Books Culture and Society

On The Curious Pleasure of Reading Patrick O’Brian

After a last salute Jack glanced aloft – still the sweet west wind – and then he looked fore and aft: a fine clear deck, hands all at their stations and all beaming with pleasure; and turning to the master he said, ‘Mr Hanson, pray lay me a course for Cape Pilar and Magellan’s Strait. – Blue At The Mizzen, Patrick O’Brian

With those words, Patrick O’Brian finishes his final completed book, Blue At The Mizzen, and I complete my Patrick O’Brian Festival, during which I have read all 20 of his completed Aubrey – Maturin books, some for the third or fourth time,  some for only the second time, and two, to my considerable surprise, for the first time. Alas, a pleasure never to be repeated, because O’Brian died in 2000, and never again will I have the pleasure of setting sail with Aubrey and Maturin for some fresh adventure, discovering nondescript species, paying very careful attention to the rigging, and foiling enemies both dastardly and honourable.

The heart of the series, for all the adventure and great quantity of naval goings on, is the friendship between Aubrey and Maturin. As O’Brian frequently points out, two less well-matched friends could scarcely be imagined. Aubrey is English, tall, blond, bluff, open hearted, almost entirely unreflectvie, all too easy to imagine downing an unwise number of ales after a British Lions match. It’s a familiar archetype, especially for someone who has spent time in pubs in the posher parts of London. Maturin, on the other hand, is Irish, dark, mysterious, brooding, cynical and complex, more at home in more intellectual circumstances.  Aubrey, though his views are those of a man of his time, is easier to imagine in our own, one of those bluff, hearty, rugger-buggers in a forward patrol base in Afghanistan He was well cast as Russel Crowe. Maturin is harder to categorise: he is a generalist – a naturalist and anatomist, spy and physician – and our society is one which does not reward generalists. Perhaps he might be a journalist?  Really, the nearest thing I can imagine to him is one of those WWII academics plucked out of their natural habitats and parachuted into occupied Europe, driven by exigencies of a war for national survival, combining a fascination with, say, Classical Civilisation with the earnest desire to defeat Nazi Germany.

Besides the pleasure one takes in their friendship, and in the way in which they quickly seem like our own friends, there is the pleasure of surprising familiarity. It seems strange to think of it in that way  – the world of the Royal Navy in the time of the Napoleonic wars  is such a totally different one to ours. But it does quickly seem familiar, partially because of the way the rhythms of naval life establish themselves. Beating to quarters, practice at the great guns, rigging church, the very old jokes, the endless rounds of dinners… you can see why people compare him with Jane Austen. Life aboard ship does seem very much to resemble life in  one of Austen’s villages, with its limited social circle and strict class divisions.

I’m not sure I would have wanted to live in that world – apart from anything else, at least half of my ancestors would have definitely been on the hauling-on-a-rope end of things, those who weren’t unceremoniously deported to the far side of the world, never to return.

That class division, that certainty that the old ways are best which so characterises Aubrey are lightened and made bearable by Maturin. Ironically, it is Maturin, in spite of his much more time-bound role of travelling naturalist,  whose perspective represents us, a person of the modern era, a scientist, unsentimental, opposed to tyranny. He gives us a identifiable place to stand, in order to feel a stronger sympathy with the shockingly hierarchical, paternalistic world in which he finds himself.

This sympathetic character is no mean trick. I once tried to write a historical novel, currently sitting in several hundred pages of  unreadable longhand in a cupboard, and I was struck by how difficult it is to reconcile the conflicting demands of, on the one hand, having a sympathetic lead character, who, on the other hand, is not just a twenty-first century person anachronisitically dumped in this historical setting.  What should the character’s attitude to women, slaves, sexuality, politics be?  O’Brian squares this circle with Maturin. His advanced learning and complex personal history gives us a way in, and his attitude towards Aubrey, and hence towards Aubrey’s world of post-captaining and county-squiredom, gives us permission to enjoy it as well.

This complex consciousness leads to a feeling that enjoying O’Brian is somehow forbidden – it’s a guilty pleasure, like guzzling red wine, steak ,and cheese when you know our betters don’t approve of it. Or of you. It’s a world which our own has displaced, and its shibboleths are so different to ours, and even enjoying it feels subtly retrograde and unfashionable. Which in turn adds to it, makes it a complex pleasure – the ironic pleasure of rebellious naughtiness. The rebellious naughtiness of enjoying a world which definitely did not approve of rebelliousnes. It’s a funny old life isn’t it?

Finally, O’Brian is excellent company for unemployment. Aubrey is frequently on his uppers, oppressed with debt, anxiously awaiting news of some opportunity. The frequent scent of distressed naval officers  waiting in the antechamber of the First Lord of the Admiralty, hoping for a ship is deeply familiar to anyone who has spent serious time waiting in lobbys for job interviews. Aubrey’s emotional rollercoaster is something I can identify with: but Maturin’s stoicism is bracing.  He doesn’t fundamentally care about food or drink or external signs of wealth – he only wants to be pursuing his passions of botanizing, anatamotizing, and trying to bring down Napoleon. That, well not exactly single mindedness, but that self possession is admirable, and inspiring. Maturin is passionate, but he is not impractical, and that is something which is worthy of emulation.

So it is not without regret that I farewell Aubrey and Maturin for now, sailing off into the sunset, leaving the sun shining on their wake, and the sound of Boccherini fading behind them.

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

2 replies on “On The Curious Pleasure of Reading Patrick O’Brian”

Ah,reading O’Brian over a sandwich lunch and a glass of wine featured in one of my posts a year or two ago. The excellence of the dialogue is what distinguishes him, I think – an ability to capture an archaic but vital speech to which we can relate. Try Neal Stephenson’s baroque trilogy for a similar treatment of Newton, Leibniz and others – in a picaresque context!

I enjoyed the Baroque series too. The differences between that and the Aubrey-Maturin series is instructive though. Stephenson’s characters strike me as modern people dropped into this alien world. It’s a very dot com take on things, and gives a wonderful sense of the exciting possibilities of that enlightenment way of seeing the world.

With O’Brian though, you feel like they are actually 18th century people, though ones carefuly chosen to be acceptable to 20th century people.

They are both great, but in different ways.

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