Caught in the act of greatness, part two: worldbuilding, character, and voice

74Guns-- post captain






It delighted but didn’t surprise me to discover that Patrick O’Brian’s historical series appealed to so many fans of SF and F. There are three aspects of the books that seem to appeal to fans: the worldbuilding, the characters, and the voice.

Patrick O’Brian’s worldbuilding conveys the impression that there are not only detailed landscape and dwellings to be glimpsed through the smallest window, but the roads lead somewhere just as detailed, whether the story leads us there or not.

O’Brian is a perfect example of what I call the bricolage method of worldbuilding, bricolage being (I think) a strong element of appeal for many genre readers.

O’Brian’s mastery of history is evident in the slight references that evoke, to the reader who knows that history, actions of far reaching consequence. A semi-comic conversation early on between the French commander Christy-Palliere and Penhoet contrasts with the terrible scene at Mahon at the beginning of the next book, underscoring what Christy-Palliere says about the various branches of Napoleon’s services not knowing what the others are doing, and frequently competing if not outright contradicting one another.  The reader who knows how Talleyrand tried to counterbalance Fouche, and how Napoleon used and discarded both if they did not serve his personal goals, knows that there will be sinister payoff later. And indeed, O’Brian does not disappoint.

Then there is the science angle, which is bound to appeal to readers of SF. Stephen Maturin, the spy, is also a physician-naturalist. O’Brian demonstrates his interests in these fields through Stephen’s secret diaries, and in the way he experiences the natural world in and around the human beings. Take for example the journey from Toulon to the Pyranees “folding and folding away to the west,” the sharp and sensory detail of flora and fauna—the hidden life thereof.

In this second book of the series, voice and character are nearly inextricable.

I’ve seen mainstream critics maintaining its O’Brian’s tribute to Jane Austen.  There is certainly a recognizable, and amusing, chunk of Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Mrs. Norris in Mrs. Williams, but Jane Austen probably would have been appalled at Diana, who shares a great deal with Mary Crawford, at least in superficials.  But while Mary Crawford was content to rely on her charms and to look no farther than the world of London (even while acknowledging its falsity) Diana Villiers was far more complex.

Jane Austen preferred her country-gentry world to London, and even to Bath, if one can guess at her opinions by close reading of her work: women who were fortunate enough to be well born and possessed of a competence could lead comfortable, useful lives, even if they did not find a Mr. Darcy or a Captain Wentworth.

Did she read Mary Wollstonecroft’s passionate essays?  I don’t know, but I see Diana in some of Wollstonecroft’s writing, and and in the diaries and letters of Claire Clairmont, both of whom insisted that women ought to be able to wander the world and experience the same things that men could, without the toxic fallout of lost respect. Harming themselves in their desperation, as well as those around them. Sophie, while more conventional, is also agreeable complex, and I enjoy the books tremendously when they are on stage.

Though Jane Austen might not have liked Diana’s morals, I venture to think that she would’ve enjoyed a great deal of the humor. For example, the following passage:

“ . . . Killick, take good care of the Captain: his physic, well shaken, twice a day: the bolus thrice. He may offer to forget his bolus, Killick.’

 ‘He’ll take his nice bolus, sir, or my name’s not Preserved.’

 ‘Clap to the door. Give way, now; give way altogether. Step out! Lay aloft! Tally! And belay!’

They stood watching the dust of the post-chaise, and Bonden said, ‘Oh, I do wish as we’d worked the hearse-and-coffin lark, sir: if they was to nab him now, it would break my heart.’

 ‘How can you be so simple, Bonden? Do but think of a hearse and fuor cracking on regardless all the way up the Dover Road. It would be bound to excite comment. . .’

 ‘Well, sir. But, a hearse is sure: no bum ever arrested a corpse, as I know of.’

But—like Austen’s best work—not everything is comedy and satire. Like this observation of Stephen’s at an emotional cusp:

A foolish German had said that man thought in words. It was totally false; a pernicious doctrine; the thought flashed into being in a hundred simultaneous forms, with a thousand associations, and the speaking mind selected one, forming it grossly into the inadequate symbols of words, inadequate because common to disparate situations — admitted to be inadequate for vast regions of expression, since for them there were the parallel languages of music and painting. Words were not called for in many or indeed most forms of thought: Mozart certainly thought in terms of music. He [Stephen] himself at this moment was thinking in terms of scent.

I particularly relished the action sequence with the Lord Nelson and the Miss Lambs, characters I was sorry not to see more of.  Stephen becomes more interesting in this book, his insights and abilities so far ranging, but he never becomes the Admirable Crichton, not when he jibes at Jack for his pathological cleanliness, insisting that if he blew on his used cup and sauce-pan they are quite clean enough.  It’s their foibles, their humanity, and above all their relationship, that make Jack and Stephen so compelling.

Much as this book owes to Jane Austen, it is not a work with a tiny brush on two inches ivory, as she said about her own work. Its brush is just as fine, but the canvas is as vast as the sea. But I think it is with the third book that the genre reader really gets hooked.





Caught in the act of greatness, part two: worldbuilding, character, and voice — 9 Comments

  1. You have the appeal of the books exactly right. I also enjoyed your ideas on how O’Brien–writing about the same time and society–was like and unlike Miss Austen.

  2. As someone actively mixing O’Brian’s milleu into genre fiction, I loved this piece. You’re spot on with it. The Aubrey/Maturin books share a lot of DNA with good SF.

  3. I always thought O’Brian was genre fiction, along with Hornblower and Ramage. Hmm. I mean, it’s excellent and the writing amazing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not genre. It’s just a genre that hasn’t been very active lately.

  4. Pingback: Caught in the act of greatness, part three: the author as creator | Book View Cafe Blog