NOTES ON THE MASTER & COMMANDER SERIES
Compiled because these books have consumed me like no others. The notes below may sometimes read like criticism, but they are only as if observing that our beloved doesn’t share our preference in pizza toppings.
What accent does Stephen have? No one spots him as Irish, even to the extent of the Irish being insulted in his presence in Australia, Batavia and the US. Nor as Spanish or Catalan: “I must have spent more time in Catalonia than I did in Ireland”, M&C, p30; “He had spent much of his childhood and youth in Spain”, Nutmeg, p121; “Catalan, the language he had spoken most of his youth” Post Captain, Chapter 3; “welcome to my land. We are in Spain. That is my house below – we are at home” Post, Chap 4. All we know is that he “speaks perfect French with a southern accent” (Surgeon’s, p328). How did he pick up a (presumably) standard English accent?
POB overwhelmingly uses the the past tense for his story, as we’d expect, but the present tense sometimes intrudes in descriptions of matters that are buried just as deeply in history. For example, in M&C it is used to describe the way that sailors climb to the main top: “they cling to them and creep like flies... until they reach the rim of the top and so climb upon it”. During the loading of the Sophie with such out-dated materiel as hard-tack, round shot and casks of beef we are told: “Even a small vessel…needs a wonderful amount of stores.” In POB’s universe, we are supposedly reading the book after the events it describes but before the end of the age of sail. Perhaps he felt that a past tense for such matters would put a wedge between reader and narrative: we would be reminded constantly that the age of sail is long gone.
Is Stephen the best character in all literature?
He’s the best I know.
Is his friendship with Jack Aubrey the best in all literature?
It’s the best I know.
How much is POB influenced by CS Forester? They both borrow heavily from Cochrane, and feature a captain who almost always commands a frigate and is almost always engaged in single-ship actions. Some say there’s a wilful distancing, so that Jack is the opposite of Hornblower, who is dour and tin-eared. (Chap 12 of Post Captain reveals that J has met Cochrane.)
S often goes off to Ireland or Spain without us, and we see nothing of Jack’s parliamentary life. We don’t meet the mining projector who takes J’s money. We don’t see J producing his mathematical writings, and our nearest knowledge of S’s works is that he mostly writes ashore (p261 Nutmeg), that he slopes off in Wine-Dark to write “Some Remarks on...” (p289), and that he had unfinished manuscripts in his room at The Grapes (Commodore, p38). We never find out what happened to his parents.
Lots of anti-Scottish stuff. Stephen refers to “that Scotch love of a grievance”, and “Like some other Scots he knew, McLean seemed to labour under some sense of inferiority; and to labour rancorously. Strange: it could never occur to an Irishman.”
There are too many people on a ship for a novel to handle. We don’t notice this with reference to the ordinary seamen, but it’s odd when one of the senior men jumps out of the shadows: Jack exchanging words with his secretary, perhaps, or with the purser: important men who are just too numerous.
You should read the books in order: you get the story unfolding of course, but anyway the earlier ones are best, and can all be endlessly re-read, apart from the first half of Desolation Island – although the second half is excellent, including the scariest of all the naval engagements.
Having read the series 20-plus times, I skip Clarissa Oakes. For the first 100 pages, Blue at the Mizzen footles about between Gib, Madeira and England. For three-quarters of its length, The Ionian Mission seems like a treatise on futility: the French two-decker encountered in the Channel, Jack’s assignation with Mercedes, sailing back and forth past the moored Frenchmen, Stephen’s tramp in the marshes, the doomed pursuit of the French flotilla, until at last we begin the eponymous mission. Far Side has 16 pages of talk about whaling (p73), and the early pages of The Yellow Admiral (perhaps the weakest book in the series because of its abrupt and unsatisfying incidents) feature lectures on the enclosures, on the rules of prize-fighting, a 2½ page, one-paragraph account at second hand of the engagement with The Droits de l’Homme (p109), and a similar account of a battle involving the Eurotas.
Re-readers (though not readers) may also grow impatient with some of S and J’s adventures on land, especially when they seem so closely derived from research, such as their time in Australia in Nutmeg.
Ref. Diana’s mad relative in Post Captain:
“Another strange tale, which this time ended less happily for the heir presumptive, is that of the 3rd Earl of Darnley, an eccentric bachelor who suffered from the delusion that he was a teapot. In 1766, when he was nearly fifty and had held the family title and estates for almost twenty years, Lord Darnley suddenly and unexpectedly married; and between 1766 and his death in 1781, he fathered at least seven children, in spite of his initial alarm that his spout would come off in the night.”
The Pursuit of the Heiress, by A.P.W. Malcolmson
Lovely asides in Surgeon’s Mate: the anonymous couple holding hands in the prison in Paris and (perhaps a little obvious) the freckled schoolma’am.
Stephen says that Byron writes “excellent doggerel with flashes of brilliant poetry in it” (Treason’s Harbour, p117). Pretty fair, I think.
Here’s a 55-minute video interview with POB where, for example, he cites Fielding, Richardson and above all Jane Austen as influences on his style. He confirms that some of Mowett’s poems are from The Naval Chronicle “and some I improved on”. He says he spent a lot of time on square-rigged ships in the 1930s. (Hasn’t this been questioned?) Praises Forester for his action sequences but, “I won’t say more about him because I shall sound jealous or invidious.” Poor sound quality, tho.
And an interview with the Paris Review.
A devastating Guardian article about POB by his estranged son.
Black’s, the London club, is a stand-in for the real-life White’s, which still exists, complete with its bow window for inspecting passers-by.
It’s handy for POB to switch to the other POV for the dull bits, so that in Surgeon’s Mate we are with Stephen while Jack pulls the Minnie free and then navigates past the Skaw.
No explanation of how James Dillon in M&C manages to turn from Irish revolutionary in 1798 to a Navy lieutenant three years later.
“Incidentally” (M&C, p111); the only misjudged word in the series.
“Buonaparte” is spelt thus in a number of the books, this being Napoleon’s birth name before he changed it in his twenties to the more French-sounding “Bonaparte” .
On p121 of Desolation Island, “fucking” is spelt out; two pages later a dash is used in place of an obscenity that could hardly be worse.
The “cur-tailed” joke is very old, and attributed to Theodore Hook (1788–1841). Diana’s remark about the farting horse is also unoriginal; I’ve heard it attributed to many sources including the Queen.
Redundant uses of “even”, such as “hundreds and even thousands of men” (p193, Mauritius), and “he did not know that he was a traitor, nor did he even suspect it” (Far Side, p20); this latter could be simply “he did not suspect he was a traitor”.
“Stern sheets” is just the seat in the stern of a boat. Heel taps are the dregs left in a glass, allegedly because they’re similar in shape to the metal tags on the heel of a shoe.
POB usually refers to tons of water, but it’s “tun of water” in Fortune, p180; it’s the same thing, a tun being a volume of water that weighs a ton.
Remarkably few conversation in the series do not include S or J, either as participants or subjects. One is when seamen talk to the odabashi on p146 of Treason’s Harbour; and when army officers talk at the bottom of p205 of Mauritius; and the two doctors waiting to attend on Mrs Williams; and Pullings immediately before he spots Jack in the open boat in Wine-Dark.
During that conversation with the odabashi, there’s another of POB’s odd use of quotes around reported speech, one of the seamen asking him: “ ‘Did the odabashi speak English’ ” (p147); similar is the voice from the Grapes “asking ‘who it was’ ” (Post Captain, top of p459); And in The Commodore (Chapter 5) Stephen, after yet another ducking, is greeted with “the usual sea-going questions – ‘Was he hurt? Did he not know he must always keep one hand for himself and the other for the ship? Why had he not asked one of them to help him?’ ”; see also Reverse, top of p111. This retention of the grammatical forms of indirect speech inside the quotations marks of direct speech is seen also in Pride and Prejudice, and so might be a deliberate anachronism by POB. Likewise, POB once or twice uses old-style commas: “…first I must observe, that he and I…” (Letter of Marque, p170), just as P&P begins “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
POB likes to have S or J wandering through an empty house. This isn’t always integral to the plot: eg, one of Jack’s homecomings, and the time he enters The Crown in Mahon in Ionian Mission.
We feel superior to the characters in novels, and they're especially endearing when we see their private frailties; S excusing his laudanum, or looking at his tortured hands (“Left alone Stephen looked at his nail-less hand, flexed it with great complacency”; HMS Surprise), or J preening to hear Miss Smith saying he's handsome.
“Just when he reached his decision is not clear, but it must have been before the first dog-watch.” A rare refusal to enter Jack’s head in Desolation Island.
A builder’s rope hangs conveniently in HMS Surprise and Fortunes of War, athough not used in the latter.
Apt names: Admiral Haddock; Scriven, the jobbing hack; Roger Horehound for a corrupt official (p136, Reverse); Starveacre for a pitiful piece of Mrs Williams’ land (the term is used in its standard meaning on p291 of Nutmeg). After encountering a testy Maturin in Halifax harbour, an Admiral miscalls him “Saturin”.
In Master and Commander (p19) POB closes one paragraph with a quotation mark around a thought of J’s, and opens the next par with a quotation mark around a spoken comment of J’s, meanwhile having moved him to a different location, viz:
“Lord what a fine thing it is to play the great man once in a while.”
“Mr Baldick? . . . ”
The same thing (tho without the change of venue) happens with Stephen at the bottom of p175, and elsewhere in the series. On p87 of Reverse Jack says “…pass the word for the officer of the watch.” “Mr Allen…”; ie, there is a contiguous opening and closing of direct speech from the same individual within the same paragraph. This is so odd as to seem like a mistake.
The two women:
At the beginning of Post Captain, POB tells us rather than shows us the characters of Mrs Williams’s family. We don’t see this style elsewhere in the series. It’s Austenish of course; Mrs Williams is the hysteric with an excess of daughters and an obsession with marriage, just like Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, although with added malice.
We are told that Sophie is “capable of a sudden dart of sharpness, of a remark that showed more intelligence and reflection than would have been expected from her rudimentary education and her quiet provincial life”, and that she has an “occasional expression of secret amusement, the relish of something that she did not choose to share” (p22-23). But we see nothing of this in the books. We do see anger. She rows with Diana in an early book, and with Jack once or twice over Clarissa Oakes: Killick declares to Bonden (The Commodore, p172) that “nobody ever thought she had so much spirit or fury in her”, and we are for once shown a hint of this in a snappy exchange in the Yellow Admiral (p75-76). But generally she is remarkable only for her beauty, a quality that readers can only know at second hand. At the time of her marriage she has no notion of sex, despite an upbringing in the country. She calls herself “an ignorant country girl” (HMS Surprise, p192).
In HMS Surprise (p12), we have the longest insights into Sophie’s feelings towards Jack, notably how “Never was there anyone with whom she had had such fun.” But we never see this. When Jack writes to Sophie there are a few conventional endearments, but the letters are mostly (always?) used by POB to narrate some seaborne incident (eg, the refitting of the ships at the end of The Mauritius Command; p293); compare S’s wide-ranging chats with Diana. (The letters we read between S and his new beloved, Christine Wood, are likewise entirely naval; Blue at the Mizzen, p136.) However, Jack and Sophie share very charming scenes together at their house from p90 of Surgeon’s Mate, their mutual happiness very comfortable and convincing – at least until the arrival of the first letter from Miss Smith.
Diana the huntress: indeed, S calls her “the solitary huntress" in Surgeon's Mate; she is one of the great female characters in literature. Sophie is the archetypal blonde, Diana the brunette – passionate, promiscuous, dangerous, brave, impulsive. And beautiful (of course). Crucial to note that POB writes her out of the series towards the end of the very book in which she is introduced (Post Captain), Stephen definitively falling out of love with her when her physical grace becomes affected and flirtatious. But he is back in love in the next book, reasoning that she has a pagan purity that explains and justifies everything (HMS Surprise, p175), an echo of an earlier thought: “Surely style and grace beyond a certain point take the place of virtue – are virtue indeed?” (Post Captain, p79). The only thing that matters to us, of course, is that his love for Diana is credible.
(This falling out of love happens also in Fortunes of War because she is ill-humoured and humiliated in Boston because of Mr Johnson and Mrs Wogan: “He did not love Diana Villiers any more, and it was death to him” [p196]. But this reads like a mere plot twist.)
Diana is subject to the greatest act of brutality in the series: brutal but, as we’d expect, understated, reported at secondhand at the beginning of 100 Days and scarcely referred to thereafter. In the same book, there is an equivalent fate for Bonden, revealed in a phrase buried in the middle of a sentence (p263), and referred to only once more in the book. POB’s wife, Mary died in March 1998; Diana died between Yellow Admiral and 100 Days, which was published in 1998; was Mary ill while he wrote 100 Days?
In the afterword to Wine-Dark (p305), John Bayley says the two women “are as vigorously and subtly portrayed as the men”, but that they can’t work properly in the series because there’s no way of weaving together their lives and the lives of J and S at sea. Agreed, but also POB isn’t able to do much with them; Sophia is constrained by her home and family and is anyway placid; Diana, tho a wonderfully vigorous and complex character, has (as she so often complains) little independence, her movements being towards or away from men; indeed, over the course of the series we may balk at the convenient machinery that brings Diana and Stephen together in America, India, Paris, Sweden and – most startling of all – in Ireland at the end of The Commodore, though these coincidences aren’t jarring in the individual books.
“…whatever she might suppose, the ceremony that Diana and Stephen had passed through aboard HMS Oedipus was legally binding,” thinks Stephen in Reverse. But I’ve read somewhere that a Royal Navy captain could only perform a marriage if the vessel was more than 500 (or was it 600?) miles from land, which Oedipus on its voyage across the Channel certainly was not.
How subtle are POB’s hints to the reader, and what unreasonable pleasure we get in spotting them.
In HMS Surprise, after they sail away from Bombay, Stephen is distraught over the death of little Dil, but Jack thinks S is upset because of Diana; we are expected to notice for ourselves how Jack repeatedly declates that “salt water will wash it away”. As I write this, I’m reading Yellow Admiral for the dozenth time; for the first time I’ve noticed the social lie that Sir Joseph practices on Stephen on p12-13 and, at the bottom of p13, the cause of the lie – that Sir Joseph hates the din of children.
Sometimes the trust may be carried too far. I’ve often wondered when and how J and S cancelled their duel over Diana in Post Captain. We know why: because J saw her with Canning. But when was its ending declared? … And now, on the twentieth reading, I see it. On p387, their first time ashore after the triumph with the Fanciulla, they walk into the dunes (the place already discussed as a venue, and where S had practised his shooting) Stephen saying, “a little dell, a place I know, convenient in every way”; but it turns out to be the carriage to carry Jack secretly to London. So this is the resolution of the duel, with a tease of the reader so subtle that I missed it for years.
Sometimes he prefigures an action, and perhaps we are disappointed. In Nutmeg Stephen has a pointless wrangle with Killick about wearing the sword which he then uses to fight the obnoxious Army officer. In Wine-Dark, there are several references to the discomfort of salt-encrusted clothing (eg, Vidal tells Stephen, “The salt is devilish severe on the parts,” and Stephen himself likens his clothes to a penitential sackcloth), a thing never mentioned elsewhere in the series; then we learn of Martin’s delusions about VD.
Perhaps Clarissa Oakes and to a lesser extent Wine-Dark are dull because the Pacific is big and empty.
“Lucky” Jack Aubrey – not only because of his multiple opportunies to fight and his success in those fights, but perhaps also because POB has to acknowledge the improbabilities of his career, akin to the startling mayhem around Miss Marple.
Jack is regarded with awe by younger officers and with envy by the likes of Clonfort, but reckons that anyone would have been as successful with the same opportunities. Bonden, the nearest we can imagine to an honest broker, says he’s “the finest fighting captain in the fleet” (Desolation Island, p169).
How much of the pleasure is that the Brits win – the steady background knowledge of who won the War, and the individual victories for Jack and Britain? The giveaway is how I flinch from reading about the ugly failure of Clonfort’s battle in Mauritius Command.
Stephen seems closer to POB’s heart than J, his learning, physique and general outlook more in line with that of his creator – as is his secrecy and downright lying.
Unlike J he keeps a diary, tho its every appearance is preceded with haverings about how unsuitable this is in a spy; very suitable, tho, if you’re a novelist wanting to explore your favourite character. In Mauritius Command, he writes there that his use of laudanum is to allay a feeling of disgust, and he wonders how common is “disgust for oneself, for one’s fellows and for the whole process of living”, and says that his own seems to grow (p217).
Being a spy, why does he never use an assumed name?
“From his boyhood, Jack had been an open, friendly creature, expecting to like and be liked.” (Far Side, p54). “Jack Aubrey thoroughly enjoyed life; he was of a cheerful sanguine disposition, his liver and lights were in capital order, and unless the world was treating him very roughly indeed, which it did from time to time, he generally woke up feeling pleased and filled with a lively expectation of enjoying the day.” (p159, Far Side). He’s endearing, but not very challenging for a novelist, being delineated so often by his limitations – of wit, social understanding, learning. His mangling of the language is almost overdone: “gabardine swine” (though elsewhere he gets this term right). But there are mentions of hidden depths only revealed by his musical ability, which we’re told he generally keeps hidden so as not to embarrass S: “Jack certainly concealed his excellence when they were playing together, keeping to Stephen’s mediocre level.” (Commodore, p78). “In his own way he is the secret man of the world,” thinks Stephen (p79). So perhaps Jack is limited because he chooses to be.
Although Jack and Stephen “were almost as unlike as men could be, unlike in nationality, religion, education, size, shape, profession, habits of mind, they were united in a deep love of music, and many and many an evening had they played together”. (Ionian, p144)
S contemplates J’s “integrity” on p162 of 13-Gun: “in all the years Stephen had known him, he had never known him act a part”. The most complete account of S’s opinions of Jack starts on p147 of Mauritius, where he talks of J’s lack of role-playing and his “cheerful courage” like that of a lion. Jack is never recorded as being afraid, though he is shocked to see his Dutch pursuer close by at dawn in Desolation Island. Me too. Stephen is never afraid in battle, I think, tho maybe during his captivity in Paris: he confesses in Mauritius: “Every man would be a coward if he durst: it is true of most, I do believe, certainly of me.”
Cast an eye over one of the Ramage novels, and boggle at the difference between POB and Dudley Pope. This is the meaning of talent.
Lots of things for writers to envy in the books, including the fact that S and J become like our family and friends: we’re interested even when they’re doing nothing much – no great need for plots.
“You might almost be describing Mrs Villiers,” says Stephen in connection with Mrs Wogan in Desolation Island. Did POB originally envisage Diana as the American spy, and did he change his mind because it might make her participation in future books so awkward?
You might argue that the whole Wogan/Herapath story is meant as a comment on the Stephen/Diana relationship: two unpreposessing intellectuals in thrall to two dashing women. But what would such a comment serve? Surely POB’s exploration of the S/D relationship is adequate without this milk-and-water pair.
The more often I read Desolation, the more the first notion seems plausible.
Other books I’ve read a dozen times: The Maneaters of Kumaon, The Purple Cloud, Despatches, The Flashman series, the George Smiley series, The Ginger Man, Catch 22 (but I was young), Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Success.
“It was strange to see how quickly this progress took on the nature of ordinary existence … so that it seemed normal to all hands that they should travel endlessly over this infinite and wholly empty sea” (p153, HMS Surprise). One of POB’s favourite tropes (and even used of the imprisonment in Paris); so is tar dripping on to the deck, the tedium of dinner parties, the corruptions brought by age and power, cold water for blood stains, and how food improves our mood and thus undermines the notion of free will (“…nothing grieves me more than this dependence of the mind upon the body’s nutriment. It points to a base necessitarianism,” says S in Desolation Island, p271).
An enemy describes Jack as “that great fat yellow-haired post-captain…that red-faced ox” (Treason’s Harbour, p12). POB says he is big, blond and “rather fat” (M&C, p74); like Boris Johnson, then. (Interesting, POB’s “like so many sailors, Jack was rather fat”, as is the occasional “of course” in connection with some bit of naval arcana; POB claiming our agreement about a matter on which he knows we have no views.) In 100 Days, a young girl exclaims of Jack, “Oh, isn’t he beautiful,” (p6), and in M&C Diana says, “he is a handsome fellow”.
Stephen is indirectly described as, “a poor, short, bent, meagre, ill-looking little creature” (ibid, p82). “Stephen was a plain bastard at the best, sallow with odd pale eyes, sparse hair and meagre limbs and rather poor” (Fortune of War, p15); “a short, disagreeably plain man” (Desolation). In Post Captain, Stephen calls himself “a little ugly small man with no name and no fortune”. But Cissy in Post Captain says, “He really would be almost handsome if he held himself up.” The French secret service describes him as: “Five foot six, slight build, black hair, pale eyes, muddy complexion, three nails on the right hand torn out, both hands somewhat crippled: speaks perfect French with a southern accent” (Surgeon’s, p328).
I was surprised by the “black hair”, having vaguely expected it to be as pale and meagre as his flesh. And S’s face is usually a “lifeless olive brown” (Fortune, p173). We thus have the picture of a small, thin, balding Spaniard.
Stephen’s night landing in Spain in M&C is not explained until the next book, so POB must have already considered a second book, and identified S as a spy even tho there’s no other hint of it in M&C.
A good discussion of “Which it is” construction, used by so many of his working class characters:
The film of M&C is good, I think. A clever choice of lines and incidents from throughout the series, but also some neat additions: the man overboard who has to be cut loose, S in the Galapagos on the edge of an evolution theory, the Fr captain pretending to be the doctor, etc. Lots of good credible unobtrusive detail, too, such as (in the scenes of extreme cold) the man shivering on the head and charcoal burners swinging from the ceiling. The film also looks wonderful.
Startling that Paul Bettany (excellent) is taller than Jack and that the sturdy Bonden is a little ex-Hobbit (and even more startling that he is called “Mr” by Tom Pullings). But the big problem is that Russell Crowe plays Jack as just another hearty hero, without the endearing simplicities which make him interesting. But Killick is perfect.
The film has made little money, apparently, and there are no plans for a series.
Does anyone know why Jack “choked” while being asked about his past battles on the last line of p427 of Post Captain?
S’s recourse to religion is limited. It’s a consolation, a cheerer-upper, a sense of community in far-flung places, but his examinations of himself are hardly touched by it. However, he prays sincerely for Diana in the “bee hive cell” in Paris. (Surgeon’s, p344).
We can imagine him committing suicide (he prepares for this during that same Paris imprisonment), but he would not be driven there because of religion like the captain who shoots himself from guilt about killing Christians.
Jack often visits me and needs modern things explained: plane journeys fascinate him, and the shower. I never see Stephen; too intimidating.
Genre writing is easier because invention is expected only in incident. Literary novels at least aspire to a thoroughgoing originality, so in theory every word is up for questioning.
Others swear in the books but Stephen doesn’t, and Jack’s bad language is rare and is anyway blanked out. “He rarely swore, apart from an habitual damn or unmeaning blasphemy” (M&C, p307). “But you never do talk bawdy,” Stephen tells him (Ionian Mission, p39). Perhaps POB felt that it might drive a wedge between them and the reader.
POB, though, has a taste for smut. Early in M&C, J mistakes putain (prostitute) for patois and there is mention of a cunt splice (in modern maritime speech it’s bowdlerised to “cut splice”), and throughout the series there are random bawdy asides, such as the place name Swiving Monachorum. Jack’s misunderstanding of Ganymede (in 13-Gun?) is so long and toiling that it recalls a Carry On film.
Cacafuego (shitfire), the ship captured by Jack in M&C, might seem to belong in this company, and indeed in contemporary slang it meant a braggard: but in fact it’s attested as far back as a Spanish treasure galleon taken by Francis Drake in 1579.
A sentimental, simplifying view of seamen.
There’s the odd mention of “hard cases”, and plenty of warnings about “not topping it the knob”, but these issues are never demonstrated, so that the only downright nastiness is during the evacuation of the Leopard in Desolation Island. (I suppose that the rebellious talk from men ashore in Gibraltar in Blue at the Mizzen might also qualify because it’s upsetting to Jack, but it seems pretty reasonable to modern ears.) Of the time when he was punished by being sent before the mast, Jack says, “My messmates on the lower deck were as kind as could be, except for one” (Nutmeg, p95); compare the treatment of the clergyman fallen among the sailors in Rites of Passage (Golding was ex-Navy, of course). Overwhelmingly, seamen are shown as brave, resourceful and uncomplaining.
All this is of a piece with the respect they show to J, so that the books show an acceptance of the social contract, even though that contract involves an extreme disparity in privilege. A captain who breaks that contract can indeed be murdered by his men as in Mauritius Command, and the murder will be accepted by J and S as rough justice. But generally the workers will behave well if they are treated well. Middle-class attitudes to the working class always seem like a decision about whether Man is essentially good or evil.
However, no seaman is shown as intelligent, including Bonden, who never rises above common sense: “I don’t go for to set myself up as a King Solomon,” he says (Desolation, p169). Instead, the hands are faintly comic creatures of superstition (Reverse of the Medal, pp60-61) and habit (“It was what they were used to and they prized what they were used to”; p159, Far Side).
Stephen says that seamen are generally “unthinking and illiterate” (p147, Mauritius): the latter is fair, but not the former. However, he and Jack respect the men’s collective wisdom: S compares it to that of a village, and Jack “had a profound belief in the lower deck’s corporate opinion.” (Ionian, p185).
Most novels give us an indecent level of access to the characters. Perhaps this is part of their pleasure: perhaps we have an inbuilt desire to understand other people, perhaps because it’s of evolutionary advantage. We understand fictional characters but also I think feel superior – because we read them like a book.
With J and S, this sense of superiority is compounded by their failings; so Jack is a genius by sea and a child on land, and Stephen has all the world’s learning but is an incurable lubber. (Perhaps it should be a rule for fictional characters that they have a contradiction: a megalomaniac caresses his white cat, the captain of industry is henpecked.)
Does POB overdo this? Sometimes. J’s mangling of idiom can be a stretch (“I have been like a bear in a whore’s bed these last few days”: Wine-Dark Sea, p138), and S’s ignorance of naval matters is a sad handicap in a spy, and one he would surely have tried harder to correct. “There must be some weakness, some imbecility,” he says of himself on p159 of Reverse.
However, he occasionally shows a sudden fluency on naval matters, such as in Surgeon’s Mate when explaining Baltic navigation to Jagiello and then, bizarrely, delivering a cogent account of the very obscure club haul. And, in Master and Commander (p322), his volunteering to steer the ship sits oddly with his incompetence as a seaman. Like J’s cry of “Another fifty” it is taken from Cochrane’s memoirs. Perhaps S’s entire existence grew out of this incident.
Cochrane seems also to be responsible for Jack’s habitual “hawsers to the masthead” tactic (Ionian, p224).
We feel that other novelists are flat wrong, and that it takes a 20-volume work to delineate character.
The action may be why we read the books, but we reread them for S & J.
Is there a more original portrait of a fictional character than that of Awkward Davies – notably from p148 of Ionian Mission?
J uses the word “scientist” in Blue at the Mizzen, but it was coined in 1833 by William Whewell as a deliberate neologism, so it’s unlikely to be one of those words that was circulating before it was made accessible to lexicographers by being written down. I’m also suspicious of “elevenses”, used in Surgeon’s Mate, chapter 6 (I think it’s used again in that book); my rather old copy of the OED has no knowledge of the word, listing only the dialect words “elevens” (1865) and “elevener” (1875) for this snack. The OED also has the mid-19th century (it’s unclear) as the earliest written appearance of “spotted dick”, tho the OED is surely remiss here.
In Post Captain, when S & J argue and determine on a duel, J says ‘when a man comes back from leave as brown as a Gibraltar Jew, and says he had delicate weather in Ireland, he lies.’ But S hadn’t mentioned the weather in Ireland. Dundas goes to Jack as Stephen’s second: why didn’t he explain to J that it was he who asked S to raise the matter of Diana?
William Babbington’s beloved, Mrs Wray, consistently calls him Charles at the end of Reverse (p236-7), and has to deliver a far-fetched explanation in the next book (Letter, p55).
I’m not really fussed about the alleged errors in the main battle in The Ionian Mission (http://web.mit.edu/hwebb/www/ionian.html). But in the battle in the bay towards the end of Treason’s Harbour, I’m not convinced that the French ship couldn’t batter the Surprise as they race towards the Brothers.
Why does Jack put Bonden in the towed boat when confronting the mutiny in Post Captain?
Directly after bemoaning the unreliability of Britain's allies, Sir Joseph Blaine says, “Napoleon is not alone in having unreliable allies.” (Surgeon’s Mate, chapter 4)
In the opening of The Ionian Mission POB describes the semi-detached marriage of Stephen and Diana as “the best possible arrangement for a pair with nothing in common but love and friendship, and a series of strange, surprising, shared adventures”. Just like S and J, of course. This opening is perhaps the most charming in the series (the rest of book doesn’t live up to it) – although we besotted fans will have a special place for the meeting at the start of M&C.
In Fortune of War, Stephen attends a man “lying on his own liver” (p112), but such horrors are little mentioned. Men are cut in half and Jack helps to push them overboard, but these nightmares are never closely described, nor does anyone in the books register them, although such reactions are prominent in contemporary accounts.
The nearest to such a response is Jack’s recollection of the Chinese crewmen slitting throats in HMS Surprise, which he decides not to mention to Sophie. So we are to POB as Sophie is to Jack, though POB’s motives are presumably artistic; perhaps he thinks that such an emotion serves no narrative purpose and is therefore a dead end, its unpleasantness a distraction. Besides it’s a matter that the reader can easily deduce.
In Mauritius, Young Hobson dies in the night after being emasculated and is “thankful to go” (p311): another of those resonant asides.
An odd tone on p40 of 100 Days where Jack is pointing out to Stephen that they have often sailed with women aboard; is POB acknowledging that he has mentioned women sailors less often than would be accurate for naval ships of the era, rather like the (apparent) teasing of the reader in Jack’s longwinded insistence in Fortune of War that he has been a lifelong friend of Captain Broke?
Similar teasings: S’s praise of tobacco (p177 Mauritius and p202 Ionian); Jack feeling better after a bloodletting; S’s unknowing sterilisation by daubing the skin with alcohol before an operation (100 Days?); the claims that the English are too given to emotions; and the abuse of Argentina that was written around the time of the Falklands conflict (p145, Far Side, and elsewhere).
O’Brian uses the scanning adjective-heavy construction: “pale glare of reptilian dislike” (M&C); “cold, reptilian glare” (Treason’s Harbour, p278); “a contained reptilian ferocity in Stephen’s pale eye” (Far Side, p167).
The chelengk worn by Jack is like that awarded to Nelson by the Sultan of Turkey for the Nile victory. It likewise had a clockwork mechanism which revolved the central diamond. It was designed for a turban and thus looked a little oversized when Nelson wore it in his hat.
POB refuses to touch the big events of the naval war against Napoleon. No involvement in any of the big sea battles, nor in the threatened invasion of Britain, and – despite J’s love of Nelson – not a mention of his death except by the the wretched Miss Smith in the Surgeon's Mate.
Jack on suet pudding: “So let us enjoy it while we may – damnably mouldy a hundred years hence” (13-Gun; p152). Jack and Stephen are long dead, and we’ll never know about their old age, or even if they had one. But they are so realised in their vanished era that the books are almost frightening in showing life to be vivid but temporary.
POB is coy about ages for any of his characters (and sparing of physical descriptions, or at least of repeating them), although there is often talk of Jack or Stephen looking older or younger. “I cannot remember my age without I do a subtraction with pen and ink,” says Stephen (LofM, p276). Later in the series, as years in the books become out of step with actual historical years, an obscurity over ages becomes almost obligatory.
But we are told that J & S met “in the spring of the year one” (Post Captain, p54), and M&C suggests they are approaching 30 – not too dissimilar to Lord Cochrane, the inspiration for some of J’s activities, who was born in 1775 and died October 31, 1860.
There’s a mention of 1814 in Yellow Admiral (p226), perhaps because it matters that the story leads up to Boney’s first exile. And there’s much talk of impotence, perhaps because POB was of a certain age.
“I rarely work out any of those detailed sequences that constitute a plot,” says POB in the Paris Review interview. Martin says, “I remember Bourville’s definition of a novel as a work in which life flows in abundance, swirling without a pause: or as you might say without an end, an organized end.” S seems to agree: “The conventional ending, with virtue rewarded and loose ends tied up is often sadly chilling” (Nutmeg, p265).
Sure enough, the books are often “one damn thing after another”: they start, continue through pretty random events, then stop. Arguably this accords with such aspects of the books as the unexplained naval jargon and the expectation laid on the reader to penetrate issues of character and action with little help from the narrator. In other words, we are being presented with unmediated slices of the lives of J and S; in plot, as in other matters, we cannot expect these lives to be shaped for our convenience.
But I don’t like this. I’d prefer the kind of book-length structure that’s routine in Forester and George McDonald Fraser. Certainly there are plot twists, often (as I say) presented with great subtlety, but these are rarely co-extensive with an individual book. The only books I can think of with a proper shape are M&C, which we can regard as an airing of the question, “How will Jack fare in his first command?” and The Mauritius Command, which follows a real and individual campaign like those in Fraser.
Elsewhere, entire campaigns can turn out to be pointless. Jack declares that the South American expedition in Wine-Dark is a failure in all respects. In HMS Surprise, a diplomatic envoy carried all the way from England dies in the Pacific before reaching his destination, his only purpose (I’ve just realised on this tenth reading) being to bring S to Diana in India; “We came on a fool’s errand,” says Jack. In 100 Days, Stephen treks across the desert to reach an agreement with a chieftain who is at once murdered. In Treason’s Harbour there is a chase down the Red Sea which produces only a lead slab scratched with the words, “Merde a celui qui le lit”; and Jack sums up the entire story as a “total failure in every respect, without the least alleviating feature or favourable circumstance” (p198), and declares he has “made a complete cock of it” (p208).
The first two thirds of Ionian is all futilities, from Jack and his nearly-but-not-quite adultery, to Stephen's meeting with Professor Graham in the marsh, to the failed attempt to engage the French fleet: at last we get to the campaign that gives the book its name.
(It doesn’t much matter, I think, that the mission to Port Jackson in Desolation Island is revealed in Fortune of War to have been futile.)
This lack of planning is present also in individual incidents. Like a soap opera, the series must maintain a degree of status quo, but nevertheless many incidents seem gratuitous: the first sea-borne event of the series is the failed attempt to fit 12lb guns to the Sophie; there’s no point to the burning down of The Grapes, “rebuilt without the smallest change”; in 13-Gun, Stephen is equipped with powerful magnets, then with a reason to use them to deflect the Surprise’s compass, then with the notion that such a strategem wouldn’t work, then with the conclusion that the strategem isn’t anyway needed; finally, having never been seen before, the magnets are never seen again; moreover, this entire incident is a rehash of James Dillon’s dilemma in M&C.
In The Surgeon’s Mate, Jack digs an escape route through the jakes in their Parisian prison cell (requiring elaborate ropework, which requires materiel smuggled in by a French cook, which in turn requires unearthly beauty, established over many pages, in a Swedish soldier), yet they are promptly released via a secret stairway. Indeed, The Surgeon’s Mate is a catalogue of absorbing incidents (Halifax and Jack’s love affair; evading the American privateer; Grimsholm; the wreck on the French coast; imprisonment and escape) but they are pressed together like strangers in a lift.
A notable example of all this is Bangs on the Head. (I don’t refer to Stephen’s skill at trepanning.) Both Jack and Stephen are prone to this misadventure. Naturally, their BotHs can’t have lasting consequences; recovery will follow. Which BotH has any importance to the plot?
Far Side: he falls aboard ship and Aubrey takes him to an island, leading to the discovery of the US shipwreck. S miraculously recovers just before the trepanning.
Letter of Marque: in tower in Sweden; leads to a bonding with Diana.
Fortune of War: he self-diagnoses “something very like a crepitation along the coronal suture” and “a clear contra-coup effect”, and then exhibits the classic effects of such a trauma. Yet he is fully recovered in a couple of days after a “profound and restorative” sleep. Pointless.
Surgeon’s Mate: with lead of depth gauge so that he’s not to blame when a subordinate runs the ship aground in France.
The Commodore, p31: falls off horse cos of blackbird. Pointless.
“What a fellow you are!” A rebuke, but somehow endearing. So common from Jack to Stephen, usually on the latter’s ignorance of some naval technicality, that it’s very pleasant when for once S can direct it at J in Mauritius Command, p27. (But J gets to use it again on p99.)
Equally characteristic is “with some asperity” used of S. The expression turns up in Pride and Prejudice when Mr Collins is checked by Mrs Bennet for suggesting that her daughters have any role in the kitchen.
Killick is the best of the subsidiary characters. His first mentions are references to his “version” of coffee (M&C, p155), described by Jack as “a sad brew” (p51); but he improves, and is later recorded as having only two virtues, “polishing silver and making coffee”; for these “it was worth putting up with his many vices” (Commodore, p20). His full sourness, officiousness, insubordination aren’t developed until Post Captain, where also we see the first jab at him (Jack’s “happily my steward does not care for burgundy”, p267). PC also sees the emergence of Awkward Davies. (Or does it? Am I getting confused with the similar Bolton?)
Bonden is mentioned on p215 of M&C and his character is given on p238.
“An egg, an egg,” says a hen in HMS Surprise (p92). “An egg, an egg, an egg,” in Fortune of War (p281). In Mauritius Command, S says: “we instantly inform the world, like a hen that has laid an egg” .
Mowett’s poems (copied by POB from contemporary publications) demonstrate how the tricks of Dryden and Pope with the heroic couplet had thoroughly entered the culture. Mowett’s works are doomed by their content, but the technique is excellent.
We’ve all heard how the two central characters in The Unknown Shore prefigure Aubrey/Maturin, but it's remarkable how far the similarities run. The book is set 60 years earlier than Master and Commander, and the twosome are teenagers – yet one is called Jack and serves in the Royal Navy, the other is an eccentric naturalist and (initially at least) a mere lubber, and they progress through one of POB’s rather random plots.
Unfortunately, this younger Jack is a cypher. Apart from the odd flash of ill temper, he illustrates the difficulty of giving an interesting character to a youngster. He is only notable for a couple of echoes of Jack Aubrey: he “carved his initials upon the topmast cap”, and POB writes: ‘ “There you are, Toby,” said Jack; and to this valuable observation he added . . . ’ (His captain also echoes Jack Aubrey on the Sophie by changing the Wager from a ship that kept watch and watch to a three-watch ship.)
This younger Jack also echoes that very odd POB trope: a suspicion of Scotsmen. He describes one Campbell as “a dismal Scotch crow, who is never content unless he is slighted or put-upon”, POB explaining that “at least some of [Campbell’s] unattractive ways were due to the fact that he was Scotch, and that he felt slighted and put upon because of it . . . He often laboured under a sense of grievance, which made him a tedious companion.”
But how familiar is his friend Tobias Barrow. He is no respecter of rank, enters the masthead through lubber hole, brings wild creatures into their cabin, is impatient with seamen's superstitions, and is short (5ft 5½in), “meagre, narrow-chested and stooping; his dull black hair made his white face even paler, while at the same time it made a startling contrast with his almost colourless light green eyes”.
He was also a mere lubber: ‘Tobias belonged in this last hopeless category, and that he would go on looking for guns on the gun-deck out of mere ill-will and brutish stupidity to the end of his days.’ Unlike Stephen Maturin, however, he soon finds a measure of seamanship.