Nov 1 2010 1:16pm

The voyage of the world: Patrick O’Brian’s Desolation Island

Desolation Island by Patrick O’BrianDesolation Island is where I think the series gets really brilliant. It’s where I stop being able to put them down between books to read other things. It’s one of the places that I suggest people can start it, if they don’t want to start at the beginning, because it’s where the plot begins.

Spoilers start here.

So Desolation Island begins, much like H.M.S. Surprise and The Mauritius Command, in England with a voyage proposed. But it’s also all different—Stephen doesn’t want to go, because he’s going to see Diana. Also, the other two voyages were planned with his intelligence work in mind, this one isn’t—it’s a trip to New South Wales where the colonists have mutinied against that much-mutineed-against Captain Bligh.

Stephen does take the trip, and the trip does get an intelligence angle when Diana’s American friend Lousia Wogan is caught spying and transported. Sir Joseph then contrives to have her transported on the Leopard in the hope that Stephen can get some information out of her. Diana has fled to American with Johnston as part of the same issue. We see a little of Jack and Sophie at home, with the children growing up, and Sophie being beautifully sophistical persuading Jack to go to cheer Stephen up. “But if you had heard him speak of wombats, just in passing!”

The reason Sophie wants him to go is because he has caught Andrew Wray cheating at cards and challenged him, and she is afraid of a duel. There is no duel, and Wray’s revenge takes volumes more—this incident isn’t fully resolved until the end of The Commodore. This little moment in the card room (beautifully set up, with Stephen first detecting the deception and then Jack, on another occasion, challenging it) has consequences nobody could foresee and which unwind at a pace fictional consequences rarely have the space for.  Plot usually works like a tsunami, but this is plot as a groundswell, plot that starts off as a little handkerchief of cloud on the horizon that blows into a great storm. We don’t even see Wray again for several volumes. But this is where it begins.

The whole of the rest of the volume is pure voyage, all journey with no destination—we never see New South Wales on this trip. And it’s all delightful—Wogan’s lover Michael Herapath, a Chinese scholar and an American loyalist, stows away to be near her. It is 1811, and relations with the Americans are troubled because they don’t see fighting Napoleon as the most important thing in the world. The War of 1812 (“one of the brushfire wars on the sidelines of the Napoleonic Conflict” as Heinlein called it) is about to start, over the issue of pressing sailors from American vessels.

The Leopard—the “horrible old Leopard” is a fifty gun ship. The convicts bring gaol fever aboard—the fever sequence is an amazing piece of writing—and so she is woefully undermanned when, in far southern latitudes, she is chased by a Dutch seventy-four. The Waakzaamheid sinks in the far southern seas. This is one of the best bits of the series, the whole chase, Jack’s thought processes, the danger to the ship from weather and enemy simultaneously—it’s marvellous, better than anything that has gone before. At the same time, there’s Louisa Wogan and the way Stephen is feeding her poisoned information to get back to the French and the Americans, he needs her to escape with it, but he’s afraid that Herapath’s honour will prevent him from fleeing. This whole thing, with Stephen’s concern about Diana and burgeoning opium addiction is just wonderful. The balance is exactly right.

The consequences of the chase are that the Leopard loses her rudder, and the Lieutenant Grant takes an open boat to bear up for the Cape, and the rest of them are marooned on Desolation Island. Stephen is happy with cataloguing and discovering new species, but everybody else wants to leave—then an American whaler comes in, with war on the point of being declared and a great deal of suspicion on both sides. The sequence where Stephen treats their patients and leaves the Captain’s toothache for last is brilliant—and it isn’t an exchange for the use of the forge, oh no, except that it is.

The book ends with the escape of Wogan and Herapath on the whaler. It ends with Jack and Stephen still on Desolation Island, but with the Leopard repaired. They are not at home, nor even homeward bound as they have been at the end of the two preceding volumes. This is a happy ending in that Stephen’s poisoned chalice of intelligence will get back via Wogan, but it isn’t really an ending in the conventional sense at all.

As well as everything else I like about this book, it seems to me that this is where O’Brian got the balance between Jack and Stephen right. The point of view has always glided between them, glancing off on others from time to time or into true omniscient. But in the earlier books there was often more of one or the other, here (and from here on) we have the perfect mixture.

In continuing characters, the book introduces Wogan and Herapath and Wray. We see Babbington, now a lieutenant with a big dog, and Killick, becoming more irascible and acquiring his moral ascendancy over Jack, and Bondenof course dear Pullings is first lieutenant. Pullings is one of my favourite characters.

I ought to be able to find something to criticize about it, but I can’t. Sorry, nothing but uncritical adoration here.

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 ›
Patrick Nielsen Hayden
1. pnh
The duel between the Leopard and the Waakzaamheid is excerpted on a blog devoted to excerpts from books, here. It is one of the most astonishing pieces of action writing I have ever read; re-reading it, right now, leaves me stunned all over again. "My God, oh my God. Six hundred men."
2. Foxessa
I just did a four-day Downrigging Weekend which featured two historic sailing privateer replicas, that were designed and built in the Baltimore shipyards.* These privateers' mission was to take out Brit merchants ships and over the years of the War of 1812 they did take out over 1,100, to the great wailing and gnashing of Brit teeth.

I sailed on one of them, the Lynx, down the Chester to the Bay. Here in the Chesapeake region the War of 1812 is well and alive in memory and place. The people suffered enormously. For our history of the naval U.S. interstate slave trade I'm writing the section that explains and deals with the War of 1812 and its effect upon slavery and the interstate slave trade. So this was serendipitous and educational in every way. Not to mention fun, particularly as this was a gathering of professional American History nerds ....

You might like knowing that one of the great precipators of the War of 1812 between the U.S. and Britain was that the U.S.S. Chesapeake out of Norfolk, VA (created by the U.S. to fight the Barbary pirates) had captured four British vessels -- which supposedly couldn't happen. Chesapeake was part of the Shannon action, of which O'Brian writes. The Brits nearly sunk the U.S. S. Chesapeake, taking her captive; she later was renamed HMS Chesapeake and sailed under the British flag.. The name of the British vessel that was Chesapeake's doom was the Leopard. O'Brian will always have his fun ....

Love, C.

* Thus the objective of the British naval campaign here to take out Baltimore. Though they burned D.C. and were successful in 1814 in several other campaigns, they failed. Thus, the turning point of the War of 1812, which many don't realize was more like the War of 1811 - 1815.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
Oh, I went around the Lynx a month or so ago when she was in Montreal with three other tall ships for a weekend. Lovely ship.
4. IanMcDonald
Got to ditto pnh: the destruction of the Waakzaamheid is one of the most stunning sequences I've read --the last piece of writing to make me go 'F**k me!'
5. Foxessa
That Lynx -- such a she-feline, she so does get around!

The replica financed by a Californian has even been to Hawai'i, where Kate Elliott sailed on her, as has her son.

Though this was long before our sail down here, and the captains are other. She is lovely.

Love, C.
Kate Nepveu
6. katenepveu
I think I must've been at a Readercon when I listened to _Desolation Island_ for the first time, because I remember getting on the highway near the Readercon hotel in exactly the wrong direction, so wrapped up was I in the battle. Amazing stuff.
7. peachy
That chapter is absolutely one of the most intense in the entire series - I was just wrung out when I finished it the first time. (There are some other excellent flights - that of the Nutmeg is a favourite - but the vile weather and the implacability of the Waakzaamheid elevate this to another level.)
Karen Frederickson
8. chazzbee
Yes to this wonderful book, yes, uncritical admiration!
Sherwood Smith
9. Sartorias
Even though my brilliance-o-meter hit the red a couple of books earlier (in the middle of the third book, and through the admittedly oddly structured fourth because of the Clonfort character, who I *think* is an exploration of Nelson) I am totally with you on not being able to stop reading them after one hits this book.
10. DorianNisinson
Why can I not find these glorious books for sale in digital format? I have the first one as an audible book but that is much too slow and I like words in a line. If anyone can point me to the set, I would be most grateful.
11. HelenS
At a guess, the reason they're not available in e-book format is that there was no digital version available at Norton to edit, apart from the horribly scanno-ridden version used for this monstrosity:

of which the reviews state things such as "What passed for galleys were obviously scanned and digitized by a pack of non-caring, barely English-speaking pinchpennies. It is obvious that little or no effort was made to proof pages once the scanners had done their worst, turning words like "home" into "horne" and phrases like "not sail or spar" into "not sailor spar." Almost every page is sprinkled with nonsensical punctuation, the obvious and predictable result of detritus that any self-respecting digitizer would have cleaned from equipment or copy before beginning each scan. Worse, paragraphs are wrongly divided, so that O'Brian's lively dialogue becomes difficult -- at times impossible -- to follow."
Jill Hayhurst
13. pericat
Just to say that I have that Norton omnibus, and I didn't notice anything like the kinds of errors described above and in the reviews on amazon. So I think maybe they've fixed them and reissued the set.
Jim Hardy
14. JimZipCode
It's funny that you think this is where the series STARTS to get really brilliant. I would say this is the last of the unambiguously great books in the series. It is, by the way, my favorite (unless I have Post Captain or Surprise in my hand at the moment).

The "last": what I mean by that is, most of the other books have really great sections in them. You have to love Stephen & Jack & Diana escaping Boston in book 6; and them in Halifax in book 7, and the jail sequence from that book. The end of Reverse of the Medal is breathtaking; the first half of Letter of Marque grave and magnificent. But none of these are really complete books, great beginning to end. Some of the transitions are slapdash. The first half of book 6 is basically O'Brian realizing he has his guys in the wrong hemisphere, and moving them. The middle of book 7 is – well does book 7 have a middle? Numbers 8 & 9 are much weaker than the rest of the series: I go back to the Aubrey-Maturin books all the time, but rarely to them. The first half of Reverse of the Medal does not stick in the mind; the second half of Letter of Marque does, but it is hazy. (That's an opium joke, get it?)

After this one, most of the books are uneven. That "chapter" effect makes some of them seem like incomplete works, mere installments. I love Aubrey & Maturin, and any installment is precious: but Desolation Island is a complete work, magnificent from its first chapter to the unforgettable image of Mrs Wogan's laughter echoing across the bay at the end. Few of the remaining books have that same feel of being "a novel": maybe Reverse of the Medal, Letter of Marque, Clarissa Oakes and Yellow Admiral.

I agree with you that the balance between Jack and Stephen is perfect here, and I also have nothing but uncritical adoration. This book is so special. Every chapter is a gem.

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