Dec 6 2010 1:26pm

Around the Horn: Patrick O’Brian’s The Far Side of the World

The Far Side of the World by Patrick O’BrianThe Far Side of the World is one of my favourite books of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. It’s a voyage, a glorious voyage to the Pacific to protect British whalers from the American maurauders. It stands alone far better than most of the books—which is probably why Peter Weir chose it as the basis for his movie. It’s as good a place to start as anywhere but the beginning. And it’s here that they begin to sail out of history and into fantasy. Some people don’t like that, but I do.

The book begins with a note that the Napoleonic Wars are about to run out and O’Brian is going to be cast upon his own invention, “the author may be led to make use of hypothetical years... an 1812a or even an 1812b.” I know some people feel that this diminishes the series, but to me it enhances it enormously. They do not sail off the map, and everything remains as historical as possible under the circumstances, but they sail into hypothetical years. The beginning of The Far Side of the World is sometime in 1813 and the beginning of The Yellow Admiral is early in 1815, and there are seven or eight years between them, to my count. Stephen can’t say how old his daughter is, and really, neither can anybody.

I have a fantastical explanation for this, if anyone would care for it. Padeen, Stephen’s almost mute Irish loblolly boy, is one of the Sidhe, and around him time runs differently. Or if you don’t like that, I have half a really complicated fantasy explanation that may one day become a story—not about them or about the Napoleonic Wars, just about the intersection of real years and imaginary years, and real people and imaginary people.

In any case, the first few chapters wrap up the end of the events in the Mediterranean of the previous two books, and set up Wray’s malevolence for the forthcoming books. Then Jack and Stephen set off on the Surprise for the Pacific, where the Norfolk, an American frigate not much above their weight has gone to harass British whalers. Jack had heard that the Surprise was to be sold out of the service on her return, so this is a farewell voyage. It’s a breath of fresh air between intrigues. They are sailing away from the treason and jealousies of the Mediterranean and in England. What we have here is the self-enclosed world of the ship.

The Surprise has its own jealousies. There’s the gunner, Horner, and his wife, Mrs Horner, who has an adulterous relationship with the Jonah midshipman, Hollam. Horner kills them both on a remote island. Apart from this horror, most of the book is delightful—almost all my favourite characters are here, and it’s ship against nature and against an open enemy all the way.

There are some lovely incidents—there’s the time Stephen falls out of the cabin window and Jack rescues him but the ship goes on without them, and they get rescued by cannibals and then stranded on a desert island. There’s the time they catch up with the Norfolk and the captain tells them the war is over. This is wonderful, because it echoes both the beginning of Post Captain (where the war is over) and the end of Desolation Island where the war (of 1812) isn’t quite begun. (There’s also the question of timing—the reader doesn’t know if the war is over or not, what year is it again?) But most of this book is simply voyaging, sailing on forever in blue water, concerned about weather and wind and landfalls and insubordination among the crew, Jack and Stephen playing their music and Killick grumbling and a nondescript bird or a new island perpetually just over the horizon.

The book has an ending of the kind that has become typical—it ends with Jack and Stephen ashore on the island on which the Norfolk has been wrecked, in trouble with the Americans, and then the Surprise coming back to rescue them, which is good, but not in any way conclusive. It is as if with this book O’Brian realised that he was going to be writing them forever, or for his lifetime in any case. It is from now on that the volumes really are like chapters of a book.

A word about the movie which has the name and some of the accidents of his volume. I generally detest movies of books, but I think Peter Weir did a fair job here. He doesn’t try to tell the story of any one book, least of all this one, but he does well at conveying part of the spirit of the series. His plot is too pat, with Jack and Stephen each giving up what they want for the other. O’Brian would never have done anything so symmetrically cliched. But he goes to a lot of trouble to get the minor characters right, and to keep to the feel of the books and the reality of the tech level and the ship. He doesn’t put in a romance plot, or any women at all, and if he makes the ship a French one rather than an American, that’s understandable. It won me over by bothering to get Tom Pullings right, and also by persuading my son that he wanted to read the books. It also serves to tide me over between readings. In all, I think while it isn’t an adaptation of a book but rather an original fanfic, it’s also the best movie of a book ever apart from The Princess Bride.

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 ›
Pamela Adams
1. PamAdams
And of course, the reason that they are on the island with the Norfolk's people is that Stephen has a concussion and is in a coma. The Reverend Mr. Martin may have to trephine him and is afraid to try the operation on board.

"I cannot bear the sight of Maturin just fading away like this for want of care-- for want of a bold stroke" said Jack: the pulse under his attentive fingers was now so faint that it was not above once in five minutes that he could be sure of it.

"I cannot bear the thought of Maturin being killed by my want of skill or by some wretched jerk of the deck under me," said Martin, whose improvised Lavoisier trephine had made some shocking plunges right through the practice skulls. "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread."

Luckily, the island contains not only the Norfolk's crew, but a doctor who claims to be skilled in trephination. ("I trepanned Mrs. Butcher for a persistent migraine, and she has never complained since.") Perhaps more luckily for Stephen, the surgeon likes snuff, and when Stephen inhales a crumb, he sneezes and wakes up.
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
Pam: No wonder she never complained since! I mean, would you?
j p
3. sps49
American, French- it was a Spanish ship in Forester's Beat to Quarters, and originally the Spanish El Gamo- in the Med, not the Pacific. I understand why a movie would avoid the protagonist fighting a US naval vessel, but why not go back to the Spanish inspiration?
Pamela Adams
4. PamAdams
The book has an ending of the kind that has become typical—
I didn't discover the series until all but two had come out- waiting on the sequels must have been tough.

I was trying to make a play on words with Horner the gunner and the nursery rhyme, but like Jack, my genius doesn't lie that way.

3. sps49 - I rather figure that the director thought 'Napoleonic Wars'- must be the French.'
5. tomaq
Consumer alert. It really pains me to make one, too.

The five-volume W.W. Norton uniform boxed edition is beautifully designed and bound, a pleasure to have and to hold.

Until you start reading it.

It's riddled with idiotic and careless typographical errors. Things like dropped punctuation, slash marks where the letter 'l' should be, ship names italicized or not seemingly on whim, really dumb misspellings ("tom" for "torn" at a crucial moment in "The Mauritius Command," the one I just finished).

Obviously the text was scanned in. But the proofing was a rush job, assuming it occurred at all.

I hate to carp, but it happened so often as I read the first volume that I was constantly being thrown out of the story. That "tom" for "torn" tore it for me; I'm going back to the individual volumes.

(Which I traded in, so that I could gift my wife with the boxed set, she being an even bigger O'Brian fan than me, grumble grumble grumble...)

Buyer beware. Norton should be ashamed. So much effort to create a beautiful object, and the ball dropped at the crucial step. I wouldn't wish such a sloppy editorial job on Harold Robbins, let alone a writer as thoughtful and wonderful as O'Brian.
6. DavidA
Jo, thanks for your typically insightful readings of this series. Unlike you, I generally enjoy movie adaptations; I accept that they simply must, by the nature of film, be very different from the book, and try to take them on their own terms -- as long as they preserve the spirit and feel of the book. As you say, Peter Weir succeeds. I did not expect to like either Russell Crowe or Paul Bettany in the main roles, simply because the characters are so vivid in my imagination, but while they were quite different from my ideal, they each did a fine job. My one objection is that I simply cannot accept Billy Boyd as right for Barrett Bonden. That's about like casting Billy Boyd as Boromir instead of Pippin.
Michael Dolbear
7. miketor
3, sps49
"American, French- it was a Spanish ship in Forester's Beat to Quarters, {aka The Happy Return} but why not go back to the Spanish inspiration? "

Forester chose to set his story at the date of the Spanish change of sides which was due to Napoleon making his brother King of Spain.

Time would have to go very oddly indeed to make the Spanish & British enemies again.

Mike D
Little Egret in Walton-on-Thames
9. Mark Martel
One reason the film's plot may run differently is that it is also a sort of stealth version of Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle, but shortcircuited. Bettany is even cast as Darwin a couple years later.
10. Rozzers
Just to add to the praise of the film - I sail tall ships, and have many friends who work professionally with traditionally rigged ships. The general consensus is that the film is the most accurate portrayal of sailing in that era any of us have ever seen.

There are only two minor flaws the most pedantic picked up on - someone puts a coffee cup down on a chart (would never be done, charts are way too valuable), and in a shot of sailors in the rigging you can very briefly see rails going along the tops of the yards, which apparently weren't in use at that time. Great film, even better books!
Jim Hardy
11. JimZipCode
Russel Crowe's Aubrey is much more wolfish than I pictured while reading. I had a minor problem with it, no big deal: but his reading of
Jack's "may I trouble you for the salt" story was so different from mine that it was hugely informative. I had never imagined that line as a joke; more as a honest unaffected reportage of Nelson's words, interesting because of who said them – Jack's naval listeners would want to know exactly what Jack heard.

Crowe instead tells the two things that Nelson said to Jack as a fairly well-rehearsed story in two parts; a set piece that Jack has in his pocket for parties. The first part is a joke, where Jack sets up the listener and then surprises them. The second part is the "but seriously folks" message that Nelson imparted.

It's a fascinating bit of characterization. It feels both true and untrue. On the one hand, book Jack was characteristically terrible at set-pieces and rehearsed or memorized thing. On the other hand – well I think Aubrey would be a very tough assignment for an actor. His open uncomplicated nature combined with senstivity and deep knowledge in a variety of areas; the great warrior and the violinist, the canny leader who doesn't read much: Jack would be much harder to cast than Stephen. Crowe seems very different from Jack: he can't help but be more wolfish and sly and self-aware than Jack comes across in the books. So Crowe uses it! And this bit establishes Jack as a witty raconteur and a hilarious dinner companion, who loves having people around him and is beloved by his naval companions. And that is very true to the spirit of Jack's characterization.

Fascinating adaption choice. It's like one minute in the whole movie, but interesting to dwell on (I think), esp as Jack's anecdote about Nelson recurs thru the series.
12. johnc
As long as we're on the subject of the filmmakers' casting choices, I liked the choice of Crowe because he's a versatile actor who could carry the weight (both literally and figuratively) of the Captain on board ship - but it's too bad that the confines of a 130 minute movie prohibited even a glimpse of the hapless and credulous Jack ashore. I would have liked to see the talented Crowe try to manage the contrasts convincingly.

That said, I am still trying to figure out how they chose Bettany to portray Maturin. That is not to say that Maturin would be easy to cast - far from it. But Bettany is tall, angular, fair-haired, with a frank visage that is in no way capable of assuming the "reptilian" glare that is so often described in the novels. I've often wondered who I would have casted, in a perfect world - but my choices are all deceased. I think a middle-aged Alec Guinness might have been very good in the role.

It's also lamentable that, again because of the confines of a single movie, there was no way to even hint at Maturin's activities as a secret agent. Ah, well, as for this book in particular, I would consider this among my favorites, both for the endlessly inventive ways that O'Brien can evoke the nuances of weather and handling of a tall ship at sea, and for the swift changes in plotline that keep things humming along.

It's a measure of how good O'Brian really is that when I first read this book, it was maddening to soon learn that the long voyage would mean no news whatsoever of the dastardly Wray or the troubled relationship between Stephen and Diana - but I soon forgot about them, entranced as usual by the storytelling....

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