Introduced to Patrick O’Brian by a friend, I was suspicious. Volume after volume of a boy’s own adventure—ships and sailors, battles on the high seas. Yes, there is that and it is extraordinary in his deft hands but O’Brian’s genius is in taking the Napoleonic Wars as an exoskeleton, holding within it the soft flesh of human frailty. The Guardian describes him as Jane Austen at sea.
I love his creation of Diana Villiers who embodies the period’s freedoms and strictures. She has money and a degree of independence but accepts the protection of powerful men when she needs them. She is frankly sexual and open in her preferences.
The friendship between Dr Maturin, the ship’s surgeon and also a spy, and Jack Aubrey, the captain, is complex and real in its different incarnations; they struggle with weakness and are sometimes estranged. Their needs are plain to each other, and to us; you can love, but often you cannot help.
Sharp and humorous dialogue fills the books. Nonchalantly explaining to Aubrey’s wife an event on a recent trip, Maturin says —
‘To be sure, he lost the rest of his ear in the Indiaman – but that was nothing.’
‘His ear!’, cried Sophie, turning white and coming to a dead halt….
‘Yes, his ear, right ear, or what there was left of it. But it was nothing. I sewed it on again, and as I say, if you had seen him last night, you would have been easy in your mind.’
‘What a good friend you are to him, Dr Maturin.’
‘I sew his ears on from time to time, sure.’
You can happily wallow in its technical detail of rigging, winds and navigation, or speed through to rejoin the narrative. You would be in good company. Maturin, on being furnished with a lengthy description of the ship’s features cries: ‘For God’s love, Jack, just point the ship in as near the right direction as ever you can and tell me about leeway afterwards.’
O’Brian’s lack of sentimentality is a cool shower on a humid day. Read them in sequence, beginning with Master & Commander and see if you’re not hooked.