Dec 20 2010 12:55pm

He was a stranger: Patrick O’Brian’s The Letter of Marque

It’s impossible to say anything at all about The Letter of Marque without spoilers for the earlier books in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. I don’t recommend starting with this one, even though it’s a very good book. It’s at this point, book 12, that my favourite part of the series begins. I don’t even consider putting them down to read something else between volumes at this point.

So Jack is out of the navy and to sail as a privateer, in the Surprise, bought by Stephen and manned by friends and volunteers, mostly from Shelmerston. Jack wants more than anything to be reinstated in the navy. At the same time, Stephen wants to get Diana back. He also wants to take the ship to South America to free Peru (and possibly Chile) from the Spanish, which is also an undercover British aim. The Surprise is covertly hired for this mission, but does not set out in this volume.

O’Brian does two very clever things with this book. First, he makes the privateering vastly successful. Jack hasn’t seen success like this since Master and Commander. His fortune is made. Secondly, he makes Jack so unhappy at being out of the navy that he doesn’t care.

Ever since Jack Aubrey had been dismissed from the service, ever since his name, with its now meaningless seniority, had been struck off the list of post-captains, it had seemed to him that he was living in a radically different world; everything was perfectly familiar, from the smell of seawater and tarred rigging to the gentle heave of the deck under his feet, but the essence was gone and he was a stranger.

Jack’s period of dismissal does not last long, but it makes a profound impression on him. He is so much a naval animal, as Stephen puts it, that he literally doesn’t feel himself when outside the service.

As well as the financial success, there’s also the neat naval action of cutting out the Diane, which leads to his reinstatement, and sets up the wonderful voyage that begins in the next volume. And, of course, we have Stephen’s pursuit of Diana, the same as his earlier pursuit, but played in a minor key. Stephen’s whole relationship with Diana is pursuing her, I can’t think it healthy. He is deep into opium addiction throughout this volume, and poor Padeen becomes addicted. The book ends with Stephen with a broken leg bringing Diana back to the ship in triumph.

This is the introduction of the port of Shelmerston and the Shelmerstonians, with their odd sects and privateering habits. The Sethians are my favourites.

The Letter of Marque is one of the shortest books in the series. I always rush on to it, because I can’t bear poor Jack thrown out of the navy, and am always surprised how fast it goes. We’re firmly in 1812a territory here, O’Brian is very careful not to tie down anything to dates, or even solidly to time of year. And after this is the great voyage!

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
Hmm- Jack cutting out the Diane and Stephen (successfully)pursuing Diana- coincidence?

Many things to love about this book- Stephen and the Reverend Mr. Martin dashing madly down the road to get to the ship on time "Sometimes he led me by the hand..." being just one of them.
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
There's a Sophie ship and woman, so why not Diane/Diana as well? He must have thought about it.
Pamela Adams
3. PamAdams
I just never saw it until now.

I also loved O'Brian's keeping the tension jacked up. Jack wins money- nice, but no reinstatement. He not only gets the Diane, bur three or four other ships in a cutting-out expedition- still no reinstatement. Picturing the scene between Jack and the bureaucrat is always good for a smile followed by a wince- since Jack is brought by the lee again. The General dies, and that is what finally brings about the promise of reinstatment- but at the end of the book, it's still just a promise.....
4. DavidA
As it happens, this is the book with which I began reading the series. Like you, I wouldn't recommend it as the place to start, but it worked out well enough for me; it remains one of my favorites in the series. But one result is that I always thought of Jack as rather piratical. That sense is already in the text of the other books, of course, but it resonated more with me because I read this book first.
5. DavidA
Also, because I read this when it was first published, unlike Jo I had to wait until each of the next books in the series was published year-by-year. Fortunately, I could start at the beginning and read my way toward Letter of Marque while waiting.
6. reaeverywhereelse
On particular example of O'Brian's shifty relationship with time always struck me in this book. Learning that Spartan and her prizes are bound for the Azores and an end-of -the-month meeting with USS Constitution for an escort home, Aubrey observes that , "If Mr. Hull still has her, she is as likely to be near her day as is humanly possible; in their navy he has the reputtion of being as regular as Old Time." But Aubrey and Maturin both ought to know perfectly well that Isaac Hull no longer commands Constitution--they were taken prisoner in the Java action by Hull's successor, Bainbridge. Hull lost his command, despite his epic victory over HMS Guerrier, after his uncle/adopted father surrendered Detroit to the British and was accsued of treason. Somehow Letter of Marque seems to be taking place before the events in Fortune of War.

But this is idle nitpicking, I know.
Claire de Trafford
7. Booksnhorses
Just reading it and I think this is my favourite bit of humour in the series so far (and probably benefits from having read the previous books).
'Yes sir: I was about to say that they were the most hellish procrastinators -'
'Oh how dreadful,' cried Fanny . 'Do they go to - to special houses, or do they ...'
'He means they delay,' said Babbington.

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