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

From the mizentop: Patrick O’Brian’s The Nutmeg of Consolation

The Nutmeg of Consolation was the book I couldn’t find when I was reading the series for the first time, and I consequently read it last except for the ones that hadn’t been written yet. It’s the fourteenth book in the series, and I really appreciate owning it. It’s off on my favourite voyage ever, the voyage out of time as it runs in Europe, and it continues directly from the end of the previous volume, The Thirteen Gun Salute. It is in many ways typical of what is most excellent in the series, so perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad place to start. It would certainly be a very random place to start.

The volume begins with the survivors of the Diane building a schooner to sail to Batavia, and with one of the best shipwreck survival bits of the series. They are attacked by Dyaks and then escape in a junk which has visited their island for bird’s nests. In Batavia they meet the fascinating Raffles—the nineteenth century seems to be overpopulated by real people who one wouldn’t find plausible in fiction. Raffles lends them a ship, which Jack whimsically names The Nutmeg of Consolation, one of the titles of the Sultan in the previous book. Being short of midshipmen (Jack does go through them rather fast) he asks Raffles for some, and takes on two who had been left behind, Oakes and Miller, before the mast. The Nutmeg rushes off to make the rendezvous with the Surprise. They meet up with the French ship the Cornelie. In a very exciting passage they are chased by her, and rescued at the last minute by the arrival of the Surprise, along with some other privateers with whom Surprise has been cruising. Jack and Stephen transfer to Surprise, and take off not for Chile, yet, but for Australia.

On the way they call at Sweeting’s island for provisions and in a chilling scene find the entire population but two girls dead of disease. The two girls, taken aboard out of humanitarian kindness, become some of my favourite characters. Sarah and Emily Sweeting are Melanesian, and therefore very black, and they are girls. They voyage with Surprise for several books, and become ship’s boys. They become Stephen’s problem, and he’s very unsure what to do with them. It’s always interesting to see historical novels actually examining this kind of problem, and O’Brian can’t find an easy answer any more than Stephen can. (In my daydreams after the end of the series you might be glad to know that Sarah becomes a famous physician, while Emily becomes the first black female Admiral at Queen Victoria’s court.)

O’Brian skipped Botany Bay the last time we were here, in Desolation Island, and there’s a note at the beginning thanking Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore for information. New South Wales is shown as absolutely horrible, with conditions for prisoners vile and if brutal and boorish for everyone else. Stephen can’t bear to put the girls into an orphanage here, and when he finds how Padeen has been treated he tries to rescue him. Padeen was transported for theft of opium, and Stephen feels guilty for his initial addiction.

Both the colony and the countryside are unattractive, except to Stephen for naturalizing, but very vividly painted. Jack and Stephen get into an argument about rescuing Padeen, which might have ended very badly except for Stephen being poisoned by a platypus and brought aboard, with Padeen, in very bad condition at the end of the book.

I love the chase and Surprise showing up in the nick of time, and Pullings doing so well. I love Sarah and Emily, though they develop more in later books. I find the vivid description of their island and of the colony at Botany Bay quite chilling, but I wouldn’t be without them. There’s also some wonderful and very characteristic Killick.

This is very much a middle book, with events but without a clear shape. The first part of it could have been joined to The Thirteen Gun Salute and the second part to Clarissa Oakes. These days I can’t even think of doing anything but reading straight through all three by the time I am at this point.

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 on January 18th, 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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