Jan 24 2011 12:52pm

I still have hopes: Patrick O’Brian’s The Wine Dark Sea

The Wine Dark Sea is the sixteenth volume of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series and while it’s one of the best books of the series it wouldn’t be a good place to start. I mean if you were lost in the rain in Juarez and it was the only English language book around, you’d probably go on to read the rest of the series, but I can’t recommend deliberately going out of your way to start here. And I can’t say much more about it without spoilers for the previous fifteen volumes, sorry.

Spoilers ahead.

In The Wine Dark Sea we finally get to Chile, where we’ve been heading since The Letter of Marque. But before that episode of politics, high adventure and natural philosophy there’s a wonderful voyage, a volcano and a very hard passage. This really is the book with everything.

It begins minutes after the end of Clarissa Oakes. The Surprise is at sea, pursuing the Franklin when the sea turns a strange colour. In the darkness, they think the ship is being mysteriously bombarded, but in fact it’s a new volcano emerging from under the Pacific. The Franklin, ahead, is more damaged and they rescue her as much as capture her. The Frenchman Dutourd is an ardent Jacobin—and there’s a very clever interplay between him and the crew, when O’Brian looks at class on the English side and how so many of the present officers are fine seamen but not gentlemen and therefore won over by Dutourd. I especially like how Dutourd doesn’t realise he’s supposed to have letters of marque and could be hung as a pirate. He’s an engaging mix of idealism and idiocy. He isn’t popular with the lower deck, but with the newly made officers.

In Chile, Stephen’s plans at first go wonderfully, and then Dutourd escapes and sabotages everything, and Stephen has to escape over the high Andes to Peru, aided by his coca leaves. Stephen’s addictions really are amazing—he has the addictive personality all right, he goes from opium to tobacco to coca without really noticing that the problem isn’t the substances but his own attitude of thinking that this time he has found the very thing to help! The description of the Andes and the llamas is wonderful, almost getting frostbite—and similarly Jack almost dying of thirst trying to get the launch in to warn Stephen of Dutourd’s escape. There’s a lot of very well written privation and danger and inimical elements.

Sarah and Emily are wonderful here, so is Pullings. It’s a book where everyone is very much themselves—I love the bit with Killick and his Gregory’s ointment for Jack’s eye.

At last, having escaped South America with absolutely nothing achieved, they set off for home—and bad weather and bad luck combine to put them in a seemingly impossible position, rudderless and very far south. But at the last minute they fall in the help in the form of Heneage Dundas, and head for home.

This Chilean exploit was first proposed at the end of The Reverse of the Medal and it has been looming for this six book voyage out of time—because when they return to England at the beginning of The Commodore the clock will start ticking in a regular way again. It’s hard to say how long they have been away, but it might be worth looking at what they have achieved. They successfully negotiated the treaty with the Sultan, though they lost the envoy. They got rid of Wray and Ledward, though not all of their enemies at home. They sorted things out in Hawai’i. They rescued Padeen, and Clarissa, from New South Wales. So some achievements, certainly, and some prizes taken too, even if they didn’t succeed in freeing Chile.

On to The Commodore, and England, and real time again.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently 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 ›
1. iucounu
Jo, I am loving this series of posts. Thank you so much for them. I am looking forward to seeing what you think of The Hundred Days...

(I apologise for pedantry but because it is my personal bugbear can I just say: it's 'hanged' not 'hung'?)
Sylvia Sotomayor
2. terjemar
Yes. It's hard to pick out a favorite part of this book since so much of it is so good, but being a volcano junkie, I really really really like the volcano.
Pamela Adams
3. PamAdams
And the cycle strikes again- we've seen it with Jack- he's rich, than poor, lucky and unlucky. Now the cycle has hit Stephen, not just in his love life, but in intelligence.

Dutourd's presence in the gunroom allows Stephen to bring off a couple of clever hits, all while staying within the Navy's customs of conversation.

"The gentleman was asking what you thought of democracy, sir," said Vidal, smiling.

"Alas, I cannot tell you, sir," said Stephen, returning the smile. "For although it would not be proper to call this barque or vessel a King's ship except in the largest sense, we nevertheless adhere strictly to the naval tradition which forbids discussion of religion, women or politics in our mess. It has been objected that this rule makes for insipidity, which may be so; yet on the other hand it has its uses, since in this case it prevents any member from wounding any other gentleman present by saying that he did not think that the policy that put Socrates to death and that left Athens prostrate was the highest expression of human wisdom, or by quoting Aristotle's definition of democracy as mob-rule, the depraved version of a commonwealth."
4. Foxessa
Annual rainfall for el cuidad de Juarez is 8.65 inches.

Love, c
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
Terjemar: Yes, it's a wonderful volcano, and I think the only one in the whole series.

Pam: Yes, beautiful.
6. reaeverywhereelse
The only volcanic eruption, anyway--there are a bunch of volcanos, including, notably, the dormant volcanic crater at Pulo Prabang
Pamela Adams
7. PamAdams
It strikes me that Dutuord is popular with part of the lower deck- the Shelmerstonians . It's the Royal Navy men who dislike him and distrust his idealism. "Which his name is really Turd," says Killick to his mate, clearly having noticed the original, royalist name on du Tuord's writing desk.
Sylvia Sotomayor
8. terjemar
reaeverywhereelse@6 yes.

Pam Adams@7 I think Dutourd is popular with the Shelmerstonian Knipperdollings (what a lovely name!) because of their republican-like religious beliefs. I'm not sure he'd have been as popular with some of the other Shelmerstonian sects. He's not popular with anyone (lower deck or not) who has internalized the class hierarchy as natural.
Sylvia Sotomayor
9. terjemar
Dutourd is popular with the Knipperdollings because of their republican-like religious beliefs. He is not popular with anyone (lower deck or not) who has internalized the belief that the class hierarchy is natural.

Pamela Adams
10. PamAdams
This is also the book where we say good-bye to the Reverend Nathaniel Martin. He became steadily less sympathetic over the last few books, but I think O'Brian's treatment of the character was a little overdone.
11. Donald Simmons
My favourite moment is near the end when everyone thinks the American ship has finally caught up with them and its Stephen of all people who notices that it's a different ship.
12. Shannon Wianecki
Just finished this, and while I agree it's one of the better novels in the series (who can argue against a submarine volcano and a trip through the Andes?) I am bewildered by O'brian's seeming forgetfulness: uh, did Sarah and Emily vanish into thin air? How could they have not been mentioned when Stephen returns to Surprise minus two toes? Certainly they would have been beside themselves with worry over both Jack and Stephen, yet we hear nothing of them whatsoever in the third quarter of the book. Did I miss something?

And then there's another greivous omission: how could Vidal and the Knipperdollings (however sympathetic) have escaped being hung as traitors?!?! They smuggled Dutourd to shore, which not only endangered Stephen's life, but effectively snuffed the British hopes in Peru--strategies that had been years in the making! Vidal's seemingly innocent caper was nothing short of treachery. Did O'brian really let him off with a pass, or will he be dealt with in the following novel?

My favorite part of this novel is the amazing loyalty demonstrated by Aubrey when he barely pauses before leaping into the launch to recover the escapee, Dutourd. Acting only on the hint dropped by Stephen that it would be "impolitic" for Dutourd to go ashore, Aubrey risks all to retrieve him--his own life and that of Killick, Bonden, and the others. When all is resolved at the end, he never even so much as mentions the insane hardship he endured for the sake of Stephen's safety. What a display of courage, humility, sense of duty, and unconditional love. This is, of course, mirrored by Stephen's own non-chalance over losing his carefully planned coup and two digits.

Incidentally, I've worked on tallships and a captain would never, ever leap into the sea (or, likely, into a launch) to rescue even a dear friend, as his duty to the ship itself trumps all other considerations. I don't care; I love Aubrey's habit of plucking his pals out of the drink.

Er...thanks for allowing me this podium from which to wax poetic about some of my favorite characters ever!

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