Tag Archives: Royal Navy

“Master and Commander,” by Patrick O’Brian

26 Dec

“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.

7/10.

“Mr. Midshipman Hornblower,” by C.S. Forester

25 Oct


“Mr. Midshipman Hornblower,” by C.S. Forester (299p)
1793, the eve of the Napoleonic Wars, and Midshipman Horatio Hornblower receives his first command …

After the great success of the first five novels about fictitious Napoleonic-era seaman Horatio Hornblower in the 1930s and 1940s, British author the late C.S. Forester (1899-1966) set about going back to the beginning of his heroes life in the Royal Navy as a midshipman. Written as the sixth book in 1950, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower is the first in the series chronologically where the young Hornblower begins his navy career, finding out he actually isn’t too bad at this naval caper.

The novel is essentially ten short stories put together, roughly in a continuous flow, beginning a short time after the last one ended. So, the first story is naturally Hornblower’s first ever assignment on a ship, the HMS Justinian. Hornblower hates life aboard the Justinian and dreads waking up every morning, and his depression becomes so severe he contrives an elaborate way to commit suicide – by challenging a much older tyrannical midshipman to a duel after a game of cards. But when the duel is a draw Hornblower transfers to HMS Indefatigable as Britain declares war on Revolutionary France. On his new ship Hornblower takes part in a capture of a French cargo ship, but when he is given command of it he forgets to make necessary repairs and the ship sinks. But that, an offence that could be a court-martial offence, is forgotten when Hornblower burns down a ship he had been taken prisoner on and rescued by the Indefatigable. Later, he commands the jolly boat in a mission to capture another French ship, but is deeply affected when a man left behind is killed as he loses the jolly boat.

Hornblower then takes part in his first land mission, albeit in the capacity as a translator for the commander of a French Royalist attempting to land an invasion in the Vendée as the locals revolt. It is unsuccessful and the revolutionary force repels them back to the waiting British ships, and Hornblower is deeply troubled by the sight of a guillotine in action. He develops a darkened view of the revolution because of it. The war then takes a turn against Britain as Spain and France sign a peace treaty, making Spain Britain’s enemy as well, and Hornblower leads a dangerous attack on a Spanish galley ship near Gibraltar. This act of bravery leads to him being made acting lieutenant but a surprise attack by the Spanish sees the sudden cancellation of his lieutenancy exam.

Hornblower then later travels to North Africa to purchase a supply of livestock, but more catastrophe befalls him when there is a fear of a plague outbreak (the last time the plague affected Europeans was sometime in the early 18th century) and he is forced to mill about in the Strait of Gibraltar for three weeks. The final short story of Mr. Midshipman Hornblower takes him to Gibraltar where he is told he is to take command of a French prize ship and transport a Duchess back to England. Predictably, the dangerous waters of the Atlantic turn against Hornblower and he is taken prisoner by Spain. He spends two years in captivity in the town of Ferrol but sees an opportunity to do … something, and with the permission of his captors, sets off into choppy sea to rescue stranded Spanish sailors. This act of bravery sees him eventually released by Spain and promoted to lieutenant by the admiralty.

The series is one of the most influential ever written – this is the inspiration of fellow historical fiction giants Sharpe and Aubrey-Maturin, Hemingway lavishes it with praise, Gene Rodenberry based leading characters on Star Trek off Hornblower, not to mention plenty of other British productions that draw inspiration from the series. With that in mind, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower is certainly an interesting read, but different because it has no set plot other than these are some things that happened to Hornblower in his first year or so in the Navy. One of the main things a reader will notice about this is that there really aren’t any supporting characters to take on their personality. They are just names who drop in and out of the novel in each chapter/short story; they do not really have an identity, meaning that it is almost solely about Hornblower. And that is a good thing because it works superbly within the framework of the novel. It makes Hornblower and all of his various problems with himself all the more central to the story, so the reader is immersed in his world and spared being troubled by minor characters dominating the narrative.

Another area where Forester as an author succeeds with these novels is his skill in the narrative. One of the difficult things with Naval fiction is all the technical terms that are used, words the average reader will have no idea of. Forester is very good at explaining the meaning of something in understandable terms without it disrupting the story – he, unlike Patrick O’Brian, assumes the reader does not know how it all works, much like a young Hornblower would not, so it becomes readable and easy to follow once you get used to it.

As far as recommendations go, well, it’s hard. Naval fiction is obviously not for everyone. It can be a mouthful, and at times difficult to comprehend and understand with all the outdated technical terms. But at the same time the Hornblower novels manage to fly in the face of all the technical blustering and keep the reader entertained with a truly magnificent leading character as its star. That is why these novels remain so popular over half a century after their publication, and for that reason, if you have an interest in reading a novel of life at sea in the 18th and 19th century as Europe fought France, these are the best place to start.

7.5/10.