle between Jack and Stephen—they quarrel from time to time, but it never comes to this kind of thing.

The main theme is the difference between land and sea, and to illustrate this we see a lot of Jack ashore—far more than in the first book. It may be the most England we get in any of the books. Jack isn’t very good at life ashore—he’s everything he isn’t at sea. He’s easily taken in, confused, indecisive and frightened. There’s a wonderful scene where he runs from the bailiffs back to sea and calls back “Mr Pullings, press that man!” He presses the bailiffs who have come to arrest him for debt!

Jack has two romances, the chaste one with Sophie and the consumated one with Diana, who he does not love. Both the women are interesting characters—Sophie so conventional and Diana the opposite. Diana chafes for freedom, Sophie is content in her narrow horizons. What attracts Jack to Sophie is her sweetness, and this is also what Stephen likes about her. What attracts both men to Diana is her grace and wildness. Stephen’s behaviour with respect to Diana here is very strange. He knows she likes him. He knows she wants to escape. Yet he doesn’t propose, because he thinks he isn’t good enough for her. He’s waiting until she brings herself down to his level. His parentage—his bastardy—is part of this, along with his income. Stephen is generally very perceptive, but not with his own heart.

Canning is an interesting character too—Jack and Stephen both like him. He offers Jack a job as captain of a letter-of-marque, which Jack declines because he can’t bear to leave the service. Canning is rich, he’s married, he’s a Jew, which bars him from the Navy and from Parliament. He’s a powerful man, and generally seen as admirable. His resentments do not drive him. He wins Diana from both Jack and Stephen, even though she has said that married men are the enemy. Although he is barred from fighting himself, he has fitted out a number of ships—he’s doing as much to stop Napoleon as anyone.

Of continuing characters, we meet Harte, bad tempered as ever, in charge of the Channel Fleet. Pullings has been a lieutenant on an Indiaman, he comes with Jack as a lieutenant—he’s very delighted with his commission. Bonden and Killick are here, and Heneage Dundas. Sir Joseph Blaine is introduced, a naturalist obsessed with bugs who is also head of Britain’s spy service. And of course the women are introduced here—Sophie, Diana, and Mrs Williams. The Grapes in the Savoy is introduced.

My favourite bits are Jack dodging about London avoiding his creditors and the aforementioned pressing of one of them. I also like the bits in the Admiralty and the different ways Jack and Stephen deal with what they find there.

Port Captain is undoubtedly my least favourite of the series, because of its shapelessness. Still, it beckons ever onwards. I’d be very interested to hear whether other people like it more. Mary Renault apparently did—there’s a quote from her on the cover saying it surpassed her already high expectations.

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 ›
Christopher Taylor-Davies
1. ChristopherTD
I am with you in thinking this the weakest of the series, which of course means it is still very good. I remember getting restless towards the end and wanting them to get back to sea! Interestingly the aimlessness of it probably reflects the frustrations and disconnection of a seaman ashore accurately. It just doesn't make such a good story!
3. sophia_sol
Hmm, I actually really loved this one! I don't know why I had a different opinion; I just found it really fun. And when I got about halfway through it became exciting enough that I stayed up late at night to finish it!

Also, the lacuna you mentioned as being weird was one of my favourite parts of the book. My interpretation of it was that Jack and Stephen are big enough BFFs that when circumstances threw them back together anyways, they FORGOT about the impending duel and the fact that they'd said unforgivable things to each other. Because they enjoy each other's company that much.
Pamela Adams
4. PamAdams
Someone in one of the earlier posts said that in rereading, they often skipped Reverse of the Medal, because it was so sad. Post Captain is my 'sad' book. It's like watching a train wreck- seeing Jack drive himself to ruin, and do almost the same to the friendship. Even the knowledge that HMS Surprise is on the horizon doesn't make this book easier to bear. (Did you smoke that?)

The other odd circumstance to me is that Stephen never tells Jack that he is in love with Diana- he leaves it up to Jack to see it, and Jack is not up to seeing anything not obviously in front of his nose. (especially when he wants Diana as well) Stephen is keeping his secrets- even those that don't need keeping.

This is also where we see Stephen's addiction to opium come into play- at one point, he's drinking it by the glass.
5. AlecAustin
I was rather fond of the on-land bits of Post Captain, actually, although I think a lot of that had to do with reading it and HMS Surprise out of order, and really wanting to know what the lead-up to all of the romantic complications of the latter had been.

Some of said lead-up was a bit disappointing, but I found the bits with Jack and his creditors amusing enough to deal with Diana's rather sudden disappearance from the scene without trouble. I don't know how I would've taken that if I hadn't read HMS Surprise first, though.
6. HelenS
The bear incident is very odd. I quite like it, but find it swirling off into unbelievability. If I remember correctly (it's some time since I read it) O'Brian pulls the classic trick of making all the small details very vividly realistic, so that he almost fools you into thinking the larger situation would be so, but it doesn't quite work.
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
HelenS: I agree about the bear. It's on a different level of plausibility than everything else.
8. Foxessa
I liked the book much more than you did. I read it quite long ago, but last winter and spring I listened to as many of the as the library had in audio format. This one was splendid listening while working out. I kept laughing out loud. Particularly with poor Jack in a bear suit. The absurdities in their plausibiliyird were such a delight.

I think this is the Aubrey-Maturin which made me laugh the most.
9. reaeverywhereelse
Just how realistic would a bear disguise have to be to fool a backcountry audience in 1802? And anyway, does it hurt the disguise if some people are able to perceive that Stephen and Jack are entertaining people with a fake bear act rather than a real one?

If I recall correctly, much of this episode is told from Jack's point of view, and when they reach Spain, it becomes clear that Jack is feverish and disoriented.
10. peachy
The bear episode is one of the funniest sequences of the entire series. Hehe.
Pamela Adams
11. PamAdams
And just out of curiousity, even if one is a naturalist and physician, just where does one find a believable bear costume in France?
12. Cannonade
I agree the pacing of the books is not as consistent and fluid as the following books and during my first reading I laboured a little getting through those dark days when Stephen and Jack are estranged. However, this book lays the foundations for key relationships that endure all the way through the series and I think was a necessary part of the narrative as a whole.

I found re-reading Post Captain, with that context, was a pleasure.

I am enjoying your posts on my favorite series and thanks again for linking to my Mapping Project.
Pamela Adams
14. PamAdams
I'm thinking about Diana- partly because I've started my rereading of HMS Surprise. We have two hesitations here- one is Stephen's, who never declares himself, but the other is Diana's. She could have easily made it clear to Stephen that she wanted him- in fact, knowing her, she would have said it straight out. At this point, however, she really doesn't want Stephen, except as a friend. What she wants more is the large life, the one she left behind in India, where one can shoot tigers, meet princes, and live a 'tonnish' life. She may think that married men 'are the devil,' but when she realizes that the only way to get to her desired lifestyle is to deal with the devil, she does so quickly enough. Stephen realizes this, which is why he doesn't ask.

Looking ahead to the rest of the series, I think that Diana is the character in the books who changes the most. Stephen, Jack and Sophie really become more themselves over time- they grow, but not in any unpredictable ways.
Sherwood Smith
15. Sartorias
I like this book more than you did (I tend to ignore eighteen and on); the shape of it seems to be the relationship between the two men, though it would have ended better a couple chapters into book three imo, with the rescue at Port Mahon.

In this one he seemed to be experimenting with Jane Austen as well as with Marryat, and it does bat between them in odd ways.
16. Rivka5
I don't like Post Captain at all, primarily because I can't abide Diana. Throughout the entire series I am baffled when she is onstage and Jack and Stephen both act like idiots, because she pretty much has nothing to recommend her.
17. John Laudun iii
You can think of it this way: whether intentional or not, O'Brian bravely commits the first two novels to exposition. It's rather like the first year of Babylon 5 in that way. You don't realize it in either case until you're well into the action/narration that all the mess of the first bits put enough interesting bits in motion to make for a rich story.

Now whether this could have been done some other way I leave to another conversation.
20. JimZipCode
Y'all are crazy to call this the weakest of the series. It is one of the three strongest – the best book in the series is either this one, Surprise, or Deso Island, depending on which one I have in my hand at the moment. The series low point is around Ionian Mission or Treason's Harbour, with a second low point at Wine-Dark Sea.

It is interesting though that your criticism echoes one of the published ones. One of the celebration volumes gathered quotes from a variety of critics, which it presented one after the other without comment. one of them was (something like) "Horribly overwritten for this much plot." That's a nice point when balanced with a bunch of glowing reviews: presented as a summary though, it fails.

Post Captain is a long, rambling book. I assume it's the largest of the books; certainly the richest in incident and detail. It is also the launching point of the SERIES as a series. Book one is a stand-alone; this one launches the whole rest of the cycle. It really contains all the seeds for the rest of the series; even its structure echoes the loose, rambly, incidental nature of the series.

Disagree strongly with the so-called "lacuna". The battle at Chaulieu is an emotional catharsis that drains all the tension that was propelling the feud. After the battle, it is unthinkable to Stephen and Jack that they could fight. To delve into the concrete reasons is to cheapen the change – I'm amazed you don't get it, that someone who loves the series could miss this. But to list some: Jack's self-destructive impulse has found release and he is drained; Jack's heroism justifies some forgiveness/forbearance from Stephen; Jack's status as Stephen's patient, and an extra-pathetic & fragile one at that, makes the duel impossible. By the time Jack is well enough again for the duel to be possible, he has both renounced the proximate cause ("And of course, venerem omitte." "Oh, her. Quite right.") and back-handedly apologized ("I would never call you a liar" and then flushes, embarassed.). Both Jack and Stephen have retreated from the extremity which fed the duel.

The one weird thing for me about the pacing of the book, and this is as close as I will come to acknowledging some small merit to your criticism, is that the long closing section on the Lively feels like an extra-long epilogue. But it's necessary: resolves the twin plotlines of Jack's love life and pennilessness, and provides a resting spot for Stephen's love life (to be revisited).

Regarding taste for particular installments in the series: in the 90s I shared this series with my friend who was a cancer patient – he died later that year. His comment about my favorite books in the sereis (2,3,5) vs his favorite books, which I think were Fortune of War and Mauritius, was that I liked the character-driven ones, and he liked the action/plot ones, with more war stuff. This might be true.
(That friend was touchingly grateful to me, for lending him the books: said I couldn't know how friggin USEFUL it was to him, to be able to lose himself in an absorbing fictional world, at a time when his day-to-day had so much phsyical pain and chemo-induced nausea, etc etc. That's my lasting testament to how good the series is.)

I was surprised to read you refer to Jack & Diana's affair as "consummated". To me that's an open question – a deliberately open question. I had always read Diana as very willing to fool around a little with Jack, but not go all the way: not as a question of appetite or chasteness, but rather because for a while she regarded Jack as marriageable, so would hold out the carrot. Later in the series POB writes that Jack had pursued Diana as hard as a man can, which is a different phrasing from what you'd expect if he had actually nailed Diana. Capable of both readings, obviously: but I wouldn't ASSUME the affair was consummated. Ken Ringle's feature that kicked off my own interest in the series, "The Greatest Writer You've Never Heard Of", listed it as one of the great open questions of the series.

@ 14 Pam: There's a moment where Diana thinks Stephen is going to propose. This is when they are in the carriage or chaise or whatever, and their wheels crush the thyme and Diana asks about it, and in the same conversation Stephen tells Diana that he knows she was at (wherever they are headed) just last week. Remember at one moment, "the chaise was filled with waiting." Stephen lets the moment go by, and later Sophie tells Stephen that Diana is expecting a proposal, and we know what the "waiting" was for. It's a crushing moment to reflect on, as the rest of the series spools on.

@ 16 Rivka5: Diana can be a cipher, the way a lot of female "objects of affection" can be in genre books, but she redeems herself a lot in Fortune of War. Wow, this comment is almost as long as Post Captain. :-) I'll stop here.
Jim Hardy
21. JimZipCode
Sorry to double-post: here is a quote from Ringle's obituary of POB, that captures my opinion:
Reading in the frontispiece that it was the 12th in a series, I decided to start from the beginning.
This wasn't easy. Nobody else seemed to be reading O'Brian. Bookstores didn't stock his works. They eventually turned up in yachting chandleries, where I was picking up supplies for my boat. "Master and Commander," the first in the series, was a great tale but seemed a little strange. I wasn't really hooked until "Post Captain," the second book in the series, wherein O'Brian lays out with dazzling skill the whole Dickensian landscape of early 18th-century England--introducing his female characters and setting the shoreside cultural and political context for the naval adventures offshore.

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