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

Forever Bailing: Patrick O’Brian’s last unfinished novel and the end of the Aubrey-Matrurin series

I’m always reluctant to talk about authorial intent, because I know some writers and I’ve talked to them about their intentions. Sometimes authorial intent seems to shine through the text in a way that seems as plain as day, but it turns out to be all illusion. Nevertheless, although I never met Patrick O’Brian I have read all of his books and I think it’s clear that his intent was to live for his full Biblical span of eight hundred years and to write a volume about Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin every year. He’d have slowly worked his way through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, we’d have read about their adventures in sailing ships in the Great War, and rescuing people at Dunkirk. Eventually he’d have yielded to history and advancing technology and taken them into space and had them fight against aliens and study the fauna of new planets, always keeping in mind the career of Lord Cochrane and the actual historical accounts of battles and the progress of natural history. I feel sure of this because he died so young, at a mere eighty-six, a few chapters into this new volume, starting new plotlines, dangling new hares, with not the least idea of ever coming to an end.

There isn’t much here—this isn’t an unfinished book so much as a barely started one, just a few chapters flapping in the wind. There are some lovely things—Sam Panda as a Papal Nuncio, Sophie still not numbering her letters. There are some confusing things—especially the relative ages of the children. (I can’t make it work out. Jack’s daughters were born before The Mauritius Campaign, and Brigid was born when they were in Australia, there must be ten year age difference.) There are some endearing things about O’Brian—the little plan of the dinner table he drew in the margin, the notes that he can put 200 words of natural history in here. But this is thin stuff, pretty much first draft, unrevised, and with only hints of where the story would have taken us. Christine and her brother, Sophie, all the girls, Sam, Africa—it would have been wonderful if he’d written it. I’d have loved it.

When Patrick O’Brian died I thought that he had made Jack and Stephen immortal. He wouldn’t have hesitated to strike them down like Bonden if it had seemed to him to be the thing to do. Even if these books live on and on and pass out of copyright and inspire more movies and fanfic in future centuries, Jack and Stephen will never canonically die, now that the one man who could have killed them has died himself. It’s not much consolation.

The thing Peter Weir understood solidly when he made his movie was that Jack and Stephen are best seen in motion, neither beginning nor ending a voyage, in the middle of a commission. All the quotations I have used as titles for this series of posts have been from the books, but this one is T.S. Eliot, from Four Quartets:

We cannot think of a time that is oceanless
Or of an ocean not littered with wastage
Or of a future that is not liable
Like the past, to have no destination.
We have to think of them as forever bailing,
Setting and hauling, while the North East lowers
Over shallow banks unchanging and erosionless
Or drawing their money, drying sails at dockage;
Not as making a trip that will be unpayable
For a haul that will not bear examination.

We don’t need a conclusion or a culmination or any of the things we’d like in an ordinary series, it is enough that they are forever bailing. There will always be oceans. Stephen will always be causing Jack to almost miss his tide, and Jack will always be saying hurtful things about the Pope, and there will be nondescript birds and strange sails on the horizon, and gun practice, and music on calm evenings, and Killick muttering over the toasted cheese, until they all come to Avalon, by way of Valparaiso Bay.

And the books are there. I shall read them every few years for the rest of my life and be swept out again to sea.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine 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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