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

I know you mean it kindly, Stephen: Patrick O’Brian’s The Surgeon’s Mate

The Surgeon’s Mate, the seventh book of the Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, follows straight on from The Fortune of War with no more than a day or two between them. I don’t think it would be an especially good place to start reading, and certainly even in my first haphazard reading of the series I’d read a number of others first and already cared about the characters before picking this up. It’s an interesting episode, set in Canada, England, France and the Baltic, but as it’s full of continuing plot threads, I really think you should start somewhere else.

This is the book where both Jack makes a fool of himself for love, and Stephen’s love finds its first success. And I just want to say that before I’d read this book, and when I was reading them out of sequence, I was quite sure it would feature Michael Herapath or Rev. Martin, and after I’d read it I was asking myself, “Why is it called The Surgeon’s Mate when no surgeons’ mates appear in the story?” It took me far longer than it should have to realise that mate has more than one meaning and that Stephen’s mate is of course Diana.

The book begins in Halifax, after Jack and Stephen have escaped on the Shannon and helped defeat the Chesapeake. The Fortune of War ended with that escape and battle, and with Stephen expecting to marry Diana on shipboard at any moment. The book ends with their marriage on board ship, after many adventures and another escape, this one from French captivity. It’s shaped very neatly.

By the time he arrives Halifax, Jack has been away from home and Sophie for two whole books. The vapidly enthusiastic Amanda Smith at first enchants him and then horrifies him. Most of Jack’s sex life as we’ve seen it has been jolly—his relationship with Mercedes in Port Mahon, with Molly Harte, and with Sophie. Only with Diana has he been confused, and now he’s briefly infatuated with the victory and with Miss Smith, until he starts to see how false and silly she is with her talk of Lady Hamilton and great loves. Back in England when she writes asking for money and saying she’s going to have a baby he’s miserable, not just because of her but because of Sophie—and characteristically, Jack isn’t just afraid of being caught (which doesn’t happen until The Yellow Admiral) but miserable because he can’t talk to Sophie about it and the constraint itself is a problem. It’s also characteristic that Jack feels he can’t behave “like a scrub” to her, and that this is what Stephen advises, even though Jack doesn’t really care about Amanda at all.

Stephen’s love life is interestingly parallel. First, although Diana has agreed to marry him, she then refuses, realising that he doesn’t love her any more. Then she reveals that she is pregnant, and not by him—so both men have potential pregnancies coming between them and happiness. Diana loses the baby, and Amanda marries someone else — and her pregnancy may have been imaginary, so there are no problematic children, just the pregnancies. Diana goes to live in France, where she isn’t seen as the Fallen Woman she would be in England. Stephen goes to France to give a scientific paper. (I love that he mutters and can’t be made out, but the people who read it are impressed anyway.) Then when Jack and Stephen are imprisoned in France (after a brief mission to the Baltic in the cause of Catalan freedom) she gives her diamond to secure their freedom—which instantly dooms them—but the book ends with her shipboard marriage to Stephen.

Good things in this book include Jagiello, the Swedish officer who goes with them to the Baltic and is imprisoned with them in France. Not only is he as innocent and bouncy as a puppy, but he’s astonishingly good-looking and wins all feminine hearts—the bit with the lady sending in meals and helping them escape is very funny. There’s also the escape, in which Talleyrand’s faction lets them go just before Stephen would have been tortured—he’s absolutely revealed as a spy now. There’s also my favourite bit of Stephen’s ranting. The Danes fire at them, then:

“The Goths!” said Stephen angrily. “They might have hit the birds. These Danes have always been a very froward people. Do you know, Jack, what they did at Clonmacnois? They burnt it, the thieves, and their queen sat on the high altar mother-naked, uttering oracles in a heathen frenzy. Ota was the strumpet’s name. It’s all of a piece: look at Hamlet’s mother. I only wonder her behaviour caused any comment.”

This is wonderful—first, he’s not objecting to them firing at the ship but the birds, and then the whole historical piece—and the word “strumpet.” It’s wonderful.

Oh, and there’s Duhamel, Talleyrand’s agent. He’s the nicest Frenchman in the series—honourable, fond of food, and a good friend to his friends.

Then there’s the wreck of the Ariel because of the confusion of left and right. (I’d have done the same thing myself.) It’s a beautiful piece of writing—and it’s followed by all the officers but one claiming to be descended from Queen Anne, and when Jack’s asked about it he says that Queen Anne is dead. Perfect.

Bad bits—well, there’s not much, but Diana again, Diana all through bothers me. Firstly, there hasn’t been time between books for her to discover her pregnancy, and there was no sign of it before. Then I’m supposed to admire her for putting her diamond up for Stephen’s release, even though it could have killed him, and I can’t see it as anything but silly. And she’s very cruel early in the book. I can’t see marriage to her as a prize—though fortunately neither does O’Brian. Onwards!

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She has a ninth novel coming out in January, 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.


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