Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Lure of O’Brian

Around the end of February I once more jumped into the Aubrey/Maturin series of novels by Patrick O’Brian. Like many other O’Brian fans, I have never grown tired over the years of returning to these books for another reading. There seems no end to the thrill and fascination of them, coming back to me each time as fresh as wet ink. It is a long series, but one so rich in period detail filled with colorful characters, history of the Napoleonic Wars and life aboard nineteenth century sailing ships, all composed in the nearest thing to perfect prose—it’s easily my choice for what to take to a deserted island. I finished another reading of Post Captain, the second book on Saturday.

Difficult to single out one particular aspect, but my greatest attraction to Patrick O’Brian’s books is probably the language. I well know that there are millions of readers who shy away from the kind of prose found in O’Brian, calling it archaic, difficult, affected and thick, and I offer no defense for that. I just happen to like it. There’s always something to make us laugh (or cringe) in the Aubrey/Maturin books and looking for a spicy example from Post Captain to share, I took a hint from another fan of the series. Here is a passage, a brief medical diagnosis. Dr Ramis is addressing his friend, Stephen Maturin…

‘You speak of loss of weight. But I find that you yourself are thin. Nay, cadaverous, if I may speak as one physician to another. You have a very ill breath; your hair, already meagre two years ago, is now extremely sparse; you belch frequently; your eyes are hollow and dim. This is not merely your ill-considered use of tobacco—a noxious substance that should be prohibited by government—and of laudanum. I should very much like to see your excrement.’

On another occasion Dr Maturin could give tit for tat, but in this case he merely assures his friend that he would be happy to oblige. And it is through the mouth of Stephen Maturin that O’Brian launches his most entertaining floods of humor. Another passage from Post Captain includes this exchange:

‘This is an ugly stretch of road, with all these disbanded soldiers turned loose. They made an attempt upon the mail not far from Aker’s Cross. Come, let me have your pistols. I thought as much: what is this?’

‘A teratoma,’ said Stephen sulkily.

‘What is a teratoma?’ asked Jack, holding the object in his hand. ‘A kind of grenado?’

‘It is an inward wen, a tumour: we find them, occasionally, in the abdominal cavity. Sometimes they contain long black hair, sometimes a set of teeth: this has both hair and teeth. It belonged to Mr Elkins of the City, an imminent cheesemonger. I prize it much.’

‘By God,’ cried Jack, thrusting it back into the holster and wiping his hand vehemently upon the horse, ‘I do wish you would leave people’s bellies alone. So, you have no pistols at all, I collect?’

‘If you wish to be absolute, no, I have not.’

Reading something recently about the origin of old expressions, I learned an interesting tidbit about the beginnings of the example, ‘pin-money.’ Some may not remember or be familiar with it, and without much thought I always supposed it referred to money set aside. Later in the day I was reading the O’Brian book and with what I suppose is serendipity, came across a passage wherein a gentleman is entrusting his female charges into Captain Aubrey’s care:

‘Oh, never mind them. They are only girls, you know—they can rough it—don’t put yourself out. Think what you will save them in pin-money…’

In the late Middle Ages, to remedy a pin shortage and the hoarding of pins, the British government passed a law allowing pin makers to sell their pins only on certain days of the year. On the specified days many women flocked to the shops to buy pins, many of them taking their carefully saved ‘pin money.’ At the time, pins were relatively expensive, but when prices dropped following industrialization of the pin making process, the expression ‘pin-money’ also got devalued and came to mean something along the lines of pocket money, or a small amount.

At least the delights in reading O’Brian are never a small amount.


  1. Good grief! Where do you find this stuff?
    You can keep your O'Brian; I've spent my pin money (.01 plus shipping) on The Uncommon Reader. Looking forward to it.

  2. Oh, I am sure the archiac language puts many readers off. But that language and the solidly drawn characters and the period details are part of what makes it fine literature. And the battle scenes only add to the thrill of glimpsing long ago times.


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