Monday, July 18, 2011

2,556: Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian

When I was younger, I read and thoroughly enjoyed the Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell, a cycle of books following the career of Richard Sharpe, a working class lad who starts his military career as a private in Britain’s Napoleonic-era army and ends up as a Lieutenant Colonel at the Battle of Waterloo.  The series managed to combine classic action-packed historical fiction with an emphasis on the character of Sharpe and his circle and the struggles he faced in the rigid class system of the time.

I recommended the series to my father, who ate them up but, when he returned the favour by recommending Patrick O’Brian’s  Aubrey and Maturin series, I issued a firm nolle prosequi and decided that they were going to be just like the Hornblower series, full of ships and, therefore, not for me.

A couple of weeks ago, however, I was ambling languidly through the latest posts by some of my favourite bloggers when I came across a review of Master and Commander, the first in the series, by Alex at the Sleepless Reader.  As the book had received a big thumbs up from Alex and as they were already in my mind from a recent visit to my parents’ house for Sunday lunch, where the complete set still resides in my father’s study, I prodded the screen a few times on my iPod Amazon app and a couple of days later, a spanking new copy of Master and Commander arrived.

The backdrop to the Aubrey and Maturin series is the Napoleonic-era Royal Navy.  Captain Jack Aubrey is a bluff naval officer who, at the beginning of the story, is granted his first captaincy, being given command of a sloop, the Sophie.  Stephen Maturin is an Irish-Catalan doctor, a dark, slightly mysterious individual, who meets Aubrey by accident at a musical soirée.  The two rapidly become friends and Maturin agrees to become the ship’s doctor of the Sophie.

Although the novel is ostensibly about the naval tour of the Mediterranean that Aubrey and his Sophies take and Aubrey’s struggle for cash and honours in the face of Captain Harte, Aubrey’s superior, with whose wife Aubrey is having an affair, in reality, it is a character-driven affair, centring on the friendship between Aubrey and Maturin.  In fact, I would go as far as to say that the plot, which is really a succession of sea chases and battles, interspersed with examples of Aubrey’s propensity to behave badly on land, is of relatively little importance.

The first thing that leaped out at me from the book was the sheer amount of research that O’Brian must have carried out.  The level of detail on every aspect of early 19th Century naval life is astonishing.  The book simply drips with authenticity in terms of description, naval terminology, battle tactics and even speech patterns – the book reads as if a 19th Century author could have written it.  Of course, most of this I have to take on trust as I am certainly no expert but it has a real feel of accuracy and I am sure critics would have pounced if there had been material inaccuracies.

At times, the accuracy and amount of learning threatens to act as a drag on the book.  The detailed descriptions of sailing techniques can be baffling and I have to confess that, at times, I gave up the struggle and just allowed myself to be carried along on an impressionistic wave.  It’s a credit to O’Brian that the detail doesn’t overwhelm the book.

O’Brian has often been compared to Jane Austen, one of his favourite writers.  As I have not (yet!) read any Austen, I can’t comment on this but James R. Simmons, an English Literature professor who has written on 19th Century literature described O’Brian’s work as a “thirty year homage to Jane Austen” and Time magazine once said, “If Jane Austen had written rousing sea yarns, she would have produced something very close to the prose of Patrick O’Brian.”

Whatever the truth of this, there is depth of character and meaning in Master and Commander that lifts it out of the realms of standard action-based historical fiction.  There are 19 and a bit (the last volume in the series is incomplete) more books in the series in which the friendship between Aubrey and Maturin will develop and in which many of the characters already introduced will feature.

Alex began her post by declaring her love for Master and Commander so I will book-end her by declaring mine at the end of this post.  And, also by apologising to my father for, once again, having failed to recognise and accept his good advice.  I would say that it won’t happen again but, let’s face it, it probably will.


Alex (The Sleepless Reader) said...

I'm so glad you also liked it! Good point about the plot - for a book about war and naval exploits, those remain surprisingly on the background.

Post Captain arrived last week in the post and I'm looking forward to see how Jack and Stephen fair as country gentlemen.

Falaise said...

Alex - I've got Post Captain sitting on the book pile on my desk but I don't think I'm going to get to it for a while yet!

Sarah M said...

I read this a long time ago and while I enjoyed the story, I found the amount of naval detail overwhleming. As such, I could never bring myself to read the rest of the series.

Falaise said...

Sarah - I can completely see your point of view. I've quickly developed a technique of surfing over the more convoluted descriptions, unless they seem crucial to the plot.