Desolation Island by Patrick O’Brian (1978) 270 p.

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My friend Chris tree-changed out to the Victorian countryside a couple of years ago, his partner buying some acreage near Ballarat, and I visit them fairly often for a night or a weekend. I find it refreshing. Since I moved to Melbourne after university I’ve lived in a sequence of rathole sharehouses or my current rathole one-bedroom apartment, this of course being the first generation to have lower living standards than our parents: so, yes, it’s nice to go out to a roomy country house, a place where you can stretch out, drink red wine, sit by the fireplace. Chris was surprised when I mentioned how comfortable I felt out there; he only experiences that feeling when he and his partner go an hour up the road to stay at her parents’ farm. He proposed it was because the feeling stems from abrogating responsibility. When I’m at their place, they take care of everything; when he and his partner go to her parents’ place, her dad takes care of everything. You sink back into a semi-parental world; one which has some order and sense to it. I imagine this is also why, when my girlfriend drives home to Albury on some weekends, she still calls it “going home” despite having lived in Melbourne for seven years.

This is a close equivalent to how I feel, in literary terms, when working my way through the Aubrey-Maturin series. I can’t entirely explain why. Historical fiction has always been a comforting genre – certainly more so in the last few years, since climate change started spiralling out of control and the world started slouching back towards fascism – but the Aubrey-Maturin series most definitely has an ineffable sense of comfort. This seems entirely counter-intuitive for a series about bloody naval battles and the gruelling day-to-day life of the British Navy, yet here we are. I suppose it’s inherently romantic to read about a dashing sea captain who is best friends with a supremely intelligent naval surgeon/naturalist/spy. Possibly it’s because the lead characters are so immensely likeable, and a series of books is inherently a familiar and enjoyable thing to revisit; Philip Reeve compares the cabin of one of Jack Aubrey’s ships to Blandings Castle or 22B Baker Street.

But calling a series comfortable also suggests that it’s lightweight; an easy read. These books are anything but. The author O’Brian is most often compared to is Austen, and I’ve noted before that if I had to guess, I would have thought these books were actually written in the 19th century in which they’re set, rather than the 1970s and ’80s.

So, anyway: Desolation Island, book five of the series, and well slotted into a formula by now. Jack is home in England, spending his money on various idiotic investments, but Stephen’s espionage dealings have resulted in the necessity of transporting a captured female spy to the penal colony of New Holland (home sweet home). As Jack has also been ordered to head down to Sydney and sort out Bligh’s second unfortunate mutiny, the two missions are merged, and his new command the HMS Leopard finds itself with a consignment of convicts – and away we go!

There are two really tremendous setpieces in this book. The first is the Leopard’s flight through stormy Antarctic seas from a larger and more dangerous Dutch warship, the Waakzaamheid – a ship which, Jack is disturbed to realise, intends not to board and capture the Leopard but to sink her outright: effectively an act of mass murder, and unusual outside a fleet battle. But all is fair in love and war, and so the Leopard fires back in kind, and the two ships engage in a running chase, up and down enormous waves like a rollercoaster, the ships firing at each other from stern or bow respectively, since neither vessel can present its broadside to the waves; this necessitates the use of the captain’s cabin at the stern as a firing platform, and ends with half of it torn away and swamped with seawater, Jack injured and half-drowned and senseless, looking out the huge gap where his wall used to be at the point where he and his men have landed a lucky shot and brought down the Waakzaamheid’s foremast, sinking her:

The Leopard reached the crest. Green water blinded him. It cleared, and through the bloody haze running from his cloth he saw the vast breaking wave with the Waakzaamheid broadside on its curl, on her beam-ends, broached to. An enormous, momentary turmoil of black hull and white water, flying spars, rigging that streamed wild for a second, and then nothing at all but the great hill of green-grey with foam racing upon it.
“My God, oh my God,” he said. “Six hundred men.”

This battle (the first, apparently, that O’Brien invented outright rather than lifting from history, which is possibly also the reason it’s the first in the series that thrilled me rather than putting me to sleep with dreary exposition of naval tactics) is subsequently followed by a sequence, in calmer seas, where the Leopard is struck by an iceberg and slowly begins to founder. O’Brian brilliantly brings home the utter, dreadful horror of such an event: a thousand miles from even the edge of civilisation, at a time when the oceans hadn’t even been fully charted, an exhausted crew endlessly pumping water out of the ship all through the night while others desperately try to repair the damage and jettison what wasn’t already thrown overboard during the flight from the Dutchman – and all the while a good part of the crew insisting that the ship is doomed, that they should take to the open boats and make for South Africa, more than a thousand miles away, a strain of panic beginning to run through a divided ship.

Jack was awake, grey but alive, with Killick’s good breakfast dispelling the cold, when Grant came to him, reported the water over the top of the well and gaining fast, and the parting of the new fothering-sail at the dews. “So there we are, sir. We have done all we can by the ship. We cannot pass a new sail before she settles. Shall I provision the boats? I presume you will go in the launch.”
“I do not intend leaving the ship, Mr Grant.”
“She is sinking under us, sir.”
“I am not sure of that. We may save her yet – fother the leak – fashion a rudder with a spare topmast.”
“Sir, the hands have wrought hard, very hard, ever since the moment we struck. We cannot in honesty give them any more hope. And if I may speak plain, I doubt they would come to their duty, with the water deep in the orlop. I doubt they would still obey orders.”
“Would you still obey orders, Mr Grant?” asked Jack with a smile.
“I will obey orders, sir,” said Grant, deadly earnest. “No man shall ever accuse me of mutiny. All lawful orders. But, sir, is it lawful to order men to their death with no enemy at hand, no battle? I respect your decision to stay with your ship, but I beg you to consider those of another way of thinking. I believe the ship must founder. I believe the boats can reach the Cape.”

This is apparently based on a real event, the tale of the HMS Guardian, which struck an iceberg on Christmas Eve in 1789. Spoiler alert: the boats did not reach the Cape. This is the power of O’Brian’s prose: I read that Wikipedia article, I read the phrase “a wall of ice higher than the ship’s masts slid by along the side,” with a real sense of horror, but of course that was purely because I’d already read the whole gripping sequence of the foundering ship in Desolation Island. It may have been 200 years ago, but these were real people – real human beings – who died cold and lonely and frightening deaths in dark seas a thousand miles away from home.

What was that I was saying about a comfortable read? But it is – because it’s not just the exquisitely realised horror, it’s the beauty, too. The smaller moments, like when a blue whale surfaces alongside the ship to Stephen’s delight:

As the wind was biting through his fourth waistcoat and comforter, he was rewarded by what appeared to be the sea-bed rising to the surface right by the ship, a vast dark area that grew clearer and clearer until it assumed the form of a whale. But a whale of unspeakable dimensions: still it rose, unhurried, and as he stared, holding his breath, the sea rounded in a smooth boil – the surface parted – the creature’s streaming back appeared, dark blue-grey just flecked with white, stretching from the fore to the mizen-chains. The head rose higher still and expired a rushing jet of air that instantly condensed in a plume as tall as the foretop and floated over the Leopard’s bowsprit: and at the same moment Stephen himself breathed out. He believed he heard the hissing inspiration just before the head sank and the enormous bulk slid over in an easy, leisurely motion; a dorsal fin appeared, far back; a hint of the flukes themselves, and the sea closed softly over Leviathan; but his hurry of spirits was so great that he could not be sure.

We’ve all seen skeletons or life-size blue whale models on primary school trips to maritime museums. Big deal. But the beauty of O’Brian’s prose is that he can put you right there, in Stephen’s shoes, and make you realise what a spine-tingling, thrilling moment it would be, for a European, so far from home, so close to death, on a crippled ship in frigid foreign seas, to suddenly witness something like that emerge – as large as the ship – just there for a moment – and then, like a dream, gone. It takes you back to a time when there was still so much mystery and wonder in the world.

These, I think, are some of the reasons people adore these books. I wouldn’t say I adore them myself, just yet – I’m averaging one every eight months or so, and they can be heavy going sometimes – but I can understand why others do, and see how I would come to. There is something immensely pleasing about regularly visiting this world and these characters that O’Brian so meticulously crafted.

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