The Reverse of the Medal by Patrick O’Brian (1986) 267 p.

reverse of the medal

We can glean from O’Brian’s foreword, which I avoided reading too closely, that this will be a book which once again cleaves close to the true-life story of Lord Thomas Cochrane by entangling Jack in a financial scandal. Jack’s poor financial sense has thus far been employed by O’Brian as a device to keep him at sea, still searching for prizes and career glory, because by all rights a captain as successful as he is should be an admiral behind a desk by now; but of course that wouldn’t be much fun to read about. It’s therefore something of a surprise (to those of us not particularly well-versed on Cochrane’s biography, or those of us who have declined to read about him to avoid Aubrey-Maturin spoilers) when this particular financial scandal turns out to very seriously threaten Jack’s career. It’s similar to a scene in the last book, The Far Side of the World, in which Stephen yet again falls into the drink but this time does so in a manner which is not mere comic relief but a genuine threat to his life, and then to Jack’s, and leads on to an unexpected and quite memorable new story thread. They’re both very successful subversions of O’Brian’s own long-running plot devices.

I always enjoy Aubrey-Maturin books which are a little more land-based and this was no exception; there’s a chase across the Atlantic in the first act, and I was reminded (since The Far Side of the World was, I think, the first novel in the series with no naval engagements whatsoever) of how much I still struggle to really understand what’s going on in these sequences. O’Brian’s prose is always pleasurable to read, and I like the way he illuminates small character moments amid the action, such as Jack only half-listening to Maturin and Martin while he judges the change in the weather from the shift in the deck and the tilting of his wine. But for me it’s a relief when HMS Surprise returns to England and the remainder of the book plays out in London and Hampshire.

It’s also one of the first books I’ve noticed O’Brian airing what seem to be rather more personal views; he clearly has no love of lawyers, he was possibly successful enough as a writer by now that he makes a lot of comments about the effects of coming into a large fortune by way of a surrogate character who does the same, and he has a level of knowledge of cricket which suggests he certainly learned how to play it at school but probably, like Stephen (and myself), has little regard for it:

“You will never play all this afternoon and all tomorrow too, for God’s love?” cried Stephen, shocked out of civility by the thought of such insufferable tedium drawn out to such unconscionable length.

“He was at the same school as I, though of an earlier generation; he often came down to watch us, and once he told me that cricket was played regularly in Heaven; and that, from a man with his attainments, is surely a recommendation.”
“I must draw what comfort I can from the doctrine of Limbo.”

Several people mentioned to me before I read this one that it also contains one of the most emotionally affecting scenes in all twenty books, and they were right. It struck me that The Reverse of the Medal is a point where, had he so chosen, O’Brian could have appropriately ended the series: a huge display of respect and loyalty for Jack from what seems like half the Navy during a moment of crisis; Jack’s departure from the service and entry into the world of privateering; Stephen’s enemies in espionage exposed and about to be dealt with; the only unsatisfactory note would be Stephen’s unresolved relationship with Diana. Anyway, he kept on writing them, and we’re all very glad he did.