Feb 14 2011 1:11pm

A chill fell upon Stephen’s heart: Patrick O’Brian’s The Hundred Days

The Hundred Days by Patrick O’BrianThe Hundred Days is book nineteen of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series and it’s the first book I had to wait for the first time I read the series—and arguably the first book I really read in order, though I had reread the whole of the rest of the series in proper order before it came out. I own it in hardcover. While I was waiting for it, I kept accidentally calling it the “Thousand Days” even though I knew perfectly well that the title was a reference to an actual historical event that’s nevertheless a spoiler for earlier books. I believe it would be a serious mistake to start reading here.

“The Hundred Days” of course refers to Napoleon’s escape from Elba and the time he was again Emperor of France and the powers that had come together to defeat him had to come together to defeat him again. It’s one of the niftiest and most unlikely things that ever happened in history, and if I’d been writing this series, it would have been a thousand days or even more, I’d have had Napoleon win at Waterloo in book nineteen because that’s the sort of thing I find irresistibly cool. I think that reading science fiction and fantasy can warp you for reading books set in the real world, because you get used to there being more potential dimensions so that being held down to the ordinary three can seem constricting. O’Brian let the characters wander out of history into imaginary years, why couldn’t he go that step further and loosen the ropes of history and let a new wind blow? I am disappointed every time this book reaches Waterloo.

I do find The Hundred Days somewhat unsatisfactory, and it’s probably my least favourite book of the series. To begin with, it takes a huge swerve between books, and a swerve for which there isn’t time. We left Jack and Stephen and Diana and Sophie and all the children aboard Surprise at Madeira, with Napoleon escaped and Jack commissioned to gather up the ships and make for Gibraltar. We find them again sailing into Gibraltar harbour, but in the meantime there has been time for A) the families to go home to England B) Diana to kill herself and Mrs Williams driving recklessly on the bridge C) Stephen to go to England and sort out the aftermath and come back. This isn’t physically possible, and unlike every other time where O’Brian fudges time, this is noticeable and visible, because it’s the characters time and because those hundred days are ticking.

Besides the timing of Diana’s death, there’s also the astounding nerve he has of doing something this serious between books. In a roleplaying game I used to play in, we had a rule that if a player wasn’t present their character could be played by somebody else but they couldn’t be killed in the absense of their real player. Most writers seem to adhere to a similar code—major important characters do not die off page. O’Brian blithely disregards this and kills Diana between volumes, and it’s genuinely shocking. I am used to it now, and to a certain extent I like it just because it isn’t what you do and he did it anyway, but I’m not sure it works. Does it work for other people?

He also kills off James Wood, the governer of Sierra Leone, and we learn about it in the same conversation that opens the book. This doesn’t seem significant at the time, but looking at it later it does free both Stephen and Christine (aka the potto-woman) at a stroke, clearing the decks for a new romance. Did O’Brian finally get tired of Diana? He’d clearly been planning it since The Yellow Admiral, where he introduces both Christine and the bridge. It’s interesting that he thinks it’s okay for Jack to remain happily married with a little spouse-breach on the side but Stephen needs his true loves to sigh after and chase—perhaps it’s because Jack is promiscuous and Stephen is romantic?

For most of the book, Jack takes a flotilla around the Mediterranean, detaching ships here and there, fighting now and then. We’re back in the waters of The Ionian Mission and Traitor’s Harbour. As with those books we’re caught up in plots among minor Ottoman functionaries who might take Napoleon’s side rather than with the French directly. There are some charming engagements and some very fine sailing and gunnery, and everyone is very characteristically themselves—except that Stephen spends most of the book unutterably miserable and grief-stricken. Napoleon loses, of course, but not before Jack has taken an excellent prize, and the book ends with the prize money being divided just as the ship sails off in the newly remade peace towards South America.

There’s only one more volume, unfortunately.

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 ›
Trent Goulding
1. Trent Goulding
I could never reconcile myself to not only Diana shuffling of this mortal coil so off-handedly off-screen, but also Bonden, for the love of all that's good and holy! It always felt like a cheat, not that I'm demanding a long, bathetic leave-taking--hardly O'Brian's style, after all--but still...

I always had the sneaking suspicion that O'Brian identified with Stephen in some ways as an alter-ego--not sure how supportable that suspicion is--and I seem to recall that O'Brian's wife passed away around this time. I've sometimes wondered how, or if, that event impacted the passing of a couple of major series characters from the stage. Irresponsible speculation, I suppose.

In any event, this isn't one of my favorites, either.
Trent Goulding
2. reaeverywhereelse
Was James Wood real, or fictional? He sure seems real as O'Brian describes him, but a googe search doesn't reveal anyone of that name governing Sierra Leone in the Napoleonic era.

This is another of O'Brian's littel quirks, the invented character who so plausibly fits into history that you feel he must exist. There really was a Heneage Dundas, for example, but not O'Brian's Heneage Dundas--the one in history wasn't Lord Melville's son.
Kate Nepveu
3. katenepveu
Re: Diana: I was really pissed.

1) Off-screen?!

2) She could _too_ take that curve.

3) Her eulogy is that she was no kind of wife to Stephen? That's it? 

She deserved so, so much better. I was incredibly disappointed that O'Brian didn't give it to her.
Tex Anne
4. TexAnne
I'm always sorry when I get to Diana's death, and I agree that she was a much better horsewoman than that, but I'm usually too busy being delighted about Mrs. Williams to mourn Diana properly. (I retcon the crash by imagining that Mrs. Williams screeched and clutched her at exactly the wrong moment. She would do something like that!)

The first time I read it, I came to a standstill when Bonden went--in half a sentence? Nooooo! I expect fiction to be more artistically arranged than reality, else why bother?

I'm sure that Stephen and the pott0-woman will be very happy together. Their son will be named John Barret Maturin, and he will grow up to be Darwin's best collaborator.
Pamela Adams
5. PamAdams

I always figure that it's Colonel Cholmondeley's fault. He was up on the box with Diana- as a horseman himself, he wouldn't want to be in the carriage with Mrs. Williams. He's clearly besotted with Diana. I picture him pawing her in some way that distracts her just enough to cause the crash. Diana's views on Stephen's possible adultery in The Ionian Mission make me think that she wasn't playing around- certainly not while doing something important like driving a four-horse hitch.
Sylvia Sotomayor
6. terjemar
I think the first time I read this one, Diana's death bothered me, and Bonden's death bothered me, but the others didn't. In subsequent rereads, I've become more reconciled to Diana's death. Life just happens like that sometimes and it sucks and you go on. Also I really like Christine.

But I still deplore Bonden's death.
Trent Goulding
7. peachy
@6 - Yeah, they both annoyed me mightily at the time, but somehow Bonden is the one that still bugs me. Bumping off Diana had some narrative value, and we can guess it had been planned for at least a couple of books, given the way potto-woman was introduced... but killing Bonden? That was just mean. :( (I don't object to GRRM-style random violent death as a means of reminding the reader of the stakes of the game - but once a character has been around long enough, and nineteen books definitely qualifies, they deserve something better.)

Aside from that, The Hundred Days was one I liked well enough - better than The Yellow Admiral, certainly, and in some ways it might be my favourite of the final quarter of the series. I didn't dislike any of them, but Nutmeg was the last one I really loved.
Tex Anne
8. TexAnne
Pam, 5: Oh of course that's it! He tried to grab the reins from her, since a twit like him wouldn't believe that a Mere Woman could drive better than he could. What a weight off my mind.
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
I find Bonden's sudden and unmarked death very upsetting -- of all the deaths in the series, and there have been a lot, this one hits hardest. I also felt he wasn't given his time to be mourned, though he almost is at the beginning of the next book when Jack wants him and of course he isn't there.
Claire de Trafford
10. Booksnhorses
I can't get hold of the Yellow Admiral as it is out of the library at the moment, so I didn't notice Diana's death as being sudden. Bonden, however ... I know that statistically it was more than likely but it was so quick. Diana can die, Bonden shouldn't.

Having said that, I did enjoy this book and preferred it to the Commodore. I like the fact that we see Pol/Mrs Skeeping helping Stephen (with a charming backstory including all her charges dying of yellow jack in Jamaica!) and there are lots of other very enjoyable touches. It's the little things I think I like the most: Harris sharpening Stephen's knives; Pomfret 'cleaning' his pistols; the Hand of Glory and the horn - removing the hand from the dog; Stephen and the telescope; Kevin and Mona and the wig. I like to think of all of the characters who have passed through the story, like Kevin and Mona, and wonder what happens to them.

And of course there is a thumping great prize at the end.
Trent Goulding
11. Foxessa
I'm a bad series reader. With few exceptions the point arrives where the time of me reading doesn't provide a valuable enough payback to continue with the open-ended series.

Somewhere in the out-of-history swerve this took place for me in this series. Dear reader: I quit. (though it did read the Yellow Admiral, and that contributed to my decision to give it up).

This is why I remain a staunch defender and lover of Buffy. They went from somewhere and ended specifically somwhere. Which is also why the bs season 8 as graphic novel doesn't register on my Buffy radar.

Love, C.
Pamela Adams
12. PamAdams
Yes, Bonden's dying really annoyed me- what plot point did it really serve? Couldn't POB have killed off Joe Plaice or even Preserved Killick? (He did, after all, break the narwhal horn)

For that matter, just leave him alive- there's only one book left!
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
13. tnh
I was startled by Diana's death, but didn't mind being spared the worst of Stephen's mourning for her. Killing off Barret Bonden was a much bigger shock, especially since it was handled so superficially. I finished The Hundred Days thinking that O'Brian was showing his age, and that he ought not be killing off major characters if he couldn't do justice to their deaths.

Like other commenters, I assumed Diana's accident was the fault of a passenger getting scared and doing something stupid on the approach to the bridge. (To be honest, I imagined that unnamed passenger as being exactly like modern drivers who insist on dropping their speed to 25 m.p.h. when they enter tunnels, even though their lane is just as wide and well-lit inside the tunnel as it is outside, and their sudden deceleration risks setting off rear-end collisions in the traffic behind them.)
Trent Goulding
14. iucounu
Trent Goulding's got the same idea I've always had: that this is a book by a profoundly depressed man. I find Jack and Stephen, in this book, to be pale shades of the people we've come to know. The joy has gone.

Thankfully though Blue at the Mizzen raises the spirits a bit.
Trent Goulding
15. a1ay
Interesting point: the corresponding book of the Hornblower series is "Lord Hornblower", which covers the first half of 1815, and also features the violent deaths of two major characters.
Jo Walton
16. bluejo
Pam: For once I disagree. If he'd killed Killick, I'm not sure I would have survived it myself.

TNH: But sometimes death does happen like that, out of a blue sky and fast and you have to go straight on because there isn't time to feel it yet. Maybe he was reacting against foreshadowed death in literature?
Trent Goulding
17. Christopher Byler
I was so bothered by the best horseperson in the entire Aubrey/Maturin universe dying in a coach accident that I sort of expected to find over the course of the next several books that Diana really *was* a spy, had been one since _Desolation Island_, had been deceiving Stephen for years, and had faked her own death for reasons that would be revealed later.

It's one thing for a skilled seaman like Bonden to stand in the way of a cannonball -- happens to everyone, fine. It's not something his skill could have prevented, anyway, which is *why* it can happen to anyone. And it can't be anything other than what it is because it's directly witnessed.

But Diana driving poorly would be like Stephen screwing up a medical procedure, or Jack not trying to get to windward of another ship: it's so out of character that there has to be some explanation. And we never see an explanation. (IIRC, Stephen actually *does* screw up some medical procedures, but only when he's on drugs.)

When I read the books for the first time, I knew that this one was near the end of the series, but didn't know it was an unplanned end, so I also wondered if O'Brien was deliberately killing people off in order to wind up the series. Three series regulars in one book is quite a lot, especially when so many of the regulars have had charmed lives all along.
Pamela Adams
18. PamAdams

It's true that without Killick, Stephen would never again wear clean clothes, shave, or be on time for any gunroom ceremony. Besides, what would he and Jack do without their toasted cheese.

I, however, have been madly in love with Bonden since HMS Surprise, when Stephen taught him to read.
Jo Walton
19. bluejo
Pam: "My God, I think I see an albatross!" I am very fond of Bonden too, but it's Killick's moral ascendency when he makes them wash their hands that I adore.
Pamela Adams
20. PamAdams
Yes, that scene exactly, and Bonden just takes it as part of the dictation- 'Doesn't seem to scan, sir...'
Trent Goulding
21. Erik Jens
I'm very late to this conversation, I know--but I wonder whether POB meant Diana Villiers' death to echo that of Princess Diana, which occurred the year before 100 Days was published. The glamourous Diana V dies in a high-speed road crash in dubious company with her (arguably) lover, and becomes the object of worldwide gossip (we learn about her death from a couple of gossipy retirees in Gibraltar). Or is this a reach?

BTW, I came to this blog by googling "Death of Bonden"--I was outraged, and wanted commiseration. Still feels like POB phoning it in--I suspect he considered Bonden, at some level, just another dispensable enlisted hand. (Can you imagine Pullings or Mowett getting such an offhand sendoff?)
Mike Scott
22. drplokta
Erik: Yes, Diana Villiers' death certainly echoes that of Princess Diana. " The key line is "...and only the groom was brought out alive", which exactly mirrors the car crash where only the bodyguard survived. And of course the book was published in 1998, a year after Princess Diana's death.
Trent Goulding
23. mcsey
Wow I never thought about how Is Read Villain's death echoed Princess Di's. I do wonder if POB meant that.
Trent Goulding
24. paramitch
First off, all of you have made me feel a bit better about poor Diana's death simply by reminding me that (1) we lose the horrible Mrs. Williams (finally!), and (2) the scenarios you've all posted are all hilarious and totally believable (I laughed out loud at the image of Williams wailing as over the edge she goes -- I hated that woman). I definitely agree that it's far more likely that the accident was either Mrs. Williams or Cholmondeley's fault.

It's interesting to be because, while I dislike that it all happened offscreen and inbetween books, the shock value for me was actually all the greater -- I was truly surprised by Diana's death, and felt real sadness both for her and for Stephen. I'm one of those who likes Diana (eventually, after she stops pitting Stephen and Jack against each other), and I like her character's evolution throughout the books. For me, she's one of the most vivid and real characters of the Aubrey/Maturin 'verse so her death was a real loss.

However, to echo so many here, the loss of Bonden just kills me. I understood its abruptness, and again, dramatically that almost made it even more effective -- it is certainly a common aspect of their lives (the potential for death at almost any moment) -- but I did find it in my heart to wish that the death had been better or more richly addressed. Bonden doesn't get a funeral or even a proper breath of mourning here (although, oddly, he does in the next book at least), and that always feels wrong to me.

Besides, Bonden is one of those who is pretty much family to both Jack and Stephen, for goodness' sakes, following him by land as well as by sea, and to me his loss is even sadder and more wrenching in O'Brian's world than Diana. As it is, I found it very hard to continue in both without them.
Jim Hardy
25. JimZipCode
I always assumed that these deaths, Diana's and Bonden's, had something to do with the death of O'Brian's beloved wife Mary. Mary died the same year as Hundred Days came out. The callousness with which O'Brian seems to off Diana and Bonden seems like grief. I hated it; but I also felt there was some justice to it, as if I was feeling some fraction of what POB himself was feeling.

Maybe that is too simplistic an inference; maybe publishing schedules wouldn't have allowed that, and Hundred Days was already written before anything happened to Mary. But that was my take. It was terrible, but "fair" in some larger sense.
Trent Goulding
26. Neiliosaurus
I've been listening to the audiobooks in work, then checking in with this re-read after each book. I just finished The Hundred Days and I'm numb.

I don't really have anything to add to the shock of killing off Bonden, and being seemingly so blase about it, that hasn't been said above. I just want a hug :(
Trent Goulding
27. Neiliosaurus
Actually, I just remembered that that horrorshow Mrs. Williams died in the coach too, I feel a bit better now!

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