Years ago my friend Robert Wexler gave me a copy of Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander. My friend Anne Sheldon also raved about the Aubrey/Maturin series, and my fading memory tells me that Nicola Griffith recommended it to our Clarion West class.
I loved it and wanted to read the rest of the series. But I didn’t really want to commit to the purchase of 20 books and they never seemed to be available in the right order in the library. Since this is a series that begs to be read in the right order, I let it go.
But recently, thanks to the Austin Public Library’s excellent computerized system for holds, I figured out that I could reserve the books in order. Now I’m close to halfway through the series — I just put Treason’s Harbour on hold — and I’m having a wonderful time.
For those few who don’t know, the Aubrey/Maturin series tells the story of British Navy Captain Jack Aubrey and his “particular friend,” Dr. Stephen Maturin, during the Napoleonic wars. I am no expert on the era — despite a high school history teacher who loved to teach Napoleon — but I’d venture to say that O’Brian’s work meets the exacting standards for accuracy in historical novels championed on this blog by Madeleine Robins.
Maturin is considered a great doctor of the period, but his medical ideas are those of his time. He is far from a clean man and dissects the bodies of dead orphans when he can get his hands on them. He is somewhat more progressive than Aubrey, in part because he is Irish-Catalan and nominally Roman Catholic — characteristics that are not considered quite the thing in the Britain of the time.
Aubrey is a large (16 stone or 224 pound) man, blond, with a tendency toward a red face. Not only is he brave in battle, but he is a fine strategist and commander and a good judge of men for their Naval jobs. He is less competent in political affairs and pretty much hopeless on land. They do not, at first glance, seem the kind of men to become friends, and yet they are so close that they often do things that save each the other’s lives or careers.
One of the things that impressed me about the series from the beginning was O’Brian’s use of language. The books sound like early 19th Century novels: long, complex sentences, detailed descriptive passages, important developments referred to almost obliquely in the middle of a long paragraph. Despite that, the action moves along quite swiftly in the way demanded by a modern audience. By contrast, the novels of Mary Shelley — written in the ealry 19th Century — often include up to 100 pages of set-up before readers get to the actual story. Somehow O’Brian managed to develop a style that echoed the period without copying it slavishly.
O’Brian’s work contrasts sharply with Bernard Cornwall’s Sharpe series, set in the same period. Cornwall’s prose and general style is modern, and the plot of each novel follows a predictable form. I read these compulsively for awhile, but quit suddenly in the one that led up to the Battle of Waterloo.
I don’t think I’m going to run into the same problem with the Aubrey/Matarin series. Although I take it as a given that both characters will survive, the path to that survival in each book is different. They lose battles and ships and get captured as well as winning some spectactular victories. In the end, I suspect that it’s simply that O’Brian is the better writer: he brings both more creativity and command over language to his work.
One thing I enjoyed in the last couple of books I read: the story of what we in the U.S. call the War of 1812 from the British point of view. It makes me think that all of us would benefit by studying our countries’ histories from the point of view of their enemies.
Women play a small role in these books, though Maturin’s great love and eventual wife Diana Villiers is portrayed as a woman of unusual courage and Aubrey’s wife Sophie should clearly be running his financial affairs. This also reflects the times; women’s roles were very constrained. A woman commander on the deck of a frigate was simply an impossibility.
I find I am reading the books much as I have read other male adventure stories, going back to the Hornblower books (which I read as a girl) and The Three Musketeers: I identify with the male characters (in this case primarily Maturin). When I stop to think about it, I find this an uncomfortable compromise, but while I’m reading it feels perfectly natural. I am caught up in the stories and desperate to find out what happens next.
It interests me that I can get caught up in these stories while ignoring the position of the women. By contrast, when I read Jane Austen — who lived and wrote during the period covered by the O’Brian novels — I frequently get upset and angry, while still admiring the books. Women predominate in Austen’s books, and I, of course, identify with them, which is what makes me angry: These intelligent, passionate women, condemned to such small and narrow lives, a decent marriage their only option for a good life.
It’s easier just to enjoy the adventure stories identifying with the male characters than to think about the lives of women at the time. And, of course, the lives of most men of the time were not easy, either, as these books make abundantly clear — another point of their historical accuracy.
I’m thoroughly enjoying my travels with the British Navy, but reading these books convinces me once again that I am no believer that the past was a better place. In fact, I find myself thanking my lucky stars that such things as medicine, the rights of women, and the treatment of our fellow humans has progressed substantially since the early 1800s.
My novella Changeling is now available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story. And it’s not about faeries.