“Master and Commander,” by Patrick O’Brian (401p)
Following the death of C.S. Forester in 1968 publishers sought a replacement to the acclaimed Hornblower series of high-sea adventure tales, and so British author Patrick O’Brian was tasked with succeeding Hornblower with his series, the similarly acclaimed Aubrey-Maturin novels. Master and Commander is the first in the twenty part series, depicting the budding friendship between Captain Jack Aubrey and his ship’s doctor best friend, Stephen Maturin, as they trawl across the Mediterranean in King George’s Royal Navy.
It is 1800 and Jack Aubrey, a shipless lieutenant in Port Mahon, Minorca, is wasting away in port. Aubrey meets Stephen Maturin, a poor half-Irish and half-Catalan doctor and natural philosopher, at an evening concert at the Governor’s Mansion. The two of them do not quite get along during this first encounter. A duel almost occurs when Jack Aubrey gets elbowed by Maturin to stop humming while the string quartet is playing. Later that evening, on his way back to his living quarters, Jack Aubrey finds out that he was promoted to the rank of Commander and has been given a command. His joy overcomes his animosity towards Stephen Maturin and they quickly become good friends. The ship’s surgeon having left with the previous captain, Maturin is asked by Aubrey to sign on in that post. Although Maturin is a physician, not just a mere surgeon, he agrees, since he is currently unemployed.
Also introduced into the story are Master’s Mates Thomas Pullings, William Mowett, midshipman William Babbington, and James Dillon, Sophie‘s first lieutenant. Dillon has a secret background as a member of the United Irishmen which crosses with Stephen’s own. Aubrey improves Sophie‘s sailing qualities by adding a larger yard which allows him to spread a larger mainsail. She then is sent to accompany a small convoy of merchant ships. During their journey east, the new captain, Aubrey, takes the opportunity to get to know his sailors and work them into a fighting unit. As he does this, he and the crew explain many naval matters to Maturin (and to the reader) since the doctor has never served aboard a man-of-war.
After the convoy duties, Lord Keith allows Aubrey to cruise independently, looking for French merchants. After a number of prizes are taken, they meet and defeat the Cacafuego, a Spanish frigate, losing a number of crew, including Dillon, in the bloody action and gaining the respect of other naval officers. However, Captain Harte, the commandant at Mahon, has a grudge against Aubrey because he has been having an affair with his wife. His malevolence ensures the victory brings Aubrey and his crew no official recognition, promotion, or significant prize money. On her following escort duty, Sophie is captured by a squadron of four large French warships after a pursuit and a brave but hopeless resistance. The Battle of Algeciras begins, and after a short period as prisoners of war, they are exchanged, missing the fighting. Back at Gibraltar, Aubrey must undergo a court-martial over the loss of his ship, but he is cleared of the charges.
When the movie adaptation of this series – Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World – was released I was keen to see what’s what and started reading this, but put it down as I found the intensive naval jargon a confusing mess and too difficult to get into, so I just gave up and read something else instead. Now, some five years later, I decided to give it another chance now that I’m a few years older and a little more well read. Reading it now it is easy to see where the high praise for O’Brian comes from because it is very much a good read with an interesting setting, backed up by a simple plot. The characterisation is very strong and developed with all the main characters having their own voice and personality – Aubrey is big and bluff and jovial while Maturin is a different sort, an intelligent secretive man totally out of place aboard a nineteenth century man of war. The supporting cast are equally well set out and interesting with their own unique personalities and backgrounds. It is obvious O’Brian knows the period well and has paid an intensive level of attention to making sure the novel is as close to the reality of the Napoleonic Wars at sea is possible, so all in all, it reads not as a novel about that period but rather as a novel in the period.
But as I said when I reviewed the first novel in the Hornblower series, naval fiction is not for everyone. It is hard to recommend because it is so technical and there is so much to consume and nowhere is this truer than with Patrick O’Brian. It is a maze of jargon and things that are difficult to remember. O’Brian tries to get around this when Maturin is given a tour of the Sophie, where most of the important things are explained, but even then it is given in the manner that you should just know this, and that is that. His style also doesn’t help to create an overly thrilling novel either with long passages of relatively uninteresting descriptive narrative or a style of dialogue that is very flowery. I consider myself to have a pretty good vocabulary but at times I had to reach for the dictionary. Combined with the often multi-page sections of dull narrative and a distinct lack of action, it can be a difficult to novel to get completely absorbed in. It is still clear why O’Brian’s novels are held in such high esteem and I respect that a lot, but I don’t think it’s for me, not yet.