The Letter of Marque by Patrick O’Brian (1988) 302 p.


It’s true that Jack Aubrey’s expulsion from His Majesty’s Navy at the conclusion of The Reverse of the Medal came about through no real fault of his own, and that for a man who has constructed his entire life and identity around his naval service this would be a terrible blow, even if deserved. His sour mood and self-pity nonetheless feel a little excessive, in my opinion. How many other men in his position would also shortly find themselves skippering their favourite former command, the frigate Surprise, coincidentally released from naval service and immediately bought and outfitted with their best friend’s recent windfall and, given Aubrey’s magnificent reputation, manned with the very best sailors and gunners available? ‘Lucky’ Jack Aubrey should count himself lucky indeed that he happens to be the protagonist of a series of naval adventure novels whose author is by no means finished with him.

The Letter of Marque is the first novel in the series which sees Jack acting as commander of a “private man-of-war” (a polite term for a privateer) and itching to chart a path back towards pardon and reinstatement. By the conclusion of the novel that return to grace is all but guaranteed, after a spectacularly successful cutting-out expedition and Aubrey’s further good fortune with the death of his trouble-making father resulting in his inheritance of a seat in Parliament. It’s clear that O’Brian intended for this not to be some permanent change in career path, but rather a brief aside; a unique episode in Aubrey’s life which, from the perspective of a historical fiction writer, serves as an examination of the privatised side of harassing enemy shipping, particularly the change in rules, organisation, etiquette and deference which result when Captain Aubrey is no longer a king’s officer.

It’s in this spirit that the series is perhaps beginning what Philip Reeve describes as its transformation from straight historical fiction to historical romance, in the 19th century meaning of the word “Romantic.” O’Brian’s world is as realistic as ever, but there’s a hint of Jack and Stephen becoming celebrities, of a kind, even outside the Royal Navy. After his father’s funeral, before his half-brother returns to school, the young lad asks Jack if he might have an autograph or a souvenir to show his peers; a little earlier, Jack is the guest of honour at a London dinner attended by extremely powerful men who all seem a little in awe of him. This sort of public adulation really did happen in the Nelsonic era, but along with Aubrey and Maturin’s ongoing immense luck, the rather pat resolution of Stephen and Diana’s schism, and the promise of another intercontinental sea voyage in the making (because Aubrey’s particular skills and desires happen to align with the Admiralty’s need for Stephen to be in certain places) all combine to create a sense that we are leaving the more realistic groundings of earlier books beyond the stern horizon, and looking forward to adventures in which our disbelief may have to be suspended a tad more than it was in the past.

I don’t mind any of that one jot. These books are as much a joy to read as ever. The cutting out expedition to the fictional French port of St Martin’s is one of O’Brian’s better battle scenes, as enemy officers on horseback rush down to the quay in the middle of the action and leap aboard the half-hijacked ship – in the ensuing melee, Jack is shot in the back, and thinks at the time that a horse has kicked him, remarking several days later to one of his officers:

“What did he do to you, sir?”
“Well, I am ashamed to say he took a pistol-ball out of the small of my back. It must have been when I turned to hail for more hands – thank God I did not. At the time I thought it was one of those vile screws that were capering about abaft the wheel.”
“Oh, sir, surely a horse would never have fired off a pistol?”

I also particularly liked this deadpan line, after Maturin takes his small boat out to an island in the bay where the Surprise is moored to inspect the local wildlife, and Jack then swims out to help him after observing the doctor has unwittingly let his boat become high and dry:

“…Stephen, have you forgot breakfast?”
“I have not. My mind has been toying with thoughts of coffee, stirabout, white pudding, bacon, toast, marmalade and more coffee, for some considerable time.”
“Yet you would never have had it until well after dinner, you know, because your boat is stranded and I doubt you could swim so far.”
“The sea has receded!” cried Stephen. “I am amazed.”
“They tell me it does so twice a day in these parts,” said Jack. “It is technically known as the tide.”

(Stephen is of course not this ignorant, merely easily distracted from practical matters, and his line about being amazed is the joking banter of close friends; O’Brian wryly reminds us that he grew up on “the Mediterranean, that unebbing sea.”)

And not a comedic line this time, but rather a beautiful description: a conversation Maturin has with a dinner guest who describes to him the sensation of flying in a hot-air balloon, something which has recently come to fascinate the doctor, and a passage which – like the encounter with a blue whale in frigid southern seas in Desolation Island – underscores once again how things we in the 21st century take for granted must have appeared truly marvellous to 19th century eyes:

Stephen devoted his whole attention to his right-hand neighbour, who had made an ascent, and a glorious ascent, at the time of the first enthusiasm before the war. He was too young and foolish, he said, to have recorded any of the technical details, but he did still retain that first vivid sense of astonishment, awe, wonder and delight when, after a slow, grey and anxious passage through mist, the balloon rose up into the sunlight: all below them and on every hand there were pure white mountains of cloud with billowing crests and pinnacles, and above a vast sky of a darker, far darker, purer blue than he had ever seen on earth. A totally different world, and one without any sound. The balloon rose faster in the sun – they could see their shadow on the sea of cloud – faster and faster. “Dear Lord,” he said, “I can see it now; how I wish I could describe it. That whole enormous jewel above, the extraordinary world below, and our fleeting trace upon it – the strangest feeling of intrusion.”

The Aubrey-Maturin series is entirely about the smaller moments. It’s what makes reviewing them so hard: few of them are self-contained as novels and nearly all of them, The Letter of Marque in particular, are heavily influenced by what has come before and what is yet to come. So I find myself again merely plucking out moments I enjoyed or admired, and leaving you with an exhortation to read the series. The Letter of Marque is perhaps one of its weaker entries, but only because it’s such a very high bar to clear. I still enjoyed every sentence of it.