Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Off to Sea

‘Come, sir, cannot I prevail upon you to go to sea? A man-of-war is the very thing for a philosopher, above all in the Mediterranean: there are the birds, the fishes—I could promise you some monstrous strange fishes—the natural phenomena, the meteors, the chance of prize-money…’

Lured by the call of deep-water adventures I have once more taken up the first book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series of historical novels, wherein the reader is swept up in life aboard an English sailing ship during the Napoleonic Wars. O’Brian and his books have been the subject here on a few other occasions, usually popping up about the time I begin another reading of the long series. With the thickness of pages involved some would call me obsessed, and it’s not a label I object to regarding the writing of Patrick O’Brian. The 6,500 pages of the complete Aubrey/Maturin series are with each reading richer and more satisfying. O’Brian’s popular roman-fleuve is gorgeously textured, an endlessly fascinating tale set among officers in the ward room and the men on the lower deck, the food, the floggings, the mysteries of the wind and the rigging, and the roar of broadsides as great ships close in battle.

The first novel, Master and Commander, was published in 1969 and the last complete novel in 1999. The twenty-first novel was left unfinished by O’Brian’s death in 2000, but published as is in 2004. The books were written and published in the chronological sequence of events they describe, beginning with Master and Commander in 1800 and carrying through to the final novels, set shortly after Waterloo. W.W. Norton & Company discovered the Aubrey/Maturin novels twenty years after their first British publication and for some reason their later editions were taken more seriously by critics, enjoing greater success. The novels sold over 400,000 copies in 1989-90, reaching over two million by 2000. Norton released the novels in e-book format in December of 2011.

To repeat a warning offered in an earlier post, more than one reader has complained that the abundance of puzzling nautical terms sets the head spinning, discouraging the reader. In defense, the words of Stephen Maturin, Captain Aubrey’s friend and ship’s doctor help explain how O’Brian took this problem to hand. Early in the first book, the doctor says, “No man could easily surpass me in ignorance of naval terms.” This ignorance is a continuing fount of humor throughout the books, but at the same time we laugh, it subtly aligns us with the character. Maturin’s ignorance about the workings of ships is reassurance to the reader, telling us we don’t have to know or remember the details.

As far as the language goes, O’Brian once commented, “Obviously, I have lived very much out of the world: I know little of post-modernity, post-structuralism, hard rock or rap, and I cannot write with much conviction about the contemporary scene.” But such considerations do not concern the reader; the writer’s narrative voice is contemporary with his setting. One critic has suggested that O’Brian’s naval officers would be at their ease speaking with the characters in a Jane Austen novel. The language transports us to another time and place in the sense that it seems to have been written there and then. In reading the Aubrey/Maturin series there is always the feeling that the writer is a contemporary of his characters, and the books not historical novels at all, but classic tales reinvented.

O’Brian shunned typewriters and word processors or computers, writing all of his books and stories by hand. For those of us curious about the author’s favorite pen, the answer remains clouded, but we can at least know that whatever the pen, O’Brian filled it with black cartridges. In the unfinished last novel, 21 there is the handwritten note, “If I go back to [illegible] I might look for pen-cartridges.” The handwritten manuscripts for eighteen of the Aubrey/Maturin novels have been acquired by Indiana University’s Lilly Library. Only two in the series—The Letter of Marque and Blue at the Mizzen—remain in private hands.


  1. The novels are wonderous things that immerse the reader into the sea-faring adventures of long ago. Like so many great books in stacks and on shelves, they wait for the next book in the series to be picked up and enjoyed. That I got the first 18 in paperback in pristine condition at a garage sale for 50 cents each is wonderous also.

  2. This is my routine summer reading: go through the series again, finding something new, savoring the friendship between Aubrey and Maturin, smiling at their less-than-smooth course with the women in their lives.

    Do you have the 5 volume set: I've heard that it is not well done. I'd like the books in hard-cover, and this seems like a compact way to do so.



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