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Patrick O'Brian

Master and Commander

Category: Fiction | Published: 1969 | Review Added: 17-09-2017

Rating: 4 - A top read

Patrick O'Brian wrote twenty novels featuring Jack Aubrey, an English sea captain in the Napoleonic Wars, and his ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin. The novels were slow to find a readership, but are now widely regarded as among the best historical novels in the English language.

On the evidence of Master and Commander, the first of the novels, their early lack of impact is not surprising. O'Brian did not want to write page-turners, but high-quality works of literature that expressed in fictional form a personal obsession with early nineteenth-century seafaring, and a fascination with the interplay of personality and action. By his own account, O'Brian pored over first-hand descriptions of Mediterranean sea battles from the period, before incorporating their detail, in many cases unchanged, into his novels. Aubrey and Maturin are fictional, but O'Brian insists in the Introduction to this work that the action takes place "within a context of general historical accuracy".

The author's demand for authenticity means that the reader is spared nothing in the technical descriptions of life on board Aubrey's ship, the Sophie. If the phrase "I think we must rig a tub if we are not to have an itchy ship" does not evoke anything for you, be warned that there's much more where that comes from. A seafaring glossary would have been of great benefit in this novel, but I suspect it would have been beneath O'Brian to write one. This leaves the reader with two choices: be reaching for a dictionary 3 or 4 times on every page, or skim the technical detail in the hope that you're getting the gist. I opted for the latter approach (figuring that even if I visualised everything correctly, I'd remember very little in any case).

To the non-seafaring reader, the thick nautical terminology imparts less useful information than narrative flavour - and perhaps this is deliberate. Nonetheless, I wonder if this aspect of the novel might have been better handled. So dense are the descriptions of the ship's manoeuvres that basic information such as which way she is heading, and whether she is sailing before or behind the enemy ships, is hard to pick out, and it was more than I cared to do to backtrack and find if I'd missed something, or if O'Brian had. In less technical areas too, continuity is sometimes weak. (Halfway through a conversation between Aubrey and Maturin, reference is made to the instruments they have been, unbeknownst to the reader, playing all the while.)

The novel's greatest success, for me, was the depth of its characterisation. Alongside the the story of the Sophie's adventures, there run subtle character studies of Aubrey, Maturin and a handful of other individuals. Aubrey is a bluff, hearty Englishman, intuitive and audacious in matters of the sea, but obtuse and sometimes dangerously impulsive in human affairs. Maturin is almost his opposite: half-Irish and half-Catalan, he is reserved, shrewd and observant, an obsessive cataloguer of both natural phenomena and, in his diaries, human behaviour. Never one to lose himself to his emotions, he remains something of an enigma all the way through the story. The two characters meet at a chamber music concert in Minorca in the first pages of the novel. In a superlative piece of character exposition, the overweight Aubrey's enthusiastic beating time to the music provokes the highly-strung Maturin, seated next to him, to an irritated outburst that stops just short of resulting in a challenge to a duel. In fact, they become friends and confidants (or at least, Maturin becomes Aubrey's confidant), brought together by a mutual love of music, and mutual need (Aubrey needs a surgeon for his first captaincy; Maturin, impoverished, desperately needs a job).

The narrative of Master and Commander centres on a sequence of sea battles, some mere skirmishes, others more significant. Interestingly, there is never much sense of history's course being altered: or, indeed, of history happening at all. None of the Sophie's crew are too interested in the reasons for the war against Napoleon, Aubrey's main motivation being hunger for battle and prize money. Both he and Maturin are intriguing combinations of moral and amoral qualities. (Maturin is a humanitarian with a morbid streak, that comes out in sarcastic comments and his disconcertingly cool-headed fascination with wounds and disease.)

How ultimately realistic a portrayal this novel offers of life in an early-nineteenth-century sailing ship is difficult to say. On the one hand, very little about it seems forced. The narrative prose is in modern English, but with a hint of formality appropriate to the period of the action. The speech, meanwhile, is entirely convincing English of the period; quite how O'Brian managed to filter out modern idioms is a matter for wonder, but he does. On the other hand, one wonders if O'Brian makes one concession to popular taste, in glamourising life on board a sailing ship. An obvious comparison is with the work of the real-life sailor Joseph Conrad. For all the death, disease and bloodshed, life on a ship is a rather jolly affair in O'Brian's novel, with everyone pulling together and good intentions usually winning out. Conrad's vision is more equivocal, his ships' crews often mismatched assortments of individuals all nursing private mental wounds, co-operating as a matter of necessity rather than with truly willing hearts. Perhaps just as Conrad was true to his vision, so O'Brian is true to his, more sanguine one. What both writers have in common is the ability to fire the reader's imagination.

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