Nov 29 2010 1:02pm

Ain’t I elegant? Patrick O’Brian’s Treason’s Harbour

Treason’s Harbor by Patrick O’BrianCentral to Treason’s Harbour, the ninth book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, is a young Italian woman in a courtyard with a lemon tree. There are ships, of course, and the French, and there’s Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend the Irish surgeon Stephen Maturin, and this is a good solid installment in the series that moves it along. I don’t suppose it would hurt to start here, but I wouldn’t especially recommend it either.

Laura Fielding is a young beautiful Italian woman married to an English naval officer taken prisoner by the French. She lives in Malta. She’s being manipulated by the French to give them information, in return for his safety. She has a big dog, Pongo, to protect her, and she has a house with a lemon tree in the courtyard where she gives musical parties, serving lemonade. She also gives Italian lessons. She gets entangled with both Jack and Stephen, and both of them suffer from being thought to be having an affair with her, though neither of them do.

There is a gap of a few weeks between the end of The Ionian Mission and the beginning of Treason’s Harbour, enough time for Jack to have completed the conquest of Kitali and been rewarded by the Sultan of Constantinople for defeating the Torgud with a chelenk, a most unusual decoration containing clockwork and diamonds. We are in Malta, and deep in intrigue as the book begins—Jack is happily showing off his chelenk and drinking, but Stephen is consulting Professor Graham and the French are watching him. This is the book where Wray is revealed to be a spy as well as an enemy, and Wray makes two plans to destroy Jack and Stephen, both of which almost succeed.

The first is a trip to the Red Sea to intercept a treasure ship, which includes an overland march at Suez. There are many lovely things about this adventure, but the best is Stephen’s diving bell. It weighs two tons, and Jack is horrified until he hears it comes apart. It allows Stephen to rescue the sunken chests of supposed treasure, and to walk on the sea bed exploring the natural history, but best of all it allows him to say “I am a urinator!” and embarrass Jack, who naturally misunderstands. Then there’s Rev. Martin coming aboard to chat to Stephen and then discovering far too late that the ship has set sail and is far out of sight of land. There’s the translator stealing Jack’s chelenk and then being eaten by sharks in front of everyone. There are the overland marches, at night, through the desert.

This whole mission is a trap, the French know all about it, if Jack wasn’t brave and fast and less greedy than he might be, they’d have been captured or killed. Jack starts to wonder if he has lost his luck.

The second trap is a clever ambush at Zumbra that does kill Admiral Harte, Wray’s father-in-law—from whom Wray is due to inherit. The Surprise only avoids being destroyed by luck and good seamanship. This escape is the happy ending, in so far as the book has one, and it closes this Mediterranean parenthesis in Jack’s career—the Surprise is to be sailed back to England and there sold out of the service.

Most of the book is spent ashore, and ashore at Malta, among French spies and British spies and with Laura Fielding always in the middle. Stephen plays cards with Wray endlessly, winning huge sums of money from him. He has no idea at this point that Wray is a spy, but Wray knows that Stephen is, he has been told by his French contact Leseur, who of course knows it from Johnson and the Americans. Stephen uses Laura, but he also tries to protect her—and at the end, when he learns that her husband has escaped and that the French will therefore kill her immediately, he manages to save her life and get her aboard to take her to Gibraltar.

I don’t think I stopped for so much as to draw breath between The Ionian Mission and this, nor between this and The Far Side of the World. I get to a certain point in this series and it is as if I am swept out to sea with them and the thought of stopping to read something else just seems silly.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and eight novels, most recently Lifelode. She has a ninth novel coming out in January, Among Others, and if you liked this post 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 ›
Tex Anne
1. TexAnne
This was the first one I read, and it's a terrible starting point! Finding out on the first page that Stephen's a spy was a sad disappointment when I finally got the rest of the series. Not enough to keep me from memorizing the series, of course. But it would have been so much nicer to find out as O'Brian intended.
Pamela Adams
2. PamAdams
Yes, this is one of the books where you sit on the edge of your seat, yelling 'Stephen, watch out!'

O'Brian's skill with characters extends even to dogs- I've known a lot of Pontos. His gratefulness to Jack for saving his life (and clumsiness in showing that gratitude) made for some pleasant moments in an otherwise tense book.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
TexAnne: You kept on reading them, though?
Tex Anne
4. TexAnne
Yes, of course. "The worst book to start with" is still a very damn good book.

(edit, on further thought: Plus I didn't realize what a bad starting place it was until I'd read the earlier ones, and had seen the slow growth of Wray's malice for myself.)
5. peachy
Yep - great book, lousy starting point. I'm rather fond of this one partly because I'm familiar with most of the settings, so it's extra-easy to see things play out in the mind's eye. :)
6. a-j
Iirc, the chelenk was inspired by a similar gift received by Nelson, I forget from whom and why.
8. peachy
Also from the Ottoman Sultan - and I think it was after Aboukir, which significantly mucked up Napoleon's invasion of Egypt/Syria/etc... which were, after all, Turkish. (Getting at the Brits by attacking the Turks was not, perhaps, the cleverest notion of the age - it's a long bloody way from the Nile Delta to India, you know? Beating up on neutrals did become a feature of the next war, after the Brits and French had run out of ways to get at each other directly and had settled down for a long attritive economic struggle... but those were generally neutrals closer to home. And, in the French case, neutrals you could get at by land.)
Pamela Adams
9. PamAdams
I've lost track with the recent rereadings. Where is the bit where Jack complains about Ulysses- 'any good sailor could have gotten home much sooner.' (Off to finish 13-Gun now)
10. Mary Ellen
I am in the midst of a re-read of this one and loving it. Being a shore-going story for many pages, Treason' Harbor is rife with all sorts of human complications and scenes full of humor, acute social commentary and also chilling tension, often in the same chapter. The opening pages ( the party in Malta attended both Jack and Stephen and observed from the bat-filled Apothecary's Tower by two French spys) are brilliant.

Once again Stephen and Jack find themselves entangled with a woman (and her large, deeply stupid dog Ponto), and the 'seduction' scenes are nothing short of hilarious. Stephen, attempting to fend off the advances of this amaturish Mata Hari, is inspired to draw pictures of his diving bell on her bedchamber floor, complete with long-winded technical detail: "Down it came, the good barrel, compressing its own air as it came, do you see?...And to let out the vitiated air, so that it was always fresh, there was a little cock at the top. Will I draw you my little cock?"

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