Sunday, February 14, 2010

Dubious Dinner Partners

Reading Patrick O’Brian today, I came upon a passage that, while not especially significant to the whole, gives an excellent sense of the writer’s facility with words, and a small sample of his humor. I’ve been sitting these last few minutes thinking about how I can best offer up this snippet of O’Brian’s prose without offending the female half of my readers. Where is the danger in that, you may wonder. Excerpts can be misleading since they preclude a full understanding of the characters and the situation. Certainly the writing of O’Brian is cultured (exceedingly so), old-fashioned and not by any stretch designed to offend. Nonetheless, it is possible to get the wrong idea about his characters from isolated examples of their conversation. So, let me set it up in a fair manner, explaining the background of the chosen excerpt.

The speakers are Captain Jack Aubrey, commanding the warship, HMS Surprise, and his good friend, Stephen Maturin, the ship’s doctor. The time is the early 19th century (1804-06) and the place is southeast of India, somewhere in the Indian Ocean, aboard the Surprise. This exchange between the two follows a sumptuous dinner aboard a passing East India merchant ship. A hint of warning—though it could be interpreted erroneously, neither Aubrey or Maturin fit the description of a misogynist.

From Patrick O’Brian’s HMS Surprise, third volume in the Aubrey/Maturin series; Chapter Nine, pages 278-79 (Norton paperback edition, 1991).

Aubrey speaks first…

‘… A most capital dinner, upon my word. The duck was the best I have ever tasted.’

‘I was sorry to see you help yourself to him a fourth time: duck is a melancholy meat. In any case the rich sauce in which it bathed was not at all the thing for a subject of your corpulence. Apoplexy lurks in dishes of that kind. I signalled to you, but you did not attend.’

‘Is that why you were looking so mumchance?’

‘I was displeased with my neighbours, too.’

The nymphs in green? Delightful girls.’

‘It is clear you have been a great while at sea, to call those sandy-haired coarse-featured pimply short-necked thick-fingered vulgar-minded lubricious blockheads by such a name. Nymphs, forsooth. If they were nymphs, they must have had their being in a tolerably rank and stagnant pool: the wench on my left had an ill breath, and turning for relief I found her sister had a worse; and the upper garment of neither was free from reproach. Worse lay below, I make no doubt. “La, sister,” cries the one to the other, beaming across me—vile teeth; and “La, sister,” cries the other. I have no notion of two sisters wearing the same clothes, the same flaunting meretricious gawds, the same tortured Gorgon curls low over their brutish criminal foreheads; it bespeaks a superfetation of vulgarity, both innate and studiously acquired. And when I think that their teeming loins will people the East…Pray pour me out another cup of coffee. Confident brutes.’

… ‘Well, and so you did not altogether like them, I collect? I am sorry for it. My neighbour and I agreed wonderfully well…’

Brief, but with spice enough.

For anyone interested in some earlier comments about O’Brian and the Aubrey/Maturin series, take a look at my earlier post of January 31, Loaded to the Gunwales.


  1. Being addicted to both O'Brian and The Bean, I started counting references to the word "coffee" in each of the books as I read through. A Christmas present of Lobscouse & Spotted Dog disclosed that the two author sisters counted 486 times through book 18, excluding such phrases as coffee-houses and coffee-rooms. It is coffee that triggers this pithy and funny exchange:
    "...This coffee has a damned odd taste."

    "This I attribute to the excrement of rats. Rats have eaten our entire stock; and I take the present brew to be a mixture of the scrapings of the bottom of the sack."

    "I thought it had a familar tang," said Jack. "Killick, you may tell Mr. Seymour, with my compliments, that you are to have a boat. And if you don't find at least a stone of beans among the squadron, you need not come back..."

  2. Opps. The above was from The Mauritius Command.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America