Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian (1969) 403 p.
Even amongst keen readers like myself, I wouldn’t be surprised if most people originally heard of these books through the 2003 Peter Weir film adaptation Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, starring Russell Crowe. That was how I first encountered it, and I have to say I quite like it – it’s one of those movies nobody would ever nominate as particularly great, or their favourite, but it’s nonetheless fun and enjoyable and sort of perfect by its own little standard. A good movie to watch on a plane, if you will. Ever since then I’ve noticed that the books have a strong following amongst a surprisingly diverse array of writers and readers, and nobody ever seems to have a bad thing to say about them.
Despite the film’s title the books are not actually known as “the Master and Commander series;” they go by the rather more awkward moniker of “the Aubrey-Maturin series,” after the two principal characters: Jack Aubrey, captain in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy, and Stephen Maturin, an Irish-Catalan physician, naturalist and secret revolutionary. Master and Commander, the first novel, begins on Minorca in the spring of 1800, as the two meet at a classical music performance at Government House, and get off on the wrong foot as Maturin repeatedly complains about Jack tapping his knee half a beat ahead of the musicians. Returning to his quarters Jack discovers a letter which grants him his first commission as ship’s captain, and is so delighted that when he later runs into Maturin on the street, he puts aside their argument and invites him to dinner to celebrate. It transpires that Jack’s new vessel, the Sophie, is lacking a surgeon, and so he invites Stephen to take up a position aboard. And thus a great friendship is born.
These are naval historical novels. There’s no getting around that. Did you know that in the early 19th century, as the Age of Sail was drawing to a close and the Industrial Revolution was about to begin, a square-rigged sailing ship such as the Sophie was the most complex machine yet invented by mankind? Patrick O’Brian did, and he wants to tell you about it. He takes us through the rigging and the manoeuvres and the battles and the naval administration with as much care and attention as certain other types of middle-aged English men give to steam trains or the battle logistics of WWII.
I don’t mean to make fun; obviously there are plenty of people out there interested in that sort of thing. There is absolutely no doubting O’Brian’s command of the subject, his sheer skill and insight, but your devotion to it may not be as great as his own. Certainly mine wasn’t; as much as I appreciated watching a master at work in his chosen field, I often found my eyes glazing over, like a poet at the Super Bowl. The numerous battle scenes, in particular, failed to stoke my blood in the way O’Brian doubtless intended them to. Stephen is as clueless at sea as the rest of us, and serves as a very-much intended reader surrogate during long explanations about how the ship works – but that nonetheless leaves you reading long explanations about how the ship works. And for Christ’s sake, a glossary appendix wouldn’t have gone astray, not just for all the ropes and spars and fiddly bits but for the confusing array of ranks and titles: midshipman, post-captain, landsman, loblolly boy, and so forth.
Nonetheless, O’Brian’s a very good writer: not a beautiful lyricist or a Nobel Prize contender, but a writer who perfectly captured the tone of his setting. Master and Commander was published in 1969, but I had to look that up before I wrote this review. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that it was written anywhere between 1850 and 2000. I’ve seen his style compared to Jane Austen’s, and while I don’t recall much of the Pride and Prejudice we were force-fed in high school (and which I really must revisit one of these days), that sounds about right.
I don’t think you have to be interested in navy ships and battles to be attracted to this book, and therefore this series. A great appeal to me was the exoticism, the travel, the sense of adventure. The Sophie criss-crosses the Mediterranean from the sands of Egypt to the Rock of Gibraltar, and O’Brian does great work in evoking the fragrant scents of the classical realm of antiquity: Barcelona, Palermo, Malta, Valencia. Olive oil and palm trees, Madeira wine and Greek sponges. There’s another nineteen of the books to go, and a big wide world to explore – one hardy soul is mapping it all out.
The glue that really binds this story together is the unlikely friendship between Jack and Stephen. Jack is a big, bluff, loyal, straightforward Tory, who serves his King and country and his own glory in equal measure; Stephen is a smart, shrewd renaissance man, an adventurer, a former Irish revolutionary with a more nuanced view of the world than Jack. He is also charmingly penniless; one of my favourite parts is the first viewpoint scene we get from him, after he’s known Jack for a few days and given him no reason to believe he’s not a respectable citizen, when he wakes up from a night spent sleeping in a ruined chapel outside Port Mahon and eats a piece of beef he put in his pocket at last night’s dinner, which Jack was paying for, because he’s literally homeless. I also quite liked the fact that Stephen is a brilliant doctor, and yet, because he is a product of his age, has no idea whatsoever about germs – towards the end of the novel he slices himself a side of beef with the same knife he’s using to dissect a dead dolphin.
This is why I can get behind Patrick O’Brian: a boyish sense of adventure, a realistic sense of time and place which revels in the glories of the age without rose-tinting them, and a well-drawn friendship between two interesting characters. It seems strange to be endorsing a novel in which I can fairly say that at least 40% of the text went straight over my head, but there you go. I’m not rushing out to buy them all at once, but I can certainly see myself reading the next nineteen books over the next four or five years.