Nov 8 2010 12:54pm

The American navy was the staple diet of conversation: Patrick O’Brian’s The Fortune of War

The Fortune of War by Patrick O’BrianThe Fortune of War is the sixth book of the series, and while I think it would be a perfectly reasonable random place to start reading, I don’t think I’d recommend that. It’s a terrific book, one of my favourites, and it completely breaks from the pattern of the earlier books.

Spoilers start here.

Jack doesn’t command a ship in this book, how about that! This is a book with a wrecked ship, a long distance open boat voyage with thirst and cannibalism, two naval battles, lots of exciting spy stuff, and a desperate escape. But it’s utterly different from the previous volumes, which have all been genre sea stories in a way this just isn’t. We were comparing this series with Hornblower earlier—it’s impossible to imagine a Hornblower volume like this.

The other books so far have generally begun back in England at the beginning of a voyage. Here we go pretty much straight on—there’s a short gap between the end of Desolation Island and the beginning of this volume, in which the horrible old Leopard makes it to New South Wales, and leaves again. We begin as she limps into Batavia, almost despaired of. She’s such a wreck she’s demoted to a store ship, and Jack is sent home to take command of Acasta, a heavy frigate on the American station. Oh yes, war has broken out with the U.S.A., the War of 1812, which is greeted with delight because they see it as meaning more opportunities for prizes. They’re a little worried the army might do badly by land and disgrace the Navy, which would be a problem if Canada were lost.

Jack and Stephen travel homewards as passengers on La Fleche, a packet, which suddenly and unexpectedly burns one night. They escape in a little boat with the other Leopards. This is the first real shipwreck they go through—wreck as opposed to capture. They are rescued by Java just in time to be captured by the Constitution in a lively sea battle which Jack would have won if he’d been in charge. Jack is wounded and they are carried as prisoners to Boston.

In Boston they meet up with Wogan and Herapath—Jack is suspected of being a spy. Herapath’s father is a loyalist who is opposed to the war and offers to help them. Stephen meets Diana and finds he feels nothing for her, nevertheless he offers to marry her to get her away from Johnson, who is heading U.S. naval intelligence. They escape, killing two French spies and stealing all of Johnson’s papers—taking with them Diana’s diamonds,. They make it onto the H.M.S. Shannon just in time for her historic battle with the U.S.S. Chesapeake. The book ends with the victory.

This must be an odd book for American readers, with them set firmly as the enemy and allied with Napoleon. I like the way the pall of misery comes over Jack and the other British officers at the naval defeats, and how the army doing far better by land than anyone expected barely cheers them. I like the way everyone on the Java is discussing the U. .ships, and I am especially fond of the moment when Stephen talks at cross purposes and metaphorically when asked about the President, and talks about Madison when they are talking about the ship.

Boston is brought very vividly to life. I like the way their captors are kind to them, as the French were, and as Jack is shown being kind to his captives. It’s a very different kind of war. It’s great to see the plot from Desolation Island concerning Wogan and Herapath directly continued this way, and to see Stephen’s cleverness in giving them the poisoned intelligence having consequences that are dangerous to him. I also like Herapath’s father and the complexity of the situation there with the child.

I don’t like Diana. I ought to like her, because she’s a woman who kicked against the conventions women of the era were supposed to live by, but I cannot warm to her. I’ve never felt she’s good enough for Stephen, or really understood what he sees in her. She’s elegant and brave, but there’s nothing really that makes me understand why he’s so attached and so forgiving. It’s one of those romances where it doesn’t matter who the woman is or what she does, he just loves her anyway. And here where he finds doesn’t care for her, that the love has gone, I have to feel sorry for him:

He had known he would love her forever, to the last syllable of recorded time. He had not sworn it, any more than he had sworn the sun would rise every morning: it was too certain, too evident, no one swears that he will continue to breathe nor that twice two is four. Indeed in such a case an oath would imply the possibility of doubt. Yet now it seemed that perpetuity meant eight years, nine months and some odd days, while the last syllable of recorded time was Wednesday, the seventeenth of May.

I love the way he analyses himself, and the way O’Brian makes use of his diary and Jack’s letters to Sophie as a way of giving us angles on information. But it’s the kind of romantic passion that tends to irritate me, especially when the object of it is so undeserving.

I very much like the whole intrigue with Johnson and the French and Stephen—it’s as exciting as the sea chases, but in a very different way. There’s a lot of very good Stephen in this volume—and some wonderful Jack malopropisms.

I also want to note Stephen’s watch. It was confiscated from him, and he now either retrieves it or steals a very similar one from one of the Frenchmen he kills (“like the end of Titus Andronicus”) and he then retains this watch until the last volume, despite occasional dunkings.

On to The Surgeon’s Mate, and there’s no question now of putting the series down and reading something else in between.

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, 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 ›
Pamela Adams
1. PamAdams
This book gives you a look at some of the other dangers of ships at sea- the fire came out of nowhere. The fortunes of our heroes changed so much in this book that I'm surprised their hearts could stand it. (I know that mine was pounding) What was it, eight or ten sudden escapes from death?

I kept wondering about Stephen's friend that he gave his wombats and other creatures to. (Your wombat is gnawing on my hat!) I'm not sure I'd be happy to have an entire menagerie dropped on me.

As one of those American readers, I was identifying strongly enough with Jack and Stephen to not care that it was 'my people' that they were fighting against.
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
Pam: That's just what I was wondering, about whether an American reader's heart would stay with our heroes or whether they'd be cheering for the other side in those battles. I'm glad you don't.
Kate Nepveu
3. katenepveu
Jo, I  wrote at the time I first heard the book:

The other non-spoilery thing I want to say about this book is that it's the first book whose substance made me aware of being an American while I was listening—though I don't know that my reaction was necessarily because of my nationality, since Jack and Stephen are somewhat conflicted as well. The war with America is thought by both of them to be a stupid war caused by foolish actions of the British government, and so on one hand, it makes sense for the listener to root for the Americans, because more victories might end it sooner. On the other hand, Jack especially gets so damn depressed when the Royal Navy loses that a listener sometimes roots for the British just so they'll cheer up. Anyway, I found the ambiguity interesting.
4. DavidA
I have always been a bit surprised that most O'Brian readers share Jo's judgment and cannot warm to Diana. The reaction seems to range from "I can admire her but not like her" to "I loath her; Stephen deserves better."

By contrast, she is perhaps my favorite character in the book besides Stephen and Jack themselves (though there are many other contenders). To me, she is lively, smart, passionate and intensely her own person, and her predicament of being stuck in an age when she is not allowed to be sexual and not really allowed even to be a person at all is compelling. (Obviously, all the women share that predicament, and O'Brian sometimes explores how others deal with it, but Diana is more aware of her condition, and more intent not to be a victim of it, than any others.) To my mind, Stephen is attracted to her because he finds most people boring at the end of the day, and she definitely is not. He may be in love with a passion that is not characteristic of him, but he does so with his usual dispassionate view of her and himself, and with full knowledge of her nature and the risks of his attraction.
j p
5. sps49
Hornblower had a similar mostly land-bound escape story (Flying Colours), but this one sounds af if a lot more happened.

Jack Aubrey might have thought he would have beaten the USS Constitution, but the historical HMS Java was badly overmatched.
Pamela Adams
6. PamAdams
Plus, I think that it helps that for most US-ians, the War of 1812 isn't an important war. (Now when Jack Aubrey II got involved in running the blockade in the American Civil War....)
7. Foxessa
Here on the Chesapeake and the Eastern Shore the War of 1812 is still of deep concern and memory. This was the part of the country that got raped, pillaged, burned and murdered for several years.

But most of the country wasn't even a possession of the U.S. yet, much less a state, so of course it doesn't matter to them, and is given short shrift in history courses.

But it was pretty important.

Anyway, I loved and admired so much how much O'Brian (as usual) gets his history right that this was my chief concern, along with the characters. He understood the war from both side quite well, it seems to me, at least. This is perhaps my favorite Aubrey-Maturin installment.

But my memory fails me -- had Stephen give up his opium in this book? I seem to recall thinking last summer while re-reading, i.e., listening to it during my workouts that perhaps Stephen's sense that he no longer loved Diana was due to his opium intake, which at times was more than considerable. The opiate is, well, an opiate, and it dulls feelings and sensations more than considerably when taken constantly and copiously.

Myself, I like Diana. She's real. Stephen always is attracted by, and admiring of, the genuine article and scorns the faux and the poor handle sort. This is why he can so admire Sophie and have such an affection for her. She's the genuine article too.

Love, C.
8. HelenS
I've never had any trouble liking Diana (as a character that is -- I wouldn't always be happy about someone acting like her in real life, far from it), but I can't always believe in her. She just doesn't seem totally coherent. Sophie, on the other hand, is a little too consistent to be true.
9. etv13
I've disliked Diana since Post-Captain, when she said something very belittling about Sophie to Stephen at a party. Stephen later thinks she's really gentlemanly, but her conduct towards her cousin was just catty and bitchy.

I love the part in The Fortune of War when Jack suggests that he wouldn't want to see one of his men looking grubby in an enemy town, and Stephen gussies himself up. In general, Jack comes off very well in this book, especially considering how much of it is based on land, and that he's hurt and ill and depressed. He shows a lot of dignity as a POW.

I'm an American, and it didn't trouble me to see the war from Jack's and Stephen's perspective. Partly I think that's because O'Brian (and Jack) got it right that the war was really stupid and ill-advised, and partly because I know how the longer-term British-American relationship comes out (so far, anyway).
10. a-j
Pam Adams @ 6:
The 1812 war not important? Iirc, the US national anthem came out of it, didn't it?
I'm interested that it's comparatively unknown here in the UK. I was never taught it as a child and only knew about it because there was a chess-set looted from the White House in the headmaster's study. I suspect that most British people would share Jack and Stephen's feelings on the matter.
Peter Ahlstrom
11. PeterAhlstrom
Stephen's watch is a bit troublesome. In the last book he gives it away to that one person who would be a spoiler, and then at the end of the book he has it again. Oops.
12. reaeverywhereelse
"the fire came out of nowhere."

Not exactly--La Fleche's surgeon is portrayed as a constant smoker, who defies the ship's rules about fire safety. Stephen at one point warns him about the potential for starting a fire. It always seemed fairly clear to me what happened.
13. Melospiza
It's been my opinion from the beginning (and I've read the series three times) that O'Brian doesn't especially like or understand women, and doesn't write them well. (I feel the same way about Heinlein.) I find the women's parts--Sophie, her mother, and Diana--often screechy and painful--either inconsistent or extreme.

O'Brian observes women's behaviors but doesn't know the motives--where they come from. He tries to portray romantic love but I never believe him. He's on the outside looking in, and he's not interested enough to get inside. That said, I still look forward to my next read, he's that good.
Russell Letson
14. RLetson
Anyone interested in imagining history from the non-USian side might take a look at Oliver Wiswell by the now-out-of-fashion Kenneth Roberts. (I last reread it more than 40 years ago, so it's on my do-I-dare-to-revisit-it list. I tried Rabble in Arms a while back and was a bit disappointed. I also fear for my childhood friends Thomas B. Costain and Samuel Shellabarger.)
Pamela Adams
15. PamAdams
I think that Stephen's falling out of love infatuation with Diana is at last giving him some equality in the relationship. To me, it's what makes it possible for them to have some sort of relationship. The old model, with Stephen worshipping Diana allowed her far too much power, and she is someone who power corrupts.
16. a-j
With respect I cannot really agree. I've found the accurate and honest portrayal of women in these novels one of the aspects that lift them above the Hornblower or Sharpe series. They seem to me to be believable women of their time trying to make their way and survive in an almost totally patriarchal world with as much dignity as they can.
17. a-j
Pam Adams@15
Agreed. Diana's pride would not allow other and it is this new-found equality that paves the way to their possible future.
18. Subnumine
Oh, good; I get to be the Old Curmudgeon. I have recently been inspired to read through the entire series; while I think O'Brien does better than Forester, I cannot agree with the unalloyed praise here.

The Fortunes of War shows one of O'Brien's great weaknesses: he did not research and does not understand much of the shore life of the Regency, especially Regency politics; the author of Farthing would have done much better.

The Tory attitude to the United States was established long before 1812 - and continued long afterwards: it's another misguided utopian experiment, and needs to be taught a lesson to ensure sound thinking prevails at home and abroad. (In addition, as a weak power punching above its weight, like Denmark, it needs to be kept in line; to some extent, the events of the War of 1812 dispelled this part of the attitude, but it recurred in 1861.) Not every Tory agreed with this, and there's no reason Aubrey has to; but a realistic novel would show it in his friends.

He misrepresents American politics too; in a fashion that any book about the history of the crisis itself should have dispelled. The United States was indeed being governed by Southerners who wanted the war; and the war was opposed by Federalist New Englanders. But the Southerners were (right then) not in favor of a weak Federal Government; President Jefferson had used the Army for border control as it has not been used since, and Madison was the greatest advocate for a strong and permanent Union to be President until Lincoln settled the question. Meawhile, New England was considering secession.

The other great problem with the book lies in the last scene: the capture of the Chesapeake was in June 1813, and Bonaparte surrendered ten months later; O'Brien is running out of war. The result of this is a fold in time, in which the series simply loses touch with reality, as it goes through the year twice over. The sheer Bondish unreality of the next few books begins here, with the diabolical cunning of the French Secret Service takes over Boston.

(That reminds me: the American collected edition dealt with the italicization of the proper name USS Chesapeake by a global search-and-replace, so it italicizes the name when it means Chesapeake Bay; do other editions have this problem too?)
Jo Walton
19. bluejo
Subnumine: My edition (British paperbacks) does not have that italic problem.

I'm going to go on to the 1812a issue in a couple of posts time, but I think it's one of the wonderful things about the books.

But you wouldn't like my version. If I'd been writing them, Napoleon would have won at Waterloo in Book 20 -- I'm absolutely serious. I couldn't have resisted it. Also, Duhamel fakes his death and lives happily in Montreal, Sarah and Emily Sweeting become famous Victorian black female admirals, Sarah marries Darwin and Emily marries Jackie Fisher.
Peter D. Tillman
20. PeteTillman
Added to the to-read list. I stopped reading these
before I got to this one. Thanks!

All: for an sfnal look at the War of 1812, try
Eric Flint's "The Rivers of War",

Flint's best novel to date, I think -- he's gotten better in writing craft, characterization, depth of research -- heck, all the writerly virtues I can think of. Most importantly, he's a helluva storyteller. Highly recommended.

The sequel's not nearly so good, I'm sorry to say.

Happy reading--
Pete Tillman
21. dancing crow
@19 I would absolutely read that book!
22. Subnumine
@bluejo in 19:

I like alternate history, and I think I would like your version (although I'd have to be persuaded that the conventional Emily would go in for cradle-snatching). But alternate history has to engage with real history - and I'm not convinced that (outside music and naval history) O'Brien does. But we can discuss that over the next few books.
23. David Sucher
Just FWIW, I ran into a memoir by a British naval officer of the Napoleonic wars at

“A Sailor of King George” by Frederick Hoffman
24. linda collison
I agree with Melospiza that Patrick O'Brien doesn't understand women or portray them very well. I would even go so far as to say he is a mysogynist. Even so, he is my favorite historical fiction author and I keep reading him over and again.
25. Mary Ellen
I loved Fourtune of War, though not as much as Desolation Island. I don't like Diana, either, but I find Stephen's relationship with her quite fascinating. Stephen is a strange man, in many ways -- a tormented soul who can never be fully open with another human, even Jack. It seems to me that Stephen's love for Diana has two components: first, as a naturalist, he adores wild beauty and grace and sees this in her. Secondly, Stephen is someone who who lives a secret, duplicitous life, whether by inclination, force of habit and or the rigors of his profession as a spy. Diana's very remoteness, the impossibility that she would ever love him, is part of her appeal -- he need never fear the demands of true intimacy.

In Desolation Island and FOW, Stephen comes face to face (without the crutch of his laudanum) with Wogan and Herapath, who mirror in rather pitiful, unromantical ways, his relationship with Diana. He is willfully blind to the resemblance between Diana and Wogan, but even more sadly, he refuses to become conscious of the way Herapath's infatuation with Wogan illuminates his own 'love' of Diana. Instead Stephen brutally exploits Herapath's vulnerability and Wogan's innocent enthusiam to pass on his poison intellengence pill.

But subconsciously, Stephen knows all of this and I think that is why he 'falls out of love' with Diana in FOW -- his infatuation for Diana has been stripped of romance by Wogan and Herapath. He is no longer blind to the foolishness (and indeed the danger) of his infatuation, either, and he baldly lies to Diana without a moment's hesitation. When he steals the watch, he is behaving quite as badly as Diana, when she takes the diamonds; they have both been brought low by circumstance and choice.
Jo Walton
26. bluejo
I thought you might like to know that the Canadian 2012 two dollar coin has a picture of the Shannon on the reverse, sails flying. I got tears in my eyes when I saw it, because I remember the battle so well from this book it almost feels as if I had been there. Cattle die, kinsmen die, the sun itself will one day die, only wordfame dies not, for one who well achieves it.

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