Monday, April 9, 2012

Review: MASTER AND COMMANDER by Patrick O'Brian

Well, I'm hooked. I'd heard about O'Brian's books for years and never thought they were for me - they sounded like the sort of thing men enjoyed and women sniffed at. But I was wrong. When will I learn?

First of all, I love a good adventure story. I love tales of derring-do. I am an Anglophile. I loved the movie MASTER AND COMMANDER with Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany as O'Brian's peripatetic duo, the very British, Captain Jack Aubrey and the Irishman, Dr. Stephen Maturin. (Probably the movie is the reason why I decided to read the book in the first place.)

So all these ducks in a row, I decided to read the first book in the long-running series, MASTER AND COMMANDER (which, by the way, is a totally different story - except for a couple of elements - than the movie). What's the worst that could happen? I wouldn't like it and I'd move on to something else.

Needless to say, that didn't happen. The book is quite remarkable. I loved it and immediately ordered the next two in the series, POST CAPTAIN and H.M.S. SURPRISE.  (Found two nice used trade paperbacks.)

We're back in the 19th century, Napoleon is hovering over Europe and we're sailing the seven seas looking for adventure and whatever comes our way.

Now I don't know a mizzen topgallant from a flying jib, but that didn't stop my enjoyment of the story. Most of the books come with a diagram of a 19th century sailing ship, so if you really want to, you can figure out what sail is which and spend time deciphering Captain's orders and the sailor's jargon. Half the time when action was under way with  incomprehensible orders flying about, it didn't really seem to matter whether I understood the lingo or not. I just used my imagination.

Patrick O'Brian (born Richard Patrick Russ) was an incredibly gifted writer, superb not only in the action sequences, but more importantly in quieter times when the day to day travails of 19th century seamanship are revealed. He is particularly good at establishing the friendship of Aubrey and Maturin, two very different men. Maturin knowing little of sailing life and Aubrey devoted to that very life - his main desire: being made Post Captain which is a higher level of command than Master and Commander. (Though Master and Commander sounds much more impressive to me.

In his forward to the book, Patrick O'Brian comments: When one is writing about the Royal Navy of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries it is difficult to avoid understatement; it is difficult to do full justice to one's subject; for so very often the improbable reality outruns fiction.

War with Spain and France was on-going and any Spanish or French ship on the horizon was potential for capturing a prize and enriching the Captain's pocket, not to mention the common seamen on board. This was ship to ship battle, man to man, eyeball to eyeball, musket to musket, pick-ax to sword. It was all about cunning and valor, brilliance and stupidity, and very often institutionalized cruelty. But at the root of it all, honor among honorable men saved the day, not to mention, accompanying good manners and a definite sang froid which I am convinced, only men can achieve.

In this first book we are aboard His Majesty's sloop Sophie, recently (and unexpectedly) given over to Captain's Aubrey's command. Though it's not a huge 36 gun frigate, it will do quite nicely enough and Captain Jack soon racks up several prizes and earns the nickname, "Lucky Jack" Aubrey.

Still, that doesn't protect him from his enemies on land, especially one Captain Harte whose wife just happens to be Jack's mistress. Oh well, all is fair and love and war and the funny thing is no one thinks any the less of Aubrey for taking up with a married woman, though the woman isn't looked at with the same equanimity.

While on board ship the friendship between Aubrey and Maturin deepens as the good doctor must learn to accommodate himself to the harsh shipboard realities, a reality which the sailors (many of them 'pressed' men, several Africans among them) seem to take in their stride -  floggings to deter all manner of bad behavior including drunkenness which wasn't helped much by the daily measure of rum handed out to every man.

I did enjoy learning about the subtleties of leadership, i.e. what makes a good captain, what ill-bred, ill-used, uneducated men will and won't respect and just how chancy were the lives of 19th century sailors and their leaders. Also discovered that a man could be hung for buggering a goat. Chancy, indeed.

Learning that many ships never even carried a doctor on board was mind-boggling. Not that 'doctoring' was any great shakes at this point in history, what with 'bleedings' still regularly carried out as a 'preventitive' or cure-all. Though Dr. Maturin does have enough skill to operate on a man with an ugly head wound and bring back a boy thought dead by drowning.

But on the whole, life on the high seas then was all very hit or miss - the only thing holding everything together, I'm convinced, was strict adherence to naval law and the common goal of defeating Napoleon.

England did expect every man to do his duty and most of them did.

A fabulous book.


  1. Interesting review, Yvette, especially since I only knew of the novels from the movies. I love a good sea adventure (being a Sabatini dfan). Any thoughts on why they changed the first book's plot for the movie?

  2. Yvette: Your review brought back good memories of reading books in the series about 15 years ago.

  3. I love these books, Yvette. You will never be disappointed by them, though O'Brian was a real jerk. Never read a bio of him if you can help it. The movie was actually based on another, later book in the series, "The Far Side of the World," which I think was used in the movie's title, making things a bit confusing. Fabulous movie, fabulous series. And so many to read!

  4. So glad they come with your high recommendation! I have the first three on my TBR pile and I'm looking forward to reading them....they are with my pile of books titled "I Should Have Read This By Now."

  5. The great thing about books like this is that they flush out the atmosphere for all the historical events of the same time. Or another way of saying it, they add to our cultural literacy of the time.

  6. From what I can tell from the first novel, Rick, these will not be as romantically idealized as Sabatini's work (I love Sabatini as well) but O'Brian's novels are just as wonderful in their own way.

    I think you should give these a try. I am not well into the second book, POST CAPTAIN which, by the way, begins in a kind of Jane Austen sort of way very much on dry land where Aubrey is a bit of a fish out of water, though charming and gallant as usual. Why I waited this long to read these books is beyond me. I am not making up for lost time.

  7. That should read: I am making up for lost time. :)

  8. Thanks, Bill. Aren't these books wonderful? Jeez, what was I waiting for?

  9. Carol: I wonder if I'll get to read them all, but I'm sure going to give it a good try. Maybe I'll take a break now and then, but I am definitely hooked.

    Yeah, I heard stories about O'Brian. But then I read that some of the stuff about him was exagerated so who knows.

    Charles Dickens didn't treat his wife and kids very nicely either.

    It's a shame but sometimes genius strikes in the most unlikely places.

  10. Joanne, don't put it off any longer. As I mentioned, I'm well into the second book now and loving it.

  11. Oh absolutely, Mark. I'm convinced it wouldn't hurt to have these sorts of books assigned in school history classes.

    The funny thing is that I'm also reading the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik which is set during exactly this time but it's a fantasy series with Napoleon and the Brits both having squadrons of dragons to aid in the fighting at sea and over land. So I'm coming at it from two directions.

    Enjoying the heck out of both of these series.

  12. I talked about the movie (which I absolutely loved) with a doctor I work with who had read many of the books. She told me that the movie somewhat captured the flavor of the books, but they are much denser and richer. Then I said I read soemwhere that the books were described as "Jane Austen on ships" due to the emphasis on the social relationships between officers and sailors in the extremely heirarchical world of the British Navy. The doctor said that was a perfect analogy. Did you find this book less an adventure novel and more a nautical novel of manners, so to speak?

  13. I'm always amazed when people report that they hated history lessons, but then they always add that there was such an emphasis on dates. I've always thought that you could hook just about anybody on history by centering the lessons on famous personalities.

  14. Definitely NOT the first book, John. That is rip-roaring sea-going adventure almost from start to finish. But it's so exciting, such a vivid world, that it's hard to put down even if, like me, you didn't know half the time which sail was which. LOTS of sailing jargon. But eventually it all makes some sense and your imagination takes up the rest.

    Now, in the second book, I'd say yes lots more of what you'd call Jane Austen mixed in but part of the book takes place on land so that could account for it.

    The way that the men speak to each other is quite intriguing since English was still rather flowery then. I also was intrigued to learn that duelling was still in effect. The workding of it is interesting. For instance if a man felt insulted, he would ask for an 'explanation' of the implied or direct insult. That meant, meet me on the downs at midnight and bring
    your sword or gun or whatnot.

    Also Maturin regularly calls Aubrey, 'my dear' meaning just close friend.

    But all the 'fine' language doesn't soften the harshness of the sea going life.

  15. I am in total agreement with you, Mark. Also, I can't understand why school systems don't take advantage of PBS documentaries. i.e. Ken Burns' Civil War, that sort of thing.

    It is the perfect way to get kids interested in the past.


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