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Post Captain *****

The second volume in the Aubrey/Maturin series. The more I read, the more I wonder why on earth I let my reading of this series drift off course. This volume focuses primarily on the development of his two central characters, their relationship, and their relationships, the latter becoming rather fraught as romantic liaisons and financial challenges contribute to a heady mix. It was already clear that Aubrey is much more at home at sea, the phrase 'a fish out of water' never being more apposite when on land, whilst Maturin's much more considered, double life starts to play an increasingly prominent part, as do his landlubberly eccentricities!

The plot itself can be split into three phrases: a sojourn ashore, in England and France, which establishes a whole new set of relationships and circumstances for the two men; a stint aboard the ungainly Polychrest, an abomination of a construction, and the final section on the distinctly more seaworthy Lively. O'Brian's writing is sublime, drawing the reader inexorably in. There are some superb sequences, one particular action on the Polychrest being ferociously exciting, edge of the seat reading, and the book reaches a satisfying climax. However, taken as a whole, the plot has more a feel of transition and long term establishment than a stand-alone story; it was also, for me, a bit slow to get underway - so early in the sequence I didn't want to spend so long ashore (later edit: looks to me as Ting might agree?).

So, whilst increasingly engrossing and unputdownable (not a book to be read whilst commuting, which I found myself doing at one stage!), I would definitely not want to read this out of sequence, and there's a distinct feeling that most strands are to be continued, if not resolved. I suspect from what I've read from reviews of the series, that this will apply at various other stages of the sequence as well, but it does mean that in itself , Post Captain doesn't quite reach the heights of an individual favourite. The series already is, but as a stand-alone book, this has to lose a star. But what a start to a story - I can't wait for the rest, and am actually delighted that there is so much to go at (eighteen more volumes!).

PS I've just acquired Anthony Gary Brown's The Patrick O'Brian Muster Book. It requires a certain amount of care using it, as there are spoilers in individual entries, but it's a superb reference, including all the characters, ships and locations in the series, and particularly strong on the history behind the fiction. Makes an excellent partner to the two Dean King volumes I already have (Sea of Words, Harbors and High Seas).  i suppose I'm a lost cause already!

Edited by willoyd

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  i suppose I'm a lost cause already!

 

I'm so glad willoyd. I thought I was becoming a bit weird enjoying them so much! And very much agree that Post Captain has a transitional feel.

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HMS Surprise by Patrick O'Brian *****(*)
 
The third volume of the Aubrey-Maturin series, and one in which O'Brian really starts to hit his stride. An extended introductory section, with Aubrey on blockade duty in the Mediterranean with the Lively, and Maturin on an intelligence mission, leads to a daring escapade and a brief sojourn in England before proceeding with the main meat of the novel, the cruise of HMS Surprise into the Indian Ocean.

Once again, it is O'Brian's characters that dominate the story. It's an interesting approach that the author takes: whilst we are often privy to the inner thoughts of Stephen Maturin, particularly those expressed in his private diary, we are generally only able to observe Jack Aubrey from the outside. Both are complex characters (Maturin in particular), very different as friends often are, but fiercely attached to each other, even though they are more than aware of each other's faults - the mark of true friendship? Other characters are also starting to develop: they may not appear in every scene, indeed in every novel, but a web is clearly being spun.

Some reviewers find the stories a bit slow paced, with not enough action. True perhaps, if that is what you regard as the most important element, but compared to the likes of Forester, Kent, Pope et al (and I never really got into the latter two, although loved the first), there is so much more to these novels than mere action. Having said that, HMS Surprise isn't exactly short of it, even if it's not always broadside to broadside, and the increased tempo and stronger focus of the narrative are key reasons behind why this makes for a much more satisfyingly complete book on its own than Post Captain.
And when the action does take off, it does so with a vengeance, leaving the others bobbling, nay floundering, around in his wake.  O'Brian certainly has me on the edge of my seat, be it storm or conflict (later edit: I can only agree with Ting - the storm is spine tingling in its intensity).
 
This is definitely a series that needs to be read in order, and whilst no book has yet gained an outright 6 stars, the series as a whole most certainly has. Indeed, I'd go so far as to say that, taken as a whole, it's now amongst my top half dozen 'novels', and I'm having to restrain myself from plunging straight into the fourth volume: I really do need to read something else now!

Edited by willoyd

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HMS Surprise by Patrick O'Brian *****(*)

 

Some reviewers find the stories a bit slow paced, with not enough action.

 

What???!!! I can't believe it. I have never had such a strong urge to read and read and read without stopping.

 

 I'm having to restrain myself from plunging straight into the fourth volume: I really do need to read something else now!

 

I'd be interested to know how you get on with "something else" Willoyd. So far my attempts to do that have fallen flat. I've tried three novels now and they all pale by comparison in every way.  I'm (im)patiently waiting for #7 The Surgeon's Mate to arrive.

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The Surgeon's Mate, the  seventh in the series is now in my hands. As with previous books, I will start with the essay/commentary included at the end. This one is an Editorial Report and appears to focus on the author himself. I'm looking forward to it.

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07 The Surgeon’s Mate

This novel begins where #6 left off, with Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin on their way home by dispatch vessel, Dilligence, carrying important news of the first English victory over a much larger American ship. They are passengers, along with Diana Villiers, who is the woman Stephen is almost sure he loves ... but isn’t ready to realise it. For herself, Villiers is in deep trouble, having fled from her American lover along with a very expensive diamond necklace.

Because of Stephen’s ‘alternative’ activities, and the fact that he stole some exceedingly important documents, and killed two Frenchmen, Diligence is hounded by privateers, hoping to intercept not only Stephen and his dispatches, but Villiers as well. Diligence is chased into the fog banks of the Grand Banks - a brilliant new landscape for O’Brian to explore, and as breath-taking as anything he has given us so far.

There follow episodes of Aubrey ‘all at sea’ on land; Stephen being given a new assignment; Villiers in France; and Aubrey and Stephen in the Baltic. Thereafter everything goes awry and the latter half of the novel takes us ashore again.

O’Brian continues to provide the detailed environments, beautifully crafted new characters, and a lot of humour and suspense.

Some notable moments:

As their ship was running from the privateers, Stephen, now more of a seaman than a landlubber begins to appreciate the interplay between vessel and weather: “At some point he felt a change in the brig’s progress, a greater thrust that raise her general music by half a tone, and when he looked up he found ... that all hands were very pleased with themselves.”

Jack Aubrey, as always, gets his proverbs mixed up: “And they say that a feather in the cap is worth two in the bush.”

An observation aboard ship early on is nicely - and very importantly - echoed in different circumstances later.  The importance of routine.
(Earlier) Captain Aubrey “sat comfortably enough until the rhythmical beating of the swabs told him that the deck, unnecessarily washed, had now been unnecessarily dried.”
(Later) “Their daily life, though confined and dull, might have been very much more disagreeable. It quickly assumed an ordered shape: Jack did not exactly organise them into watches, but he showed them how the place could be brought to something like naval cleanliness with nothing but the most primitive means.”

That so much of this novel takes place on land had me a little worried. In previous novels, the land-based episodes did not quite match up to the vitality of the naval ones. But, O’Brian seems to have got into his stride and there is not a dull moment. Also, his humour seems to be getting even better. On at least two occasions I was chuckling during fast-paced dialogue.

And exactly who - or what - is the surgeon’s mate? There are several possibilities.

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08 - The Ionian Mission

I have just finished reading the 'Retrospective Review' at the back of the novel. In part it compares O'Brian's writing with that of other naval story authors. The writer observes that Forester's novels [Hornblower series] are 'superb examples of their craft, and Forester remains unequalled for dynamism of narrative and precision of encounter; his single ship actions are surely the best ever described'. On the other hand: 'O'Brian's technique and achievement are of quite a different kind. ... his real interest is in the ships and the crews, in naval custom, habit and routine, the daily ritual of shipboard life and the interplay of personality in the confinement of a wooden world'.

This is what makes the Aubrey-Maturin series so extra-ordinary.

Now to read the story.

Edited by Ting Mikyunyu

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08 The Ionian Mission

The British Fleet is blockading the French at Toulon, requiring a navy of ten thousand men, many of whom have had to be pressed into service. There is a new ship for Captain Aubrey - the Worcester, and a new crew. There is a very emotional telling of the crew recruitment. There are some excellent character developments, and we meet old friends as well as making new ones.

The Worcester - she is very old and creaky - becomes a ‘happy ship’ almost by accident after Jack buys a bargain lot of firework explosives for gunnery practice.

We get a sense of the monotony of the blockade and how that boredom may be relieved. O’Brian has taken this opportunity to explore the artistic side of navy life. We already know of the Aubrey-Maturin string duet, and musical instruments abound both above and below decks; but below decks, also, poetry is alive and well. To alleviate their boredom further the Worcesters decide to tackle Handel’s Messiah: ‘Musical gifts popped up in the most unexpected places: a bosun’s mate, two quarter-gunners, a yeoman of the sheets, a loblolly boy ... [were] able to sing a score on sight.’ (What wonderful job titles people had in those days!)

There is, of course, a deal of competition between the ships, helping to keep everyone on their toes and ready to act at the first sign of the French navy trying to break the blockade: ‘[Captain Aubrey’s] days were quite well filled: the ordinary running of the ship he could leave to Pulling with total confidence, but he did hope to improve the Worcester’s seamanship as well as her gunnery. He observed with pain that the Pompeé could shift her topgallantmasts in one minute fifty-five seconds and hoist out all her boats in ten minutes forty seconds ...’, and there are some fascinating descriptions of how the ships patrol in formation. It must have been quite splendid to see.

In previous stories O’Brian has often given his ships musical qualities, mentioning, for example, the play of the wind through the rigging. Here he takes another tack. In a bout of bad weather Aubrey has to try and cushion the aged vessel through choppy waters: ‘: the Worcester hated this particular Mediterranean rhythm that caught her between two paces, as it were, so that she could neither trot easy nor canter, but had to force her way through the sea ...’ The end result is that she has to be frapped, and sent into port. Whereupon Aubrey is reunited with his Surprise: ‘a thoroughbred frigate, a ship he knew through and through and that he loved entirely ...’

During this time Maturin has been put ashore in one place and picked up from another. They then get sent to the Greek Islands where Aubrey has to be diplomatic - yes, well enough said about that! There is a wonderful scene when they reach Mesenteron; it is light, funny and full of incidental detail. Thereafter I got a bit confused with the political situation. We are promised a blood-thirsty battle (and I apologise in advance to any Turkish people reading this, because I had to laugh): ‘ “Simms’, [Aubrey] called to the man on the yard, “keep a good lookout, d’you hear me there? Our gentleman is likely to come up from the south, but since he is a Turk, he might come up from anywhere.” ’ The ships do finally encounter each other and we leave the Ionian Mission having participated in another first rate naval engagement.

 

ETA: gosh, how sneakily the typos get through!
 

Edited by Ting Mikyunyu

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09 Treason’s Harbour

As always I begin at the back with the article of historical facts. This one deals with the state of medicine and medical practice in the early 1800s. There are some interesting facts such as why a doctor is called ‘doctor’ and a surgeon is plain ‘mister’. In a nutshell doctors are physicians and of a higher rank, having had a classical education. Surgeons, on the other hand, are considered to be craftsmen only, with no particular education other than the practical cutting and sewing up of bodies. There is, of course, a bit more to it than that, but it does explain why Doctor Maturin’s position as ‘naval surgeon’ causes some raised eyebrows.

Medicines themselves were very basic and in some cases deliberately unpalatable - as it is sometimes considered necessary even today. “The sailors expected - and Maturin was resigned to it - that for a medication to be effective it should be significantly unpalatable.”

 

And now the accolade: “In creating Stephen Maturin, Patrick O’Brian has completely captured the sense of being a doctor in the time of the Napoleonic wars and brought to vivid, bright-coloured life an exciting chapter in the history of medicine.”

(The author, Louis Jolyon "Jolly" West (1924-1999) was an American psychiatrist whose work focused particularly on cases where subjects were "taken to the limits of human experience". He was in charge of UCLA's department of psychiatry and the Neuropsychiatric Institute for 20 years and was also an anti-death penalty activist.)

Now to re-read Treason's Harbour, this time in its proper sequence and hence with a lot more understanding!

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Treason's Harbour is proving to be a tough one. I'm struggling, possibly because it deals with some historical activities that I am unfamiliar with, in unfamiliar land-based settings. Maybe I should search for more details online. However, we are promised some sea-based adventure soon, in the Surprise, so it should pick up.

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09 Treason’s Harbour

“Smoothe runnes the Water, where the Brooke is deepe.
And in his simple shew he harbours Treason.”
(2 Henry VI)

This quote leads us into the harbour of treason, Valletta, Malta. The pivotal character is Stephen Maturin, who is embroiled in undercover activities, including the involvent of a very important lady. There are amazing twists and turns, but they all tie up very neatly. Captain Jack Aubrey has to play a part, as well as having an assignment of his own which takes him and his Surprises, in the ship Niobe, to Egypt, and by camel across a desert.  There is also a diving bell that plays no small part in the action.

In this novel both Stephen and Jack are becoming much fuller characters. Stephen’s intricate dealings in espionage are complicated and we become more aware of his strength and courage.

Jack grows on us more as a person rather than a captain, because there is very little ‘captaining’ to be done, but a lot of leading nevertheless. He writes home to Sophie, and this is how we, as readers, begin to warm to him ... because until now, mostly we have seen him in his professional roles, as both master of the ship and employee of the Royal Navy. Even so, it seems he is mellowing a little with age and experience. We are given a rare glance backwards, to an event in his youth; so, as a person he is gaining personal substance.

It was a tough read for me. So much land-based; so much very complicated political intrigue and plotting and counter-plotting, presumably based on real events and if that is so, it would have helped if the reader knew of them in a supplementary paper, maybe at the back of the book.  The complications could also, I feel, have been alleviated from time to time with maps, or diagrams. In fact there is one sketchmap, but it comes near the end when we are finally at sea - in the dear Surprise - involved in a complicated naval engagement.

There is a great deal about the wind and its impact on the life of sailships, and that is a lot more than what is obvious. I found that very interesting.

Dialogue is getting better, sharper, wittier.

It was only towards the end that I really felt compelled to make some notes for some quotes to share. I don’t know why, but again the writing only really comes alive when we are at sea; it seems to breathe freedom and joy and celebration into the writer. It is like O'Brian is Aubrey, marking time until he can get back to what he does best. Well, that’s how it seems for me. So, now some quotes to share:

Following a ball in harbour: “Mowatt and Rowan ... had both been to the Sappers’ ball ... and both were suffering from the effects. Adams the purser and the two master’s mates ... had been to the same party and the same pall of liverish heaviness hung over them; while Gill, the master, looked ready to hang himself - this however was his usual expression.”

Stephen Maturin comments to a landsman about life on board ship with Jack Aubrey: “There is a restless itch to be busy, a tedious obsessive hurry: waste not a minute, the cry, as though the only right employment for time were rushing forwards, no matter where, so it be farther on.”

We have a new analogy for the favourite ship of Jack’s command, the Surprise which is to lead a convoy to safe harbour: “The Surprise was already halfway down the ... bay, wafting away to the windward of her convoy like a superlatively elegant swan with a band of common and in some cases rather dirty goslings.”

And finally, we have a beautiful definition of ‘sea silence’: “The breeze was just abaft the beam and it hummed gently in the rigging, while the water slid down the ship’s side with a soft lipping* sound, the whole making a kind of sea-silence.”

(*This is not a typo.)

And finally, Jack’s inevitable mixing of wise saws: “Make hay while the iron is hot!”

 

Next stop - The Far Side of the World.

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10 The Far Side of the World

As always, I began by reading the article at the end of the book; it did not deal with historical detail, being more about O’Brian himself, so had nothing to add to the story.

The Far Side of the World contributed much to the film “Master and Commander, the Far Side of the World”, but so loosely that it didn’t spoil the novel at all. The basic plot is that Jack Aubrey, in the Surprise, together with Stephen Maturin has to apprehend an American vessel that is tasked with disrupting - and destroying if possible - the British whaling fleet in the South Atlantic. If necessary they are to follow her around the Horn and across the Pacific. At this time (1812) Britain is at war with America, so hostilities can be anticipated.

The problems begin when Aubrey has to recruit a large number of new hands into his crew. There are men from an insane asylum; there is a weak midshipman who is a known ‘Jonah’ (guaranteed to bring bad luck) who Jack takes on very reluctantly; there is a parson; and there are a couple of women - wives of petty officers. It is this mishmash of humanity that makes for a promise of situations ahead.

Most of the other problems come in the form of weather, or lack thereof. There is an excellent case of the doldrums, then a storm that takes their bowsprit and a crackling sharp storm of a variety even Jack has never experienced. The weather is also responsible for a couple of land-based episodes, too, except for the event caused by Maturin which could have had very grave consequences.

Two of the many things of note are firstly, the description of the whaling industry, which was sufficiently all in one place that I could safely skip it - however, I am sure it was very well written; and secondly the very intriguing explanation of what does and does not constitute ‘lying’ in the navy. By now the reader should be aware that nothing is included that is redundant to the story, and that is the case here. Bear that in mind as the story unfolds.

Other interesting historical facts include the quantity of rations needed per man: "seven pounds of biscuits a week, seven gallons of beer, four pounds of beef ..." and so on. And for those interested in the migration routes of birds, the description of how many thousands of birds of various species Stephen saw from the top of Gibraltar’s rock is enough to make any ornithologist of today weep.

True to form, Captain Jack Aubrey gives us many moments of light relief, not least with his proverbs. In his own words: “I rather pride myself on proverbs, bringing them in aptly, you know, and to the point.” They are neither apt, nor to the point, and definitely nowhere near to being correct.
“That would be killing two birds ...” He paused, frowned and muttered “over one stile”, and went on “Well never mind.”
“That would be locking the horse after the stable door is gone.”

O’Brian employs an interesting way of combining a church service and a duologue taking place nearby. He interweaves them very effectively.

And if I haven’t mentioned it before, I love the word “ahoo”, meaning untidy or upside down, as in “the place was all ahoo”. It crops up from time to time and always makes me smile.

Finally, the joy of sequels. By now, the tenth novel, we expect that the main adventure will stop just before its conclusion, when we know that all will be okay, but not quite sure how, so we are left still at the top of the curve. Never fear, we will find out what happens/happened somewhere in the next novel, thus making the present ending pleasingly punchy - and a total surprise!

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11 The Reverse of the Medal

The essay at the back of the book deals not with the story, nor the characters, but with the author and his attention to every detail. It is about ‘trust’ - our trust in O’Brian to tell the truth, every time. “... what is ... immensely comforting to those of us who enjoy O’Brian’s books without the scholarly background is the well-founded trust we can have that there is no cheating: when we are told something. it is true.  ... we can commit ourselves to the enjoyment of the Aubrey novels as literature knowing that we are in the safest possible historical hands.”

And yet again there is the pleasing comment on O’Brian’s ability to infer dialect subtly through word usage, which “all show a sensitivity of a very high order to the different way English can be spoken.”

The story itself crackles with joyous sailing, skulduggery  in high places, a scam of outrageous proportion, murky intrigue and days wandering through the very highest and lowest levels of London society. A new espionage story is developing excellently.

We get to experience a court-martial for mutiny; we learn the difference between a privateer and piracy (a very thin line!); Stephen fears his (under)cover is blown; there is still superstition of ‘unluck’ aboard the Surprise.

The Surprise, of course, is her wonderful self and we share Aubrey’s joy in her: “A solid packet of water sweeping from aft soaked him ... the air was full of flying spindrift ... there was a pure keen delight in this flying speed, the rushing air, the taste of sea in his mouth.”

The dialogue is still getting better. Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin have now been together for a fair number of years, and as happens with friendships, both parties begin to take on some mannerisms of the other. So “not a moment to lose” is tripping naturally off Stephen’s tongue, even if the nautical phrases are still being scrambled.

I am already looking forward to The Letter of Marque.

Edited by Ting Mikyunyu

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12 The Letter of Marque

The Closing Essay features all Jack Aubrey’s ships of the series up to now. The writer, Brian Lavery gives all the statistics from the size of the 'knees' to the miles of permanent rigging (+/- 30) and acreage of sails (minimum 1), the number of crew members and gallons of grog. Really, really interesting and brings home to the reader just how enormous a Captain’s task is. Keeping a ship 'happy' with as many as 850 men in a very limited area for up to three years - well, hats off to Jack Aubrey!

A ‘letter of marque’ is written permission from the admiralty to a private ship to attack - and hopefully take - any vessel of an enemy country, as long as the countries are officially at war. Of course, at this stage Aubrey is still struck off the navy list, but due to good luck in his friend Stephen Maturin, he is now captain of the decommissioned - and so privately owned - Surprise. Joy all around, not least for the Surprises who have all opted to stay with their Captain. There is also a small group of Sethians to add a bit of spice and colour to the crew makeup.

This story takes place both at sea and at home with Jack Aubrey and his family. O’Brian seems quite comfortable with family life and there are some lovely exchanges between Jack’s children.

There are a couple of excellent battles, full of Aubrey mischief and audacity. Part of the reason so many of his attacks are successful is that he takes time to plan, and then rehearse them time and again, so that each man knows exactly where he is to go and what he is to do. This leaves the Captain free to handle any unforeseen circumstances - an essential part of the success of one of this novel's engagements where he comes away with a lot more than originally intended.

Maturin’s involvement in this story is very amusing and gives us a lot more by way of character development; there is quite a lot about his personal life, including scenes with his wife Diana. There are also hot air balloons in Sweden.

The relationship between Aubrey and Maturin continues to develop, and there are some lovely moments of interplay that you can’t help smiling at. In fact, there is so much to smile about in this novel that I will definitely read it again.
 

Edited by Ting Mikyunyu

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13 The Thirteen-Gun Salute

The Closing Essay is written by O’Brian about himself and his writing. There is a degree of reluctance in this, as he intimates that it was done for readers who need to know more about an author to appreciate their works better. It is entitled “Black, Choleric and Married?” - enough to entice even the least curious of his readers.

This novel sees Captain Jack Aubrey reinstated on the Navy list; the mission is still that of the previous novel, but has yet to be fulfilled. But, there is another task to accomplish before reaching their area of operation in South America. And for this he has to pass captaincy of the Surprise to Captain Pullings, whilst he diverts to carry important negotiators - including Stephen Maturin on an allied mission to Pulo Prabang, a piratical Malay state in the South China Sea. His ship for this task is the Diane.

The destination is full of excited anticipation for Dr Stephen Maturin, with untold natural discoveries awaiting him - and indeed he has a surreal experience in a volcanic crater.  There is a lot in this novel about the natural world and its philosophers. O’Brian’s ability to describe the flora and fauna, as well as the more gruesome dissections and examinations brings subject matter that could be boring to glorious living colour - much of this, of course, through our sharing of the wonderment of Stephen Maturin.  This lso reminds us that O’Brian is the author of a biography of Joseph Banks and as such is perfectly at home with the natural science of the times - early 1800s.

For Captain Aubrey this mission is somewhat restricted by having as passenger the official envoy and representative of the King, hence the thirteen-gun salute. Regrettably, Fox is a most objectionable man, which makes for drama aboard ship. We cannot but applaud Aubrey for the way he manages this awkward situation - as well as many other personnel problems - with a wisdom that we have seen developing through the novels.

So, a lot of time on land; a reasonable amount of time at sea. We learn more about naval life, as we do in each novel. For example we get more detailed information about the sailors’ many outfits for different occasions, and how a man-of-war ship is made. Many more of the phrases that have found their way into common parlance, are here used in their proper places:
Re Aubrey’s membership reinstatement at Black’s: “I will pay my scot with the greatest pleasure.”
When the ship was cleared for action, including the removal of cabin partitions and stowing of belongings down below: “... the ship was cleared for action at quarters, really cleared, for Jack Aubrey was one of the few captains who insisted on a clean sweep fore and aft ...”
“... the hands are all so eager for liberty, to kick up Bob’s a dying on shore after so many months at sea.” * (See below)
We also learn why the end is always so bitter - but that takes quite a few sentences so I won’t include it here.
I know we could always look this stuff up on the internet, but it’s much more fun to learn it this way. Well that’s what I think.

A final observation. There’s a huge, crackling storm at sea and we’re always ready for that. It’s amazing how well O’Brian can make each storm so different from the others, and each so full of colour and noise. This particular storm is devastating, but we have to appreciate the way Aubrey handles it and cannot but smile at his resolve. And, yet again we are left wanting to know what happens next.

 

* It appears that there may be a bit of a mystery about this expression, so I will explain. When I read 'Bob's a dying' I immediately remembered my childhood in Bath, Somerset (UK, West Country), where the expression "bobsy-die" was often used with regard to noisy/unruly behaviour. They must surely be related expressions. Could 'bobsy-die' be a very local variation, since the port of Bristol is only a few miles away? I have checked on line and cannot find an origin for either. Maybe other BGOers can assist?

Edited by Ting Mikyunyu

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Bobsy-die.

My thanks to some who shall remain nameless for tracking down what I failed to track down for myself. I have been told by family members that my memory is faulty and the word was not common in my childhood home. But, I definitely do know the the word well and am very comfortable using it. Anyway, here are the search results.

 

 

bobsy-die, n., a New Zealand colloquialism that means “a fuss” (i.e. to kick up bobsy-die), and in any case this seems to come directly from the late Regency formation Bob’s-a-dying, meaning a drunken revel (among sailors, as usual), which prompted two forlorn requests for information addressed to Notes and Queries in 1885 (from a correspondent who heard it often used in Kent) and 1910 (from another in East Cornwall), but only one answer (March 26, 1910), viz. that the expression was to be found in the English Dialect Dictionary, together with the variants bob’s-a-dial and bob’s-a-dilo; that these were recorded in Northumberland, Yorkshire, Dorset, and Devon, and that while they all meant “a great row or racket; boisterous merriment,” their origins were sadly obscure.

 

http://angustrumble.blogspot.com.au/2009/06/bits-and-bobs.html?m=1

 

 

The Godzone Dictionary: Of Favourite New Zealand Words and Phrases - Max Cryer - Google Books

By 1800 the meaning of commotion and grief surrounding death had changed and the term was used by naval men to describe a joyous, often drunken commotion.

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14 - The Nutmeg of Consolation.

 

The Closing Essay, "The Naval World of Jack Aubrey" is written by N. A. M. Rodger, a naval historian who wrote extensively about life aboard wooden ships. In this essay we learn about the not-so-gradual change in the structure of the navy between 1750 (when it seems everything was in a state of balance) to 1800 when it had all started to fray at the edges, rapidly unraveling as the Napoleonic war at sea strained England’s naval resources.
In particular the essay focuses on that all important relationship between captain and crew. Whereas in the earlier days a Captain would be encouraged to form his own core crew and take them with him from command to command, by the 1800s the Navy had taken over the role of recruiter and neither captain nor seaman knew who they would be serving with next. So, from a system based on honour and informal loyalty, it degenerated into a haphazard mess. Trust and respect went by the board (at it were) and things fell apart.
Interestingly, in the earlier days mutinies were an acceptable form of legitimate protest and were played out by their own rules with no one getting hurt and everything being sorted out in a gentlemanly fashion. It was only after the breakdown in the system, when the demands of the war saw captains being promoted anyhow, that mutinies became violent and unruly - and much more frequent because many men were brought in who should never have held command - and they were definitely not ‘gentlemen’ in the eyes of their crews.

Maybe that is why some people reading these novels today are skeptical of O'Brian's tales, because we have been brought up to believe that it was all flogging and abuse, which was actually exceptional in 1750s, only becoming common later and, of course, very newsworthy! And where does Captain Aubrey fit into all this? Although he is a captain in the early 1800s, he is of the mid-1700s school. Luckily, there were still a few captains like him around at that time.

Now for the story ...

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14 - The Nutmeg of Consolation

 

The title refers to a phrase which was voiced in a situation in The Thirteen-Gun Salute. It now becomes the name of a ship that has been disinfected and cleansed by being submerged on the sea bed for many months. When she is raised to the surface she is as if new, and sweet-smelling. It is Aubrey who gives her her new name. it is Raffles who gives her to Aubrey.

 

However, we have to start at the beginning, which is where the previous novel abandoned us - on an island with the ship (not the Surprise) having smashed itself to smithereens in a freak, very savage storm. The crew were about to embark on building a new ship from the wreckage. But, that's not going to happen and there are a few encounters before the survivors finally make it to Batavia, where Raffles becomes their host as they get the Nutmeg fit for sea, so that they can make their much-delayed rendezvous with the Surprise, with which they parted many months ago.  Eventually they meet up and reach their destination, New South Wales, which colony is under the governorship of a certain Macquarie.

 

Things of note in this novel:

We learn about the "sweeting cock" that allows the bilges to be flushed out with sea water from time to time, thus 'sweetening' the odour of a ship.

We learn that three things cannot be concealed: love, sorrow and wealth.

We fetch up on an island whose inhabitants have been ravaged by smallpox. (Alan Moorhead's "The Fatal Impact, An Account of the Invasion of the South Pacific 1767 - 1840" is brought vividly and tragically to life.)

 

O'Brian has for some time been a little restricted in how he can continue to explore the naturalist theme of his novels. After all, there is only so much a naturalist can discuss with someone who has no true understanding of your 'passion'. (In the film 'Master and Commander, The Far Side of the World', Aubrey becomes frustrated with Maturin's wish to go ashore at the Galapagos and quite uncharacteristically shouts "We don't have time for your damned hobby, sir!"

So, a character, Mr Martin, cleric and amateur naturalist has joined the voyage that began in the previous novel and is a companion for Maturin in matters natural. They get on so well, that Aubrey admits (silently to himself) to feeling somewhat jealous.

The question is - does Maturin eventually find the elusive platypus?

Edited by Ting Mikyunyu

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15 - Clarissa Oakes

The accompanying essay is entitled “The Jack Aubrey novels: an editorial report” and is written by Richard Ollard. It focuses on the storytellers’ art of using characters with knowledge to inform those without, so that the reader is educated in a natural - and comfortable - way. This is something I have commented on in previous reviews. It is a skill so important for the Aubrey-Maturin narratives, because we know nothing - or precious little - of the life and times about which we are reading. And I for one am anxious to learn all I can, and am grateful for every explanation I am given. That O’Brian slips this knowledge in so casually just adds to the overall excellence of the descriptive passages.

Now to the novel itself.

We pick up, as always, where the previous story left us - in this case sailing away from the horror of the prison colony in New South Wales, Australia. Captain Aubrey is again in his favourite vessel, the Surprise, which should make him happy. But he is not. He is restless, not only in himself, but because of an unsettling atmosphere that he cannot fathom. Unbeknownst to him there is a stowaway on board - one whose presence causes great disruption within the crew. Tension arises between Aubrey and the midshipmen, the lieutenants and Maturin, because they all know what he does not, and naval loyalty dictates that he cannot be told - he must discover for himself.

Aubrey’s other problem is that he experiencing a midlife crisis - with all that it entails; sexual tension sparks throughout this story.

For Maturin and his undercover work, there is a lingering mystery to be solved, and a new piece of evidence emerges from a very unlikely source.

The naturalist theme is not so dominant, with only casual mentions of the passing fauna and flora. Also missing are the long discourses on philosophical themes of previous stories. This one concentrates on people, their emotions and relationships.

As always there are marvellous descriptions - and some truly ‘laugh out loud’ moments. Some examples:

Aubrey is entertaining his officers one evening. This ritual requires that there be a ‘mess-attendant’ standing behind each person's chair. As is his wont, Aubrey, requiring the presence of his ever morose steward, shouts loudly: “Killick! Killick, there!”
“Which I am just behind your chair,” [says] Killick.

In anticipation of meeting the Queen of an island, Aubrey wishes that she be given ample warning, because ... “ - it is a dreadful thing to have a whole carriageful of people draw up at your door and leap out grinning, the house all ahoo, carpets taken up, a great washing going on, the children bawling, yourself confined to the head, having taken physic, and your wife gone to Pompey in hopes of a new cook.”

And for those of a culinary bent, here’s the menu for a gun-room dinner: “plain sea-pie accompanied by dog’s-body and followed by boiled baby.”

And as a change to the wonderful descriptions of the character and temperament of the ship, it is the turn of Jack Aubrey’s personal “brass long nine-pounder” bow chaser to take the limelight: “... he had had [it] time out of mind and he knew its temper, its kick, its tendency to shoot better from the third ball to the twelfth, when it called for a rest to cool - if this were denied, it was apt to leap and break its breeching.”

And finally, one of the most highly anticipated climactic moments is so understated that it takes your breath away! And I'm not even going to spoiler it.

This is an absolute beauty of a story.
 

Edited by Ting Mikyunyu

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16 The Wine-Dark Sea

 

The Essay, "In Which We Serve" is written by Prof John Bayley, who writes: "[O'Brian's] ships are as intimate to us as are Sterne's Shandy Hall or Jane Austen's village of Highbury in Emma. Like Jane Austen, O'Brian is really happiest … turning to art the daily lives of three or four families in a locality … except that his village happens to be a wooden ship of war."

(Aside: two of Jane Austen's brothers became admirals.)

 

This observation about the ship being a village is very true, when you consider that the Surprise's company of about 200 men, comprising groups of different country, or religion, or status, are like families. They support each other in everything and create a bond that reaches well beyond everyday events, given that life at sea under canvas in the early 1800s threw up the occasional hurricane, iceberg or volcanic eruption.

 

In "The Wine-Dark Sea" we are still on the voyage that began two books ago, and we are now heading for Peru, where Stephen Maturin has some undercover work to do. Jack Aubrey, at a healthy18 stone is still able to run up the rigging to get a better view of the horizon from the crosstrees, always on the lookout for 'prizes'.

 

Once again we have the luxury of time spent on land, following Maturin as he makes a perilous journey from Callao, Peru to Valparaiso, Chile which involves passing over the high Andes.  O'Brian has managed to give him as his guide an Indian of Inca descent who has a passion for the natural world, so we are treated to some amazing vistas, as well as llamas, alpacas, vicun͂as, condors, myriad bird species, mushrooms, potatoes and a smattering of Inca history, too. There is enough intrigue and drama to keep this account moving at a great pace, and the unusual behaviour of the weather threatens the whole journey.

 

The weather also threatens and frustrates Aubrey who, having very urgent business on land, is effectively prevented from making landfall for seven days, although he is not far distant. In fact, that seemingly small expedition ends in near-disaster.

 

This is the first novel where Aubrey is seriously wounded during the taking of a prize; the reaction of the Surprises is very touching, because Aubrey is a much-loved captain. The medical theme is quite prominent for a change and it is interesting to see how far the physician's profession had advanced – or not – by that time.

 

We learn a couple of things:

That the nautical day begins at noon.

And another Aubrey special: "We must not sell the bear's skin before we have locked the stable door." (We mustn't count our chickens …)

 

There is one small grumble, and it has been creeping up on me over the past few stories, and that is to do with the recaps/retellings of previous adventures. In the novel we get a recap of events from "The Nutmeg of Consolation", and "Clarissa Oakes", neither of which would have meant much to me if I had not already known the stories. Maybe it was because I knew the stories … anyway, I felt that neither retelling was really necessary.

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17 The Commodore

The essay accompanying this novel deals with O’Brian finally being recognised for his talents as novelist and biographer. He receives a CBE for his services to literature, and is the first ever winner of the £10,000 Heywood Hill Literacy Prize. There follows some interesting details of his personal history.

The story opens with the Surprise returning to England from some long time at sea - everyone anxious to learn what has been happening at home. Not least Stephen Maturin who has a daughter he has never yet seen. This child - when we get to know her - is so delightfully portrayed and so excellently well written that I could not fail to smile.

At Jack’s home things begin well, but start to disintegrate when some of his past kindnesses from the Clarissa Oakes story come to an unhappy roost. Unfortunately, he can’t escape to sea because, as a newly commissioned Commodore he has to wait for his squadron of ships to assemble. So, at least half of this novel is played out on land.

Finally the squadron gets to sea. It have two tasks to perform: to harass and obstruct slavery off the coast of Africa; thereafter intercept some French ships, loaded with weaponry, heading for Ireland. Commodore Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin do not quite see eye to eye on slavery, which makes for some interesting discussion. Details of the conditions aboard slave ships are quite nauseating - and this, at least, is something that Aubrey is very much against.

There is an excellent show of defiance against slave traders when the whole squadron blasts a captured slave ship to kingdom come right in Freetown’s harbour giving, as Aubrey announced at supper, a whole new meaning to Guy Fawkes’ night.

Stephen manages to get some time ashore, exploring some interesting marshes, and meeting some keen naturalists. (When the names Adanson and Temminck are dropped into conversation in a contemporary context, I am reminded of the Baobab - Adansonia digitata and Temminck’s Courser, both of which are common species in this part of the world.)

The big moral discussion of this story deals with sodomy and we get to understand how it was viewed in those times, and especially how it may or may not have been dealt with in the navy.

A final observation, from Stephen whilst he and Jack mull over marriage in general: “Other people’s marriages are a perpetual source of amazement.”
Discuss.  :) 
 

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18 The Yellow Admiral

The closing paper is a speech delivered by the Rt. Hon William Waldegrave, former Secretary to the Treasury, at an occasion to celebrate O'Brian “ ... above all for his Aubrey and Maturin; for his Villiers and his Preserved Killick and his Barret Bonden, and his Babbington and his Blaine; for his Sophie and his poor Polycrest and for his beautiful Surprise, ... for his love of nature and the sea, for his celebration of courage, honour and humanity.”

Commodore Jack Aubrey begins this story as plain Captain Jack Aubrey since the squadron he was commanding in the last story has now been disbanded.  By now he is nearing the top of the Captain’s List and this is a scary time because one of two things can happen: he can ‘have the glory of hoisting his flag’ (being actively promoted) and become an Admiral of the Blue - or he can be retired. The rigidity of the naval system was such that every Captain who reached the top of the Captain’s List must be made Admiral, even if he was not suitable. Unsuitable Captains (or those who had ruffled the feathers of the sea lords - as Aubrey had) would become an Admiral of the Yellow - meaning he was ’retired’ (passively promoted), leaving room for the next Captain to rise to the top of the list. All a bit confusing for me to remember now, but very well explained by O’Brian in a strong thread of doubt that runs though the whole story and leads to a very unusual conclusion that may help prevent his becoming a yellow admiral.

As in the previous few stories, this one dwells as much on the land as at sea, and what an intriguing time we have as we accompany Jack on his lord-of-the-manor duties. This is a time of the land ‘inclosures’ [sic] and the fight by the commoners to prevent rich landowners from stealing the common lands. Jack, of course, is for his people and against those doing the stealing. Being the character that he is, with a short temper, we are promised - and get - some excellent confrontations. (It is some of these confrontations that queer his pitch with the Admiralty.)

His coxswain, Barret Bonden goes so far as to fight on Captain Jack’s behalf and we get caught up in a ‘prize fight’ that has all the descriptive excitement of a storm at sea.

Meanwhile, there is big trouble at home when Jack’s mother-in-law 'accidentally' finds some evidence of a past indiscretion. (The evidence, long forgotten, resided at the bottom of a drawer in Jack’s library.)

The children, particularly Jack’s son Stephen’s daughter, are often in evidence and seem to be getting on very well, as are the two wives now that they are living in close proximity.

Stephen Maturin is not idle and has meetings with people interested in independence activities in South America. As always we get an intriguing insight into the medical advances of the day, as well as other of his many interests - musical and biological.

The nautical mission of this story is the blockade of Brest, to prevent the French navy from leaving port. Of the many English ships on the blockade, some of the captains are good, others not so. We learn about the ‘sea daddies’ who school the youngsters - sometimes 50 boys in a ship, and the ‘tie mates’ who are buddies who plait each others’ pigtails. The sailors are very proud of their pigtails; Bonden’s pigtail - until he loses it - reaches to his waist.

Although I am still enjoying these stories, there is so much more happening on land that I am finding it easier to delay before reading the next one. That doesn’t mean the writing is any less excellent, and I still read on for longer than I should, being unable to put the book down. O’Brian’s writing style is still so relaxed and easy to get lost in.
 

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19 The Hundred Days

Napoleon escapes from Elba. Jack Aubrey, Stephen Maturin and the Surprise, who were on their way to Chile as a private research vessel are recalled to perform one last official naval duty for King and country ...

... we have Shiite confederacies and brotherhoods along the Adriatic and Ionian coasts and further inland supporting Bonaparte and intent on causing disruption to allied armies from Russia and Austria who are on their way to support the allies.

Aubrey’s brief includes the destruction of vessels under construction, or victualing, in boatyards along the Adriatic coast, preparing to join the French navy. Stephen’s brief is to persuade a Moroccan ruler not to send a shipload of money to pay Bonapartist mercenaries.

The Surprises’ luck is guaranteed this time around. It is a very happy crew because there are two significant objects accompanying Stephen: the first is a pickled human hand of intense medical interest, the second is a narwhal horn - intact and therefore extremely rare and valuable. As long as they both remain intact, all will be well. But do they?

Stephen travels into the Moroccan hinterland, meeting beys and pashas, hunting lions and buying child slaves; Jack battles fierce winds, almost loses his ship, but does lose a well-loved crew member.

As always O’Brian has packed this story full of incidents and accidents and action both on sea and land. And the enduring question throughout is: why does the narwhal have a single twisted horn? And why is it twisted anyway? (If we want an answer to that one, we’ll have to “google” it.)

There is a great deal about prize money and how it is divvied out. And we get an interesting throwaway remark about Shakespeare’s “second best bed”...

I seem to have found no quotable quotes in this story, possibly I think because I have been reading this during a time of great busy-ness. I do not think I have done it justice, because at least one reviewer has said that it is “one of the best in the series.”

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20 Blue at the Mizzen

This is the last complete novel. Surprise is on her way to Chile, no longer of the navy, but commissioned to do coastline surveying. She has another mission, too, and again we find ourselves following Stephen Maturin on his undercover missions.

I have to admit to skipping pages 174-5 which, with O’Brian’s skill at detail, should have had a warning along the lines of “graphic images ahead”. It deals with the wholesale slaughter of penguins and seals on an island close to Magellan’s Strait.

The title hints at Captain Jack Aubrey’s over-riding concern of the moment. Will he achieve his ‘blue at the mizzen’ (that’s a flag - a very important flag - on a mast)? We find out at the end.

 

There is a lot of action, for sure, but I wasn’t as swept up in it as I once was. In fact, I have been slowly descending from the crest that I reached with #15 ‘Clarissa Oakes’.

I was cheered to find the companion word to my favourite “ahoo”, when reading this sentence: “And then when all is a-tanto and belayed, we shall set out ...” (Which is really only another way of saying “shipshape and Bristol fashion”!)

My sincerest thanks to tag for giving me a year of enjoyment, escape and adventure.

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Well I finally started book one and I'm 150 pages in and thoroughly enjoying it so far. Ting has mentioned somewhere above about O'Brian's easy writing style, IE his ability to write in such a way that makes reading so easy. I liked the way he slowly introduced the characters before setting out upon the sea. It gives the reader far more investment in the story. So far I'm hooked so I think I'll be setting out on the twenty book voyage over the next two or three years  :)

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