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

How happy I am to see you: Patrick O’Brian’s The Yellow Admiral

When I first read the Aubrey-Maturin series, The Yellow Admiral, the eighteenth book, was the newest book available. I cannot really recommend starting here, unless it’s the only book on your desert island, and I can’t say much about it without spoilers for the previous seventeen volumes.

The Yellow Admiral is a book that takes place mostly in England. There’s a lot in it—enclosure and prize fighting and spycraft and Sophie finding out about Amanda Smith (way back in The Fortune of War) and riches melting away and Napoleon on Elba. Hanging over the whole book is the fear embodied in the title, Jack’s future prospects for advancement after the war is over. Being “yellowed” means a nominal promotion without a ship to go with it, and Jack dreads the prospect.

Jack ashore is always his own worst enemy, saying things he shouldn’t in parliament and getting into trouble. There isn’t a great voyage in this volume, though there is one in prospect—Jack is to be lent to the hydrographical survey and to the Chilean navy, and to go out in Surprise again. As often when we do not have great naval exploits, we hear reports of them around the dinner table. This is a smaller scale than some of the books in the series, but O’Brian has grown so familiar with the characters and made me love them so much by now that I don’t feel any of the need to be away that I do in Post Captain.

There’s some vintage Killick here, with complete moral ascendency over Jack and Stephen. Bonden fights a bare-knuckle prize fight and loses, Clarissa comes down and warns Jack to leave to avoid his creditors. Diana and Stephen are good friends for once—since their whole relationship has been characterised by her running away and him pursuing her and not catching her quite enough, this is a nice change. There is also foreshadowing about her driving and the dangerous bridge. Mrs Williams is her usual appalling self. I do like Jack’s appreciation of the common and his understanding of what it means to the local farmers. And it’s nice to see Jack’s brother Phillip grown up.

The book has one of the best ends of any volume, but it’s anything but a conclusion. O’Brian doesn’t have many volume ending cliffhangers, but this is one—when the Surprise reaches Madeira they find that Napoleon has escaped from Elba and Jack is again a commodore with an urgent mission. It’s wonderful and it makes you want to cheer. But it also includes one of O’Brian’s few mis-steps. Sophie, reconciled to Jack, and the children, and Diana and Brigid, are with them on the ship. There isn’t physically time and space for them to have returned to England and for things to happen to them and the news to come and Stephen to go to England and come back between this volume and the next. He’s flexible with time elsewhere, but never in a way that gets in the way of the characters like this.

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