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

Rode his luck to death: Patrick O’Brian’s The Reverse of the Medal

In this eleventh book of the Aubrey-Maturin series, Patrick O’Brian does something quite different, and quite astonishing. Do not start reading these books here! The Reverse of the Medal, more than any other book, deserves to be reached in due order. It’s a wonderful book.

This is the cusp, the point on which the whole series turns, so it’s very appropriate that it comes halfway through.

The book begins in Jamaica, where the Surprise is pausing on her way home. There Jack meets Sam Panda, his natural son by Sally, the girl for whom he was sent before the mast when he was a midshipman. Sally was African, so Sam is naturally black, but otherwise very like his father. Worse, he’s in training to become a Catholic priest, and he has met Sophie.

Returning to England, Jack is set up by a group of rogues, paid by Wray, to be framed in a stockmarket swindle. This leads to his arrest, trial, conviction, and dismissal from the service. Stephen meanwhile has inherited a great sum from his godfather and is now rich, he buys the Surprise (with dear Pullings’s help) and sets her up as a letter of marque, a private man of war. But Diana, hearing of Laura Fielding and not getting the explanation (sent via Wray), has left him and gone to Sweden with Jagiello. Jack is to be put in the pillory, and in one of the most moving scenes in the series the square is full of sailors, many of them friends, who instead of throwing things at him give him rousing cheers.

The book ends with Duhamel, the Frenchman from The Surgeon’s Mate, revealing Wray’s treachery to Stephen in return for sanctuary in Quebec. (We’re told in the next book that Duhamel died on the way, but I remain sure he faked his own death and in fact lived for many years in Montreal, perhaps in this house.)

The pillory scene always makes me cry, and even thinking about it too much can bring tears to my eyes. It’s a perfect piece of writing, the whole pacing and setup of it is moving beyond belief. Despite having read the books out of order so that I already knew Jack would be thrown out of the navy and take the Surprise as a letter of marque well before I read this, I was still astonished and moved by the events of the novel. Jack is set up because he is goodhearted and easily fooled ashore, Stephen does his best for him but only makes him distrust his own lawyer. Stephen is himself tortured by Diana’s absence, but does everything he can for his friend. Sophie appears at her absolute best, accepting Sam, and going into the prison and helping out. We see all of Jack’s friends and enemies in their true colours, and though we don’t get any sea battles at all, I think this is one of the very best books of the series.

There are some wonderful Jack malopropisms “tarring them all with the same feathers” and correcting sucking dove to “sucking pig.” There’s not much other humour, but it isn’t a bleak book despite everything, because they know he didn’t do anything wrong and they come from all the ships in all the ports to cheer for Jack. Just wonderful, and maybe the best of them all.

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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