Master and Commander is the first of Patrick O’Brian’s now famous Aubrey-Maturin novels, regarded by many as the greatest series of historical novels ever written. It establishes the friendship between Captain Jack Aubrey RN and Stephen Maturin, who becomes his secretive ship’s surgeon and an intelligence agent. It displays the qualities which have put O’Brian far ahead of any of his competitors: his depiction of the detail of life aboard an early 19th century man-of-war, of weapons, food, conversation and ambience, of the landscape and of the sea. O’Brian’s portrayal of each of these is faultless and the sense of period throughout is acute. His power of characterisation is above all masterly. Ric Jerrom reads this classic sea story from Patrick O’Brien.
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The first meeting between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin is humorously inauspicious. At a performance by an Italian quartetto in the music-room of the Governor’s House at Port Mahon on the island of Minorca near Spain, Jack is so enthusiastically enjoying the music, beating the time with his hand and humming “pum-pum-pum,” that Stephen elbows him sharply in the ribs, so that Jack must master his desire to pick up a chair and dash it over the villain's head. Yet after receiving the wonderful news that he’s been promoted to Master and Commander of the Sophie, a small sloop, Jack is in such high spirits that when he runs into Stephen around town he invites him to a sumptuous meal, during which he invites him to become the surgeon of the Sophie. (Whereas other naval historical fiction, like the Horatio Hornblower and Alan Lewrie series, begin at the beginning of their heroes’ naval careers as midshipmen, O’Brien opens his with the promotion of Jack, who has nominally been at sea since nine and factually since twelve, to master and commander, a proto-captain.)
Jack and Stephen differ in so many ways! Jack, an officer in His Majesty’s navy, is tall, robust, tanned, good-natured, and blond-maned, while Stephen, an out-of-work civilian physician-biologist is small, slender, pale, melancholic, and be-wigged (with a weird hair-piece made of wire). Furthermore, Jack tends to speak his mind, often unintentionally offending his interlocutors, is bad at languages (as when he comically confuses “putain” with “patois”), is hot-tempered (which gets him into trouble with authority figures), while the highly educated and intelligent Stephen is more careful in his speech, more philosophical, and is fluent in Catalan and speaks Spanish and French as well. Nevertheless, the two men are roughly the same age (between twenty and thirty), share a love of music (Jack playing the violin, Stephen the cello), and are naturally drawn to one another as boon companions. One of the great pleasures of the novel is beholding their friendship unfold.
Other pleasures involve the exciting scenes of naval action that suddenly pop up, from inconclusive minor skirmishes between pairs of ships to major battles involving multiple ships and shore batteries (for in the year 1800 when the novel takes place England is at war with Spain and France), as well as the occasional brief, vivid, and lyrical descriptions of the world viewed with relish from a ship at sea:
“At almost the same time the sun popped up from behind St. Phillip’s fort; it did, in fact, pop up, flattened like a sideways lemon in the morning haze and drawing its bottom free of the land with a distinct jerk.”
“The sea itself already had a nacreous light that belonged more to the day than the darkness, and this light was reflected in the great convexities of the topsails, giving them the lustre of grey pearls.”
O’Brien also writes many spicy and funny lines, as when some of the Sophie’s men comment on the middle-aged Master’s obvious feeling for Jack: “Old Sodom and Gomorrah is sweet on Goldilocks.” Or as when Stephen looks forward to working on a patient: “It has been a long time since I felt the grind of bone under my saw.” Or as when Jack tells Stephen about the poor food he’ll have to endure till the Sophie can get better supplies: “Salt horse and Old Weevil’s wedding cake for most of the voyage, with four-water grog to wet it.”
There are also poignant lines about the difficulties we face in life, as when the conflicted Lieutenant James Dillon says to his fellow-Irishman Stephen, “We understood one another better before ever I opened my mouth.” Stephen himself has a philosophical turn of mind, and is often observing and then commenting on human and animal nature, as when he tries to explain to the straightforward Jack how a man might be torn between conflicting loyalties, or as when he intently observes the macabre copulation of a praying mantis couple, during which the male mounts the female and grasps her body with his legs, only to have her bite off his head and eat it, leaving his body still copulating, which leads Stephen to tell Jack that at times a woman doesn’t need a man’s head and heart. (The depiction of women in the novel is definitely done from a male point of view!)
And of course there are plenty of nautical details in the novel, about the different ships in the age of sail, and of the different sails, masts, guns, crews, officers, punishments, techniques, procedures, protocols, strategies, food and drink, toilets, sleeping arrangements, and so on involved. Some of them remain opaque to land-lubber me, but many of them become more or less clear thanks to O’Brien’s device of inserting Stephen, a man with “no experience in naval matters,” into Jack’s world, so that he may ask questions and make comments on our behalf, so to speak, as when early in the novel he’s given a tour of the Sophie by a midshipman. Anyway, the nautical details never get in the way of the story, which is full of psychological and physical excitement, humor, relish, and suspense.
Ric Jerrom reads the novel with clarity, feeling, and wit, modifying his voice effectively for the different seamen, whether common or elite, English or foreign, old or young, drunk or sober, pleasant or nasty, and so on. He brings the book vividly to life.
Fans of the Hornblower or Lewrie books should enjoy Master and Commander, as should anyone who likes historical novels featuring compelling characters and authentic settings and exciting action.
The Aubrey-Maturin series is one of my favourite series of historical fiction. The historical backgrounds are well-researched and accurate, the plots intriguing, the writing superb. What's more, the stories are told with some humour, and with real love for the main characters which are thouroughly human and likeable despite (or because of) their faults. And there's plenty of naval warfare action, plus some science thrown in too. The narrator of this first book in the series is excellent, he strikes exactly the right tone of voice. I can't wait for the whole series to become available (*unabridged*!).