Clarissa Oakes (which has the stupid variant title The Truelove in the U.S.) is the fifteenth volume of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, and it was the first one I read. As you can tell, I kept on reading, but I wouldn’t recommend it as a place to start. But perhaps I would—all of these books, once the series gets going, have a quality I call “forever bailing,” from Eliot’s The Dry Salvages. I mean that the books begin in the middle of things, they end similarly in the middle of things, there are ports but there is no destination, what you want is to keep sailing forever. From that perspective, Clarissa Oakes was a good place to start—I certainly wanted to know how they got there and what happened after.
On their way from Australia towards Chile, which has been their supposed eventual destination for several previous volumes, Jack is asked to look in on a colonial problem on the Pacific island of Moahu where the French are making a nuisance of themselves. Stephen, recovering from his playtpus bite, has Padeen aboard, and much worse, Oakes, one of the midshipmen, has smuggled a woman aboard, Clarissa Harlow, a runaway prisoner. Jack at first is inclined to take a dim view of things, but eventually he relents, marries her to Oakes, and puts up with having her aboard when he finds out that she is a gentlewoman and educated.
Unfortunately, she sleeps with all the officers, just to be friendly, and reveals to Stephen her abusive childhood. She’s an interesting character—not the kind of young woman you normally find in nineteenth century literature, but this is very much a modern novel. She has had an abusive childhood, she does not care for sex, she has an idea of the proprieties only as something people pretend to observe. She can’t understand why her friendliness has led to hatred and general dislike on the ship.
The affair on the island is very well done, the French and one group of islanders on one side, the Surprises and the other group on the other. The massacre when it happens is quite shocking. They do not take most of the French and Americans, who escape on the Franklin, with Surprise in pursuit. They do take a whaler, the Truelove, which Oakes is given as a command to take back to England.
This is the only book that O’Brian chose to name after a person, and it’s regrettable that the U.S. publishers chose to change that and name it after a ship, and such an insignificant and suggestively named ship at that. If they thought people didn’t want sea stories with women’s names, fie upon that.
It’s interesting that Jack’s orders usually tell him to consult Stephen and this time they don’t, because they come from New South Wales and not London, and this (along with the Padeen incident) causes a slight coldness between the men—this is soon amended, fortunately, and there are some of the best bits between them in the series as they sail on. I also like the calm way Stephen deals with cannibalism by saying human meat is taboo for them when he recognises body parts in his soup—of course it wouldn’t upset him, veteran of such dissections. Sarah and Emily are great here—indeed, the whole crew are in great form. Even after reinstatement Jack’s still feeling it a little that the Surprise is a hired ship and has no marines.
We’re still sailing out of time here. I was trying to estimate how many months and years this voyage took in terms of their lives. Stephen has just had the news of the birth of Brigid, who must have been conceived at the end of The Letter of Marque, and even allowing for delays in the post it can’t be much more than a year or let us say eighteen months since then, for the news to come? But it seems much longer than that, and O’Brian doesn’t want us to be able to work it out. It was 1812 when they left and it will be 1813 when they return, and I think six or seven years of their lives—nobody can keep track of seasons in the Southern Hemisphere, but I sometimes wonder if Jack might have looked at the stars in a wild surmise.
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.