Feb 7 2011 3:35pm

How happy I am to see you: Patrick O’Brian’s The Yellow Admiral

When I first read the Aubrey-Maturin series, The Yellow Admiral, the eighteenth book, was the newest book available. I cannot really recommend starting here, unless it's the only book on your desert island, and I can't say much about it without spoilers for the previous seventeen volumes.

The Yellow Admiral is a book that takes place mostly in England. There's a lot in it—enclosure and prize fighting and spycraft and Sophie finding out about Amanda Smith (way back in The Fortune of War) and riches melting away and Napoleon on Elba. Hanging over the whole book is the fear embodied in the title, Jack's future prospects for advancement after the war is over. Being “yellowed” means a nominal promotion without a ship to go with it, and Jack dreads the prospect.

Jack ashore is always his own worst enemy, saying things he shouldn't in parliament and getting into trouble. There isn't a great voyage in this volume, though there is one in prospect—Jack is to be lent to the hydrographical survey and to the Chilean navy, and to go out in Surprise again. As often when we do not have great naval exploits, we hear reports of them around the dinner table. This is a smaller scale than some of the books in the series, but O'Brian has grown so familiar with the characters and made me love them so much by now that I don't feel any of the need to be away that I do in Post Captain.

There's some vintage Killick here, with complete moral ascendency over Jack and Stephen. Bonden fights a bare-knuckle prize fight and loses, Clarissa comes down and warns Jack to leave to avoid his creditors. Diana and Stephen are good friends for once—since their whole relationship has been characterised by her running away and him pursuing her and not catching her quite enough, this is a nice change. There is also foreshadowing about her driving and the dangerous bridge. Mrs Williams is her usual appalling self. I do like Jack's appreciation of the common and his understanding of what it means to the local farmers. And it's nice to see Jack's brother Phillip grown up.

The book has one of the best ends of any volume, but it's anything but a conclusion. O'Brian doesn't have many volume ending cliffhangers, but this is one—when the Surprise reaches Madeira they find that Napoleon has escaped from Elba and Jack is again a commodore with an urgent mission. It's wonderful and it makes you want to cheer. But it also includes one of O'Brian's few mis-steps. Sophie, reconciled to Jack, and the children, and Diana and Brigid, are with them on the ship. There isn't physically time and space for them to have returned to England and for things to happen to them and the news to come and Stephen to go to England and come back between this volume and the next. He's flexible with time elsewhere, but never in a way that gets in the way of the characters like this.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and eight 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 ›
MeiLin Miranda
1. MeiLin Miranda
You have me wailing and gnashing my teeth; my copies of YA and "Blue at the Mizzen" have gone walkabout, though the rest of the series (including the manuscript edition of "21") are still in the bookcase. For those who love SF/F, don't let these books outside the genre pass by unread, and if you want a real treat, dig up Patrick Tull's masterful readings of the entire series, unabridged and gloriously performed.
Pamela Adams
3. PamAdams
Yes, this book is the 'Diana becomes za human being' book. Thinking back, it is really only this book and The Surgeon's Mate, where she's tolerable.

Personally, I love the aftermath of Sophie's finding out about Amanda Smith- Diana and Clarissa ganging up on her about sex and suggesting that she too should have an affair. The description of Captain Adeane is a delight- "Being so handsome, he is usually called Captain Apollo. He will have nothing whatever to do with girls, but the young married women of the neighborhood-- well, I will not say that they actually stand there in lines, but I believe he is a fairly general consolation."
Claire de Trafford
4. Booksnhorses
Shucks - the library is out of this one at the moment. Can't wait to catch up as it sounds delightful. I've just got Blue at the Mizzen out but I don't want to get too out of sequence.
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
ClairedeT: You'd be much better to wait -- these last three really do need to be read in the right order.
MeiLin Miranda
6. etv13
I loved the enclosure part, especially when Jack says (I'm quoting from memory here) "He's not the lord of the manor, and I am"), and the prizefight, with Clarissa carrying the message to Jack, and all the angst and drama with Sophie finding out about Amanda Smith. (I have to say, though I generally strongly disapprove of adultery, I sympathize with Jack on this one. He had been through so much, leading up to that incident at Halifax, and he'd been away from home so long, and then they lost his mail . . . .) But I have to say, I find Diana's account of how she and Clarissa talked Sophie around seemed very false and artificial to me, and I can't decide if it's O'Brian just not being very good writing women (surely that can't be it!) or Diana is putting Stephen on. She is, after all, often catty and patronizing to/about Sophie. That's why I despised her in Post Captain, in fact -- she says truly obnoxious things about Sophie to Stephen at a time when she's not well-enough acquainted with Stephen to justify it.
Pamela Adams
7. PamAdams
Of course, Diana is equally catty about Jack- "And then again, I have it on the best authority that Jack is no artist in these matters. He can board and carry an enemy frigate with guns roaring and drums beating in a couple of minutes; but that is no way to give a girl much pleaaure."

So many of Diana's issues could have been solved had she been able to set up a career as a sex therapist.
David Dyer-Bennet
8. dd-b
Yes, I read this just recently, and noticed the bit where sending back to England to fetch people was far, far too quick and easy.

I did very much like Diana's explanation of her and Clarissa's conversation with Sophie.
Sylvia Sotomayor
9. terjemar
@7 Pam: Oh, yes! Thank you for that thought.
MeiLin Miranda
10. HelenS
I am not sure anyone can be qualified to be a sex therapist who is so extremely unqualified to be a marriage or parenting counselor. I don't think life is partitioned that way (or rather, though some people can partition their lives that way, you can't count on it being so for most).
Pamela Adams
11. PamAdams
This is also a book where we see that Stephen, though a wonderful doctor, is an eighteenth century doctor, and not a modern one.
"Pray sir," asked Macaulay, "why do you use the spirits of wine? Have they a particular virtue?"

"The sudden chilling from evaporation has some slight effect; the knowledge that the surgeon wishes to avoid giving pain probably has more: but upon the whole, I use it empirically, no more. Duranton, who taught me at the Hotel Dieu always used it, above all when he opened an abdomen; and he was a remarkably successful surgeon. So I do the same, perhaps out of a superstitious reverence for my master."
We won't even mention the maggots......
MeiLin Miranda
12. etv13
I think O'Brian does an excellent job of not just making them twentieth-century people in nineteenth-century dress. Stephen's medicine is one example, and then there's the way, in Post Captain, he has no qualms at all about the cock fight. Indeed, he seems to accept it on the same terms as Jack and everybody else, despite his love for birds.

On the Sophie/Diana/Clarissa thing: I just can't see Sophie sinking her principles and cheating on Jack because Clarissa and Diana told her self-righteousness has a negative effect on a woman's looks. (How patronizing and misogynistic is that?) Whatever Jack's accomplishments may or may not be. (And Diana didn't seem to be complaining in Post Captain, not to mention Molly Harte, Sally Mbutu, Amanda, and that Polynesian queen.) We get all of it through Diana, and as far as I'm concerned, she's a malicious bitch. Stephen only thinks she's "gentlemanly" because he's hopelessly infatuated.
MeiLin Miranda
13. paramitch
I really thought Diana was a lot of fun in this one, and we get a closer than usual look at her relationship with Stephen.

However, the only thing that rings false for me in this one is Clarissa giving sex therapy advice to Sophie (about how to enjoy it, what men look for, etc.). It's just not true to her character at all. Per "Clarissa Oakes/The Truelove," Clarissa was so abused that for her, sex meant absolutely nothing and was simply a physical function men performed upon her person that gave her no pleasure at all. So for her to be counseling Sophie on that, for me, turns her into a different character. (In fact, I'd argue that Clarissa IS a wholly different character here and elsewhere -- once a sexually free but frigid woman who disliked and even occasionally killed babies and pets in her first appearance, she is transformed in all ensuing books to a sweet and loving gentlewoman who is kind to babies and children, etc., gives savvy sex therapy advice, etc.)

I do buy that Diana would be brashly helpful and scandalizing to Sophie here in equal measure, and find it believable that she has evolved enough to genuinely care for Sophie (especially after all the years since her fling with Jack). And Diana's witty description of Jack in bed always makes me laugh, as to me it is exactly what I'd figure Jack would be like (jolly but straightforward -- never mind maneuvers, always go at 'em).
Jim Hardy
14. JimZipCode
I will always love this book for its extended view of domestic happiness for Stephen & Diana, and for the long walks on Jack's manor. This book is practically pastoral. I take it for one version of a happy ending for Jack & Stephen's stories: an extended look at what a happy life for them would look like after all the wartime sailing is done. Love it, love it, love it.

Small footnote, Clarissa's warning is not to avoid creditors. It's so Jack can avoid receiving an order that will direct him to report aboard the moment he receives it, and would thus keep him out of the enclosure hearing. It's an interesting comment on how far Jack has come: the same gambits but now he's using them to juggle his various responsibilities. He's playing a political game (and winning, really).

Did Jack's thorough understanding of enclosure and the common etc seem to come out of the blue to anyone else? We've heard for 17 books how Jack his spent his whole life afloat: I did not understand exactly when he would have acquired this deep understanding. I enjoyed it, but it didn't seem to fit with the rest of the series.

Don't you love the sequence of letters where Jack finds out that Sophie has found out about Amanda?

@ 3 - Diana's description of Captain Apollo contains this wonderful bit of negative space from Stephen. Diana says that she will introduce the captain to Stephen, and Stephen says nothing more than "I should like to meet him." But the chilling way he says ONLY that, reminds me that to "go out" with or meet another guy was one of their euphemisms for a duel. Stephen just might be saying that he would fight the guy.

@ 6 - Diana does say scandalous things about Sophie. But she says them to Stephen: from the very beginning, their relationship was beyond the pale, unusual in its frankness. When I resent Diana, it's only for how she hurts Stephen, not for how openly gossipy she is, with him, about other people.

@ 12 - Diana is "gentlemanly" in her conduct between Deso Island and Fortune of War. She lets Sophie know that Jack is alive, when Grant is telling the world he must be dead. That alone earns her a gold star in Jack's book. And then her conduct during the flight from Boston is very good.

@ 13 - Clarissa killing babies existed only in the draft of Clarissa Oakes, did not make it into the actual book. It was an early idea of O'Brian's, but he removed it. I think ultimately that we should respect that; which means not using it as an accurate bit of characterization of her. The only in-canon stuff about her and children is her overwhelmingly positive interactions with Brigid and the Aubrey kids. I also thought her sex reportage in this book was mostly of what she knew other women enjoyed – her former co-workers, as it were. She would be in position to be knowledgeable about that, so it didn't trouble me.

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