Post Captain by Patrick O’Brien (1972) 528 p.

Following the events of Master and Commander, a ceasefire has been declared. France and Britain are at peace. Returning from their successful cruise in the Mediterranean, Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin settle down in the English countryside and begin wooing the local girls: Sophia Williams, a sweet and good-natured woman straight from the pages of an Austen novel, and Diana Villiers, a fiery widow from British India who chafes against her social constraints and longs for freedom. (And that’s not respectively; there’s quite a love trapezoid going on.) Alas, Jack soon finds that his prize agent has absconded with his money, and he must go on the run to avoid debtor’s prison. Jack and Stephen soon find themselves in France, only to be forced underground once more as the brief peace treaty is broken and they are once again in hostile territory.

I would argue that I’m only about 60-70% sure of what’s going on in an Aubrey-Maturin novel, which is quite understandable during the long and complicated naval battle scenes; but even in Post Captain, which is at least half-set on land, I found myself puzzled by the social mores, customs and laws in place. Maybe if I’d had a proper British educational background in the history and literature of the 19th century I’d be better off. It helps that Jack himself is not quite up to speed with the finer points of debt law in Regency England, in which bailiffs must touch the fugitive with their staves to claim him, and in which there are certain safe areas, such as the Savoy Hotel or onboard a King’s ship. One of the finest moments in the story comes in a seaport when Jack escapes an attacking group of bailiffs by calling for his crew to defend him, and then orders the subdued bailiffs to be press-ganged onto his own vessel. (A close second is Stephen’s relaxed attitude to bringing a hive of bees onboard Jack’s ship during a long voyage.)

The other thing I find difficult, aside from the fact that (as I’ve mentioned before) these books feel like they very well could have been written in the time they’re set, is O’Brian’s sense of narrative structure, which flows into itself with little concession for breaks. Very often, for example, Jack will mention to somebody that he’s going to the Admiralty later that day, and the next line of dialogue will occur with Jack at the Admiralty speaking to somebody else entirely. That’s a sort of page structure I can’t remember seeing anywhere else. But there’s a reason I said “difficult” rather than “off-putting” or “irritating;” I respect an author who expects his readers to keep up, and makes no concessions to their lack of attention. The Aubrey-Maturin books are perfect in their own specific way, and somehow it would feel churlish of me to point out aspects of them which might not be to my liking.

In the same sense, I have to decline to say whether or not Post Captain is better than Master and Commander. It’s certainly different, with much of it set in England (I don’t think any of Master and Commander was), with much more in the way of romance and personal lives, a certain Austenian slant, and a definite suggestion, with the introduction of love interests, that O’Brian is beginning to set this story up for the long haul. Post Captain feels much more like the second chapter in a story rather than the second book in a series, and I suspect I’ll say that about most of these books.

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