Re-reading Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series

Out of his element: Patrick O’Brian’s Post Captain

Post Captain is the second Aubrey-Maturin novel, and O’Brian had clearly much more of an idea that he was going to be writing something long, and began setting up romantic complications. However, the problem with Post Captain is that it’s too long and gets out of control, it’s shapeless. It should have been two books. There’s just too much in it. I know I said you can start reading these books randomly—I did—but this really isn’t the best place to start. I think it’s probably the weakest book.

Here’s the map.

Post Captain begins a little while after the end of Master and Commander. Stephen has had time to become a valued spy, working for Sir Joseph Blain, and peace has broken out. (The Peace of Amiens, a brief break, and the reason the Napoleonic Wars are called “wars” in the plural.) Nevertheless, they appear to have just reached home after the end of the previous volume, Jack is still hoping for promotion from the Cacafuego affair and his prizes are still in court. Time has already become slightly elastic, though this is nothing to what comes later.

In any case, Jack and Stephen, rich with prize money, take up housekeeping at Melbury Lodge. They meet the Williams family, and become entangled with two of the women, Sophie and Diana. The girls are cousins. Diana is a widow who both Jack and Stephen are attracted to. Jack ends the book secretly engaged to Sophie. Before that there are a lot of squalls—first Jack loses all his money when his prize agent breaks. He spends the rest of the book in constant dread of being arrested for debt, and with Mrs Williams, Sophie’s appalling mother, firmly opposed to the match. He flees to France, and when war breaks out again flees from France to Spain disguised in a bear suit, with Stephen posing as the bear leader.

When he gets home the plums have gone, but he contrives to go to sea on a very odd ship, the Polychrest, known as the Carpenter’s Mistake. Affairs with Diana go badly, and she’s two-timing both of them with a rich Jewish financier called Canning. Jack and Stephen are trying to arrange a duel with each other. Meanwhile, things also go badly on the ship. To avert a mutiny, he leads the men in to attack the Fanciulla, they capture her at the price of their own ship. As a reward, Jack is made Post at last, and gets a job on the Lively as substitute captain. The duel blows over without effect after Jack is wounded, and the two men are on good terms again. Stephen does a lot more spying, and gets Jack’s ship attached to a fleet set out to intercept Spanish treasure ships, and we end the book believing that Jack’s fortunes have been restored and he can marry Sophie. Meanwhile Diana has run off with Canning.

There’s no shape to this plot, and while the characters and incidents are as good as anything in the series, the book as a whole is broken-backed. The duel and then the fact that they never mention that they’ve reconciled feels very strange. Usually when O’Brian has a lacuna like that it helps to shape the story, here it’s just an odd absence. The duel is the last real obstacle between Jack and Stephen—they quarrel from time to time, but it never comes to this kind of thing.

The main theme is the difference between land and sea, and to illustrate this we see a lot of Jack ashore—far more than in the first book. It may be the most England we get in any of the books. Jack isn’t very good at life ashore—he’s everything he isn’t at sea. He’s easily taken in, confused, indecisive and frightened. There’s a wonderful scene where he runs from the bailiffs back to sea and calls back “Mr Pullings, press that man!” He presses the bailiffs who have come to arrest him for debt!

Jack has two romances, the chaste one with Sophie and the consumated one with Diana, who he does not love. Both the women are interesting characters—Sophie so conventional and Diana the opposite. Diana chafes for freedom, Sophie is content in her narrow horizons. What attracts Jack to Sophie is her sweetness, and this is also what Stephen likes about her. What attracts both men to Diana is her grace and wildness. Stephen’s behaviour with respect to Diana here is very strange. He knows she likes him. He knows she wants to escape. Yet he doesn’t propose, because he thinks he isn’t good enough for her. He’s waiting until she brings herself down to his level. His parentage—his bastardy—is part of this, along with his income. Stephen is generally very perceptive, but not with his own heart.

Canning is an interesting character too—Jack and Stephen both like him. He offers Jack a job as captain of a letter-of-marque, which Jack declines because he can’t bear to leave the service. Canning is rich, he’s married, he’s a Jew, which bars him from the Navy and from Parliament. He’s a powerful man, and generally seen as admirable. His resentments do not drive him. He wins Diana from both Jack and Stephen, even though she has said that married men are the enemy. Although he is barred from fighting himself, he has fitted out a number of ships—he’s doing as much to stop Napoleon as anyone.

Of continuing characters, we meet Harte, bad tempered as ever, in charge of the Channel Fleet. Pullings has been a lieutenant on an Indiaman, he comes with Jack as a lieutenant—he’s very delighted with his commission. Bonden and Killick are here, and Heneage Dundas. Sir Joseph Blaine is introduced, a naturalist obsessed with bugs who is also head of Britain’s spy service. And of course the women are introduced here—Sophie, Diana, and Mrs Williams. The Grapes in the Savoy is introduced.

My favourite bits are Jack dodging about London avoiding his creditors and the aforementioned pressing of one of them. I also like the bits in the Admiralty and the different ways Jack and Stephen deal with what they find there.

Port Captain is undoubtedly my least favourite of the series, because of its shapelessness. Still, it beckons ever onwards. I’d be very interested to hear whether other people like it more. Mary Renault apparently did—there’s a quote from her on the cover saying it surpassed her already high expectations.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. 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.


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