Oct 25 2010 11:38am

Showing away: Patrick O’Brian’s The Mauritius Command

The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’BrianThe Mauritius Command is the fourth book in the Aubrey Maturin series. (Posts on earlier volumes can be found here.) If you’re not going to read them in order this is a perfectly reasonable place to start, as it’s as self contained as they get. O’Brian had really worked himself into what he was doing, although he had not yet started to have an overall plot, so I think this book might be one of the very best places to start that’s not the beginning.

Spoilers start here.

The Mauritius Command starts some unspecified time after the end of H.M.S. Surprise, long enough for Jack to have married Sophie, for Sophie to have had twins, for Mrs Williams to have lost all Sophie’s money so that they are required to live in a cottage, and for Jack to be very anxious to be at sea again.

I think it’s very funny how O’Brian finds ways to make Jack and Stephen rich and poor again over and over. In the first three books we’ve had prize money, lost in legal wrangles, the Spanish gold, lost due to a technicality, and now Sophie’s dowry, lost due to Mrs Williams incompetence. And this will be a recurring theme.

So, we begin in England, Stephen comes to Jack with a political mission. Jack isn’t happy in his marriage, he says there’s no prospect of a son, he’s spending his time making telescopes and looking at ships. The mission is to capture Mauritius from the French, and they head off for Africa in the Boedicea, a thirty-eight gun frigate. Jack is also appointed to lead a squadron as a commodore. The book follows the actual campaign very closely, and concludes neatly with the inevitable victory being gazumped by the admiral, but Jack is happy because of news he has a son, conceived the night he left home.

The book suffers a little from keeping so close to the actual historical events of the campaign, it doesn’t have such a smooth shape as some of the others. Having said that it’s an admirable piece of historical writing, very clear—and it has a map. (The three maps at the Project, the Boedicea, the Raisonable, and Stephen, are better.) It’s full of battles, by land and sea, all clear, all exciting.

The most interesting thing about this volume is Lord Clonfert, an Irish peer who feels the need to outdo everyone—his surgeon says at one point that if Jack is the dashing frigate captain, Clonfert has to be the dashing frigate captain to the power of ten. He’s ridiculous, he lies, but he is brave and does know the waters. And for once we hear Stephen and Jack discuss him, because he’s not a shipmate so Stephen doesn’t feel like an informer talking about him. He’s a psychological curiosity without any doubt, and O’Brian does him very well. There’s also the flogging Captain Corbett—so among his little fleet there’s one dandy and one tartar, and Jack has to try to manage them diplomatically.

This is also the book in which Stephen discovers testudo aubreii, the tortoise he calls after Jack. There are some excellent bits of natural history on these remote islands, and I love the dodo-feather bolster.

The Jack and Sophie situation was resolved at the end of H.M.S. Surprise, romance leading to twins, domesticity in a cottage and the eventual son and heir. The Diana situation was resolved unhappily with her running away to America, and there is no progress on it here, nor is Stephen shown with any other romance.

We see Pullings commanding a transport, and taking command of a frigate when her captain refuses. We see Bonden, come to rejoin, having been flogged by Corbett. Killick too has come all the way from the Leeward islands as soon as he hears that Jack is afloat. And we first meet Richardson here, Spotted Dick, as a midshipman.

This is a good solid historical novel, but it’s with the next one, Desolation Island, that they start to get brilliant.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She has a ninth novel coming out in January, Among Others. If you like these posts you will like it. 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 ›
Pamela Adams
1. PamAdams
I tend to think of Mauritius Command as O'Brian returning to the 'ordinary sea story.' Of course, since it's O'Brian, it's an ordinary story with plenty of complexity, and wonderful characters. I loved the contrast of the sailors and soldiers- and the soldiers' annoyance when Stephen gets the town to agree to peace before any proper fighting can be done.
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
Pam: I think of Post Captain, H.M.S. Surprise and this as "sequels", and he was figuring out how to do sequels, and then with Desolation Island he thought "OK, I can write one of these every year forever, let's try that" and went on that way writing a really really long novel.
3. peachy
This was my first, and it's actually a pretty good starting point for someone who's a little unsure about the whole notion (whether that notion is sea stories, or a monster series, or what-have-you.) On the one hand, it's fairly well self-contained; on the other, it hits pretty much all of the key recurring plot and character points in the series (except, as you say, the Stephen & Diana relationship.)

It's also the entry where the chronology started to get screwed up - planting Jack & Stephen on the beach for several years ('05/'06 to '09) is the clearest evidence that, even at this point, O'Brian didn't envision it as being a long series. And so, pretty soon book time and real time are going to start diverging
Pamela Adams
4. PamAdams
If Clonfert is the most interesting, perhaps second most interesting is McAdam, his personal physician. Stephen is an excellent doctor for his era. McAdam is trying to go beyond the times and invent psychiatry. (Okay, third most interesting is the aardvark)
5. a-j
Not a favourite, in fact one of my least favourites though Lord Clonfert is one of O'Brian's most interesting characters as is the dipsomaniac physician MacAdam. Personally I feel that O'Brian was constrained by having to follow a specific naval campaign so closely. I do not think he ever does so again in the series, despatching Jack and Stephen on purely fictional voyages. I am doubtless wrong in this belief!
6. Foxessa
I've also read Alexander Duma's historical novel,
Georges: The Planter of the Isle of France (1857) that includes the Brits taking of the island. I read it, in fact, not long before 're-reading' -- really listening to on CD -- O'Brian's.

They make for a most interesting juxtoposition of reading.

Love, c.
David Dyer-Bennet
7. dd-b
Thanks for mentioning the Dumas; but, drat, Gutenberg only has the French version (and I had French from third to sixth grade, 44 years ago, so reading novels in the language is Right Out).
8. tomaq
This is where I am now in my re-read. Second time through. Clonfert and McAdam seemed like a dark reflection of Jack and Stephen, didn't they? The internal rivalries being more troublesome than the enemies reminded me of the latest John le Carre novel (i.e., like most of them).

Jack's being all "at sea" on land continues to be funny and poignant. Maturin continues to fascinate, even without Diana.

Looking forward to Desolation Island, which was one of my favorites first time through.
9. Braxis
For anyone with access to the BBC iPlayer, The Mauritius Command is the current classic serial on Radio 4.
10. Prairieplant
Interesting comments. The turtle named for Jack Aubrey was in HMS Surprise, a quibble. Aubrey seems happy in his marriage to me, but new to it so uncomfortable, and worried he is of no use to his daughters, and clearly unsure of how to act with babies. Not unhappy, to me, because of him saying so often, he would not hurt Sophia for the world, and presenting his issues to Maturin like one puzzled with these new turns in life. He needs income to resolve some of his discomfort -- a father of daughters must provide portions, e.g. I like your evaluation of Clonfert, and of the novel in general.

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