Feb 28 2011 1:01pm

Forever Bailing: Patrick O’Brian’s last unfinished novel and the end of the Aubrey-Matrurin series

I’m always reluctant to talk about authorial intent, because I know some writers and I’ve talked to them about their intentions. Sometimes authorial intent seems to shine through the text in a way that seems as plain as day, but it turns out to be all illusion. Nevertheless, although I never met Patrick O’Brian I have read all of his books and I think it’s clear that his intent was to live for his full Biblical span of eight hundred years and to write a volume about Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin every year. He’d have slowly worked his way through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, we’d have read about their adventures in sailing ships in the Great War, and rescuing people at Dunkirk. Eventually he’d have yielded to history and advancing technology and taken them into space and had them fight against aliens and study the fauna of new planets, always keeping in mind the career of Lord Cochrane and the actual historical accounts of battles and the progress of natural history. I feel sure of this because he died so young, at a mere eighty-six, a few chapters into this new volume, starting new plotlines, dangling new hares, with not the least idea of ever coming to an end.

There isn’t much here—this isn’t an unfinished book so much as a barely started one, just a few chapters flapping in the wind. There are some lovely things—Sam Panda as a Papal Nuncio, Sophie still not numbering her letters. There are some confusing things—especially the relative ages of the children. (I can’t make it work out. Jack’s daughters were born before The Mauritius Campaign, and Brigid was born when they were in Australia, there must be ten year age difference.) There are some endearing things about O’Brian—the little plan of the dinner table he drew in the margin, the notes that he can put 200 words of natural history in here. But this is thin stuff, pretty much first draft, unrevised, and with only hints of where the story would have taken us. Christine and her brother, Sophie, all the girls, Sam, Africa—it would have been wonderful if he’d written it. I’d have loved it.

When Patrick O’Brian died I thought that he had made Jack and Stephen immortal. He wouldn’t have hesitated to strike them down like Bonden if it had seemed to him to be the thing to do. Even if these books live on and on and pass out of copyright and inspire more movies and fanfic in future centuries, Jack and Stephen will never canonically die, now that the one man who could have killed them has died himself. It’s not much consolation.

The thing Peter Weir understood solidly when he made his movie was that Jack and Stephen are best seen in motion, neither beginning nor ending a voyage, in the middle of a commission. All the quotations I have used as titles for this series of posts have been from the books, but this one is T.S. Eliot, from Four Quartets:

We cannot think of a time that is oceanless
Or of an ocean not littered with wastage
Or of a future that is not liable
Like the past, to have no destination.
We have to think of them as forever bailing,
Setting and hauling, while the North East lowers
Over shallow banks unchanging and erosionless
Or drawing their money, drying sails at dockage;
Not as making a trip that will be unpayable
For a haul that will not bear examination.

We don’t need a conclusion or a culmination or any of the things we’d like in an ordinary series, it is enough that they are forever bailing. There will always be oceans. Stephen will always be causing Jack to almost miss his tide, and Jack will always be saying hurtful things about the Pope, and there will be nondescript birds and strange sails on the horizon, and gun practice, and music on calm evenings, and Killick muttering over the toasted cheese, until they all come to Avalon, by way of Valparaiso Bay.

And the books are there. I shall read them every few years for the rest of my life and be swept out again to sea.

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.

Paul Weimer
2. PrinceJvstin
Thanks, Jo.

I've not read any of the books--only having seen the movie. Perhaps one day I will get around to it. Your series on the books certainly is inspiring me to do so.
Pamela Adams
3. PamAdams

I find that I am jealous- I wish that I could read them all again for the first time!

I also wish that the final section of 21 had been set in type- I gave up on trying to decipher O'Brian's writing.
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
Pam: I agree, it really should have been. I could read it, but I'm very good with handwriting, and even then it was a struggle.
Rich Bennett
6. Neuralnet
Thanks Jo, Because of these posts I have bought the books and am mid-series right now.... enjoying every minute of it. I am not sure I would have stumbled upon them if it hadnt been for you.
Ian Turton
7. ianturton
So the question I have is what should I read next? Obviously David Drake's RCN series comes to mind but I've already read most of those.

So what else do people recommend?
Claire de Trafford
8. Booksnhorses
Thank you so much Jo. I've been introduced to these wonderful books now, and also the final image of Jack and Stephen, not only in space, but coming at last to their well-deserved rest in the Blessed Isles.
10. lecomteuk
Thanks Jo, I have enjoyed these posts immensely. I first read the series a few years ago after being recommended them by a friend. I had an enforced period off work and read the whole series in one sitting then, inspired, took a trip the Historic Naval Dockyards to walk on board HMS Victory. If you ever get the chance I would highly recommend it.

And the books are there. I shall read them every few years for the rest of my life and be swept out again to sea.

I couldn’t agree more.
Rob Munnelly
11. RobMRobM
@7 If you haven't done so, read Bujold's Vorkosigan books. Jo has already posted about them all but, for a reader, same type of progression of main and minor characters over a period of years - except in the relatively distant future as personkind has populated 20 or so planets. Highly enjoyable and free on line (except for one book, Memory, which is not available that way).
Patrick Mullane
12. Patrick Mullane
Excellent summarisation.
Patrick Mullane
13. lagomorph_Rex
This has been an interesting series of reviews.. But I can't really say the same for the two books out of the series that I've read so far..

I came to the series because of the back cover of so many of Bernard Cornwells books "The direct heir of Patrick O'Brian".. So I went into the series expecting a good deal more swashbuckling than is actually present, and that being said have so far been rather disapointed.

If anything they seem like Emily Dickinson + Boats. Endless discussions of tedious manners and rigging and the like.. but a large scale naval engagement takes place over just a paragraph or two.. So Far, 100 pages into Post Captain, and theres been courtroom drama, the reading of letters, the writing of diary entries and an endless stream of suppers and fox hunting.. but nothing remotely resembling a naval action.

All in all its rather dull.. I hate to imagine how long its going to take me to work through another 18 of them.
Rob Munnelly
14. RobMRobM
@13 - if you note Jo's reviews, she opines that Post-Captain is among the weakest of the entire series. I wouldn't use 1 1/2 books in as a good decision point for giving up on this 20 book series.

Patrick Mullane
15. lagomorph_Rex
Well it has been a good while since I read Jo's review of the volume..

And I certainly had no intention of giving up on the series.. I bought them after all.. i've got to read them..
Patrick Mullane
16. a-j
Excellent series. Much thanks.
ianturton@7 - I discovered Bernard Cornwall's Sharpe novels precisely because I was looking for something O'Brian-esque to read. I enjoyed them, but they are very different books, much more action-packed and the characters are basically contemporary figures in historic costume. Fun though. CS Forestor's Hornblower series seems an obvious one, but be aware that here the emphasis is almost solely on the character of Hornblower, there are no Maturins, Bondens, Killicks etc.
lagomorph_Rex@13 - as you have discovered, these are very different from Cornwall's books, but give them time and let them proceed at their pace. It was probably with H.M.S. Surprise, third in the series, that I seriously got into them.
Patrick Mullane
17. rubydog
Great job!
I loved this series.
Just finished 'Among Others' and I really enjoyed it.
Patrick Mullane
18. Jayson Lorenzen
Well said Jo, and thanks for the attention to these great books. Along with the Hornblower series, this is one that I re-read ever few years and from the comments it appears others do as well. Also, as said by others, I gave up on the hand written portion of 21 long long ago.

I am reading Among Others right now, diggin it, BTW.
Patrick Mullane
19. DougMerrill
Consider the four Otto Prohaska books, by John Biggins. The first in the continuity was the last written. Its title is Tomorrow the World: In which Cadet Otto Prohaska Carries the Habsburg Empire's Civilizing Mission to the Entirely Unreceptive Peoples of Africa and Oceania.

It's set in the latter days of the Habsburg Empire and has at least as much Schweik as O'Brian, but there are similarities, and much drollery.
Patrick Mullane
20. KestrelHill
The Lissuns of the Gunroom made a noble effort at transcribing O'Brian's damnably crabbed handwriting.

After reading the whole of the Canon, one could do worse than join up with the list dedicated to discussing two topics: the works of Patrick O'Brian and everything else.
Patrick Mullane
21. JohnnyMac
@19 DougMerrill

I would like to second your recommendation of John Biggins' quartet. The other titles, for those interested, are "A Sailor of Austria", "The Emperor's Colored Coat" and "The Double Headed Eagle". Personally, I would prefer reading them in order of publication; starting with "A Sailor of Austria".

And, while I am on here, may I offer my thanks to Jo Walton for an intelligent and engaging discussion of one of my favorite series.
Sophia sol
22. sophia_sol
I love your first-paragraph description of O'Brians obvious intent. Yes. It is too bad he didn't get the chance to live those 800 years.
Patrick Mullane
23. Sovay
until they all come to Avalon, by way of Valparaiso Bay.

See, I just like that line.

I'm glad they call such eulogies from you, even if I do have Maddy Prior stuck in my head now.
Patrick Mullane
24. GLS
It is a comfort to know that whenever I start my 3rd re-read, I will find Jack and Stephen in 'the music-room in the governor's house at Port Mahon, a tall, handsome, pillared octagon, ... filled with the triumphant first movement of Locatelli's C major quartet.'
Patrick Mullane
25. V.E.Ulett
Patrick O'Brian did write in the Author's Note for The Far Side of the World that he, 'might be led to make use of hypothetical years, .. an 1812a as it were or even an 1812b.' So is it any wonder the ages of Jack's and Stephen's children in the series are a little, well, ahoo? The Far Side of the World was perhaps the last book with outlandish scenes reminiscient of Post-Captain, Jack Aubrey in a bear suit for all love.

Thank you to those who named similar book series. If you admire Patrick O'Brian's prose, his biography Joseph Banks: A Life is excellent.
David Dyer-Bennet
26. dd-b
ianturton, where to go from here depends on what you liked about the Aubrey books.

The major sets of Sea Stories (Napoleonic war naval stories) are C. S. Forester's Hornblower books (he wrote a lot of other things too), Dudley Pope's Ramage books, C.Northcote Parkinson's Delancey books, and perhaps Alexander Kent's Richard Bolitho books (which I personally didn't like very much) . There are a bunch of others around the edges of that constellation, too.

On the other hand, maybe what you want to do is go read Jane Austen instead. No ships, but very much of the period.

All sorts of SF writers have cribbed from the basic idea (probably really mostly from Hornblower); from Rodenberry for Star Trek to Lt. O'Leary (by Drake) to Honor Harrington (by David Weber) and Kris Longknife (by Mike Shepherd) or Wosname Vatta (by Elizabeth Moon).

Jo, I love the idea of O'Brian ending up writing science fiction. Would have been great!
Patrick Mullane
27. Axel Falkenstrom
Wonderful words. Thank you so much.
And the quotation from Eliot is perfect.
Patrick Mullane
28. Maddlew
Thanks to KestrelHill for the reference. It was wholly unsatisfactory, but I will sleep now that I know.
With 21 behind me, I will now join up again. Thank you Jo, this is a site I will journey to again and again for slivers of insight from not only you, but others who have been transported. A sharp group of travelers.
I was disappointed in Christine in the end, for not knowing or knowing what she was asking. I was disappointed in Miller for being an officer and not better with a sword.
Of course O'Brian didn't know he would not have time to clean things up and probably never intended for us to read this. He seemed to have something wonderful in store for us with everyone alive we cared for together in one place. You know Hineage Dundas was going to arrive on the next tide. It would have been quite a show!
I've only known about O'Brian for 6 months, he's been gone the entire time. My God, what a creature and how I miss him!
Patrick Mullane
29. Ian R
Appreciate your eulogy, of sorts, to Mr. O'Brian and his works. His works have been deeply influential on my life. Whatever frustration I feel that Mr. O'Brian left us with no hints of ending the saga is overcome by the impression that it is better this way...with Jack and Stephen sailing off into eternity...a journey never completed and yet filled with inifinite possibility.
Patrick Mullane
30. JJL
I first read Patrick O'brians Master & Commander some 10 years ago. Since then I have gone on to read all 21 of them. In fact I have collected all of them and on my third reading. I used to get them from the Library but it was like saying goodbye to a friend when taking them back, so now I have them all. Whoever has not read them is missing out on one of lifes real pleasures. If PO could have lived on who knows what more treats we would have had
Patrick Mullane
31. RIL
I just finshed the typeset part of book 21, reading the handwritten pages was too hard on the kindle. I'll try to enlarge and print out first. I am so down I could cry, for the last couple of months I've been burning through all 21, and wanted a happy ending, if possible. I wanted Stephen to marry his intellectual match, and Jack to retire overlooking the bay, giving Sophie the pleasures she was to shy or dutybound to ask for.
Jim Hardy
32. JimZipCode
@ 26 - I credit O'Brian for my being able to read Austen, and get it. When I was younger and tried Austen, I could not get past the language. After years of O'Brian, it seemed totally accessible.

O'Brian is an excellent "gateway drug" to Austen. :-)
Patrick Mullane
33. Captain E
On my second reading of the series, I do not tire, but find new rewards. Jack served me well as a model of a leader when once I "captained" an embassy -- not specifics, but in attitude. My "Surprise" thereafter was a 34-foot cutter which crossed the Atlantic and now follows O'Brian's wake in the Med. What a recurring delight to join matchless fiction with informing reality!

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