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

Around the Horn: Patrick O’Brian’s The Far Side of the World

The Far Side of the World is one of my favourite books of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. It’s a voyage, a glorious voyage to the Pacific to protect British whalers from the American maurauders. It stands alone far better than most of the books—which is probably why Peter Weir chose it as the basis for his movie. It’s as good a place to start as anywhere but the beginning. And it’s here that they begin to sail out of history and into fantasy. Some people don’t like that, but I do.

The book begins with a note that the Napoleonic Wars are about to run out and O’Brian is going to be cast upon his own invention, “the author may be led to make use of hypothetical years… an 1812a or even an 1812b.” I know some people feel that this diminishes the series, but to me it enhances it enormously. They do not sail off the map, and everything remains as historical as possible under the circumstances, but they sail into hypothetical years. The beginning of The Far Side of the World is sometime in 1813 and the beginning of The Yellow Admiral is early in 1815, and there are seven or eight years between them, to my count. Stephen can’t say how old his daughter is, and really, neither can anybody.

I have a fantastical explanation for this, if anyone would care for it. Padeen, Stephen’s almost mute Irish loblolly boy, is one of the Sidhe, and around him time runs differently. Or if you don’t like that, I have half a really complicated fantasy explanation that may one day become a story—not about them or about the Napoleonic Wars, just about the intersection of real years and imaginary years, and real people and imaginary people.

In any case, the first few chapters wrap up the end of the events in the Mediterranean of the previous two books, and set up Wray’s malevolence for the forthcoming books. Then Jack and Stephen set off on the Surprise for the Pacific, where the Norfolk, an American frigate not much above their weight has gone to harass British whalers. Jack had heard that the Surprise was to be sold out of the service on her return, so this is a farewell voyage. It’s a breath of fresh air between intrigues. They are sailing away from the treason and jealousies of the Mediterranean and in England. What we have here is the self-enclosed world of the ship.

The Surprise has its own jealousies. There’s the gunner, Horner, and his wife, Mrs Horner, who has an adulterous relationship with the Jonah midshipman, Hollam. Horner kills them both on a remote island. Apart from this horror, most of the book is delightful—almost all my favourite characters are here, and it’s ship against nature and against an open enemy all the way.

There are some lovely incidents—there’s the time Stephen falls out of the cabin window and Jack rescues him but the ship goes on without them, and they get rescued by cannibals and then stranded on a desert island. There’s the time they catch up with the Norfolk and the captain tells them the war is over. This is wonderful, because it echoes both the beginning of Post Captain (where the war is over) and the end of Desolation Island where the war (of 1812) isn’t quite begun. (There’s also the question of timing—the reader doesn’t know if the war is over or not, what year is it again?) But most of this book is simply voyaging, sailing on forever in blue water, concerned about weather and wind and landfalls and insubordination among the crew, Jack and Stephen playing their music and Killick grumbling and a nondescript bird or a new island perpetually just over the horizon.

The book has an ending of the kind that has become typical—it ends with Jack and Stephen ashore on the island on which the Norfolk has been wrecked, in trouble with the Americans, and then the Surprise coming back to rescue them, which is good, but not in any way conclusive. It is as if with this book O’Brian realised that he was going to be writing them forever, or for his lifetime in any case. It is from now on that the volumes really are like chapters of a book.

A word about the movie which has the name and some of the accidents of his volume. I generally detest movies of books, but I think Peter Weir did a fair job here. He doesn’t try to tell the story of any one book, least of all this one, but he does well at conveying part of the spirit of the series. His plot is too pat, with Jack and Stephen each giving up what they want for the other. O’Brian would never have done anything so symmetrically cliched. But he goes to a lot of trouble to get the minor characters right, and to keep to the feel of the books and the reality of the tech level and the ship. He doesn’t put in a romance plot, or any women at all, and if he makes the ship a French one rather than an American, that’s understandable. It won me over by bothering to get Tom Pullings right, and also by persuading my son that he wanted to read the books. It also serves to tide me over between readings. In all, I think while it isn’t an adaptation of a book but rather an original fanfic, it’s also the best movie of a book ever apart from The Princess Bride.

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