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In November, 2000, the Smithsonian sponsored a seminar about Patrick O'Brian. Ken Ringle of the Washington Post organized and MC'd the event:

The day-long Nov. 4 seminar which I put together  for the Smithsonian included six hour-long talks: my keynote, which attempted to explain the actual sailing of a square rigger; Dr. Robert Joy's lecture on the medical world of the Napoleonic period; Smithsonian curator Herman Viola's talk on the post-Cook, pre-Darwin period in natural science; "Lobscouse" mavens Lisa and Cookie Grossman on food in the books and conductor Richard Kapp's fine session on the way POB uses music. My bit on the books as literature was a sort of round-up piece at the end of the day, followed only by our roundtable on POB the man. Hence my rather oblique introduction. — KAR

The Aubrey-Maturin Books as Literature

© 2000 by Ken Ringle

We come now to what in my profession we call the "so what" paragraph: that point in the story where the reader or the audience is supposed to be told the significance of all this. Suppose we grant that Patrick O'Brian was unequaled in informing us about people and ships in the age of sail. Suppose we acknowledge that he was both accurate and insightful in describing both the medical and the natural world on the cusp of the 19th Century. And let us certainly grant that he evokes as well the glories of both the music of that time and suet puddings as well.

So what? Are these twenty books in the Aubrey/Maturin series just entertainment, something that has just not yet turned up on Oprah? Or is there in these books something far richer; something that touches us both rationally and emotionally and leaves us fulfilled at some far deeper level?

Are these books not only best sellers but literature? And if they are literature, what does that mean?

In an effort to answer those questions I discovered that I think of literature a bit the way the Supreme Court thinks about pornography: I know it when I see it, but I'm damned if I can define it. The Oxford English Dictionary isn't much help. It defines literature as "writings in prose or verse having excellence of form or expression, treating ideas of permanent or universal interest."

That would seem to beg the question. We won't really know how permanent or universal O'Brian's work is for another century or so. And if we try to gauge the excellence of his form and expression, then we have to define excellence. Entire books have been written on that. So let's try another tack.

Let's ask what are the hallmarks and the building blocks of Patrick O'Brian's literary achievement? What does he do to us and how does he do it?

Well, obviously he has a plot for each novel. The narrative skill of his plotting is self-evident. If you can put down these books in the middle of the battle with the Cacafuego in Master and Commander, or the sea chase with the Waakzaamheid in Desolation Island or the pillory scene in Reverse of the Medal, you have considerably more will power than I. If you can turn aside from the intrigues in the admiralty and in the bedroom, shrug off the fate of Stephen Maturin on St. Paul's Rocks in the mid-Atlantic and not really give a damn if Jack Aubrey ever raises his flag, then I would say you have wasted the time and money that you're spending here. You may be beyond help.

But if plots alone made for great literature, Tom Clancey would win the Nobel Prize. If we didn't care about Odysseus and Hamlet and Sinbad the Sailor as protagonists, we wouldn't remember their adventures. And so it is that almost all really great literature is character-driven. The characters must not only come alive to us as people, and engage us in their fate, they should tell us something about the human condition. And here, I would argue, lies the core of O'Brian's genius.

In Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin he has given us the man of action and the man of thought; the L'Allegro and Il Penseroso' tension that Milton pointed out to us so clearly; the Don Quixote and Sancho Panza of Manuel Cervantes. But he has also turned that tension most intriguingly on its head. Jack Aubrey may be the Lord of La Mancha whom destiny calls, but it's his sidekick who dreams the impossible dreams ;dreams of Catalan independence and Irish self-rule. It is Stephen Maturin who reads too much, and Jack Aubrey who is ruled by worldly appetites as much as courage and skill.

It is Jack Aubrey who reminds us that we are usually our own worst enemy. But he also reminds us that even sometime screw up can be capable of heroic deeds, can command fierce loyalties and can outlast the consequences of their failures and persevere to often poignant triumphs.

I'll return to Jack and Stephen in a moment. We could spend the whole hour just on them, just as we could on my favorite character in the books, the bitch-goddess Diana Villiers. I would argue strongly Diana is one of the very greatest female characters in all fiction. I could wish today's feminist scholars would spend more time on her and less on Madonna and Sylvia Plath. But I better not go there.

O'Brian has the whole series with which to explore the many facets of major characters like Jack, Stephen and Diana. What may be more helpful in understanding O'Brian's skill at creating living people is to look at the economy with which he does so.

He can out-Dickens Charles Dickens in sketching signature quirks for shipboard crewmembers; like the drooling ferocity of Awkward Davis or the shrewish petulance of Aubrey's immortal steward, Preserved Killick.

But what really staggers me is O'Brian's gift for giving us a whole life in a nutshell. Let me give you a couple of examples.

We meet the admiral's wife Molly Harte on page twenty of Master and Commander. Here's how O'Brian introduces her:

"She was a fine, dashing woman, and without being either pretty or beautiful she gave the impression of being both, mostly from the splendid way she carried her head. She despised her scrub of a husband, who truckled to her, and she had taken to music as a relief from him. But it did not seem that music was enough; for now she poured out a bumper of wine and drank it off with a very practiced air."

Notice what we get from that; strength, intelligence, frustration, a head-strong will: a mini-portrait, in fact, of a woman's limited options in the Napoleonic era, even among the aristocracy. And an intimation of her means of revenge. Two-hundred pages later O'Brian spells out what that means. But he does so obliquely with his characteristic mischief:

Mrs. Harte, we learn, is out riding with a Colonel Pitt, though her husband can't understand how she can do so in such hot weather. And O'Brian shifts us instantly from the husband's puzzlement to the book's celebrated, lip-smacking description of two praying mantises having sex. That act, you will remember, culminates in the female, at the moment of supreme satisfaction, biting her mate's head off. And how does O'Brian top that?

"'Ah,' said Stephen with intense satisfaction, and noted down the time again."

Now the praying mantises, that's pure genius. That's O'Brian at play. And you can almost feel the gleam in his eye a book later in Post Captain when he has Maturin define "wit" as "the unexpected copulation of ideas."

But he's really given us all that earlier in three sentences on page twenty of Master and Commander. He's done it all in miniature, with his left hand. And it's not crucial to the plot, or even to the structure of his major characters. It's merely enrichment; a small, dazzling literary arpeggio. But it's the essence of what gives these books their extraordinary resonance and life.

Let me give you another example. In the opening pages of Reverse of the Medal, eleventh book in the series, even before we meet Jack Aubrey, we observe him from a distance bringing his ship into the harbor of Bridgetown, Barbados. The captain of the "Irresistible", who is observing the maneuver, is telling his wife, in rather garrulous and extended fashion, that Lucky Jack Aubrey is really not at all the thing. He's a fellow, Captain Goole says, who has squandered his chances for promotion in spite of his victories in the past.

Now on one level this is merely a skillful way of bringing new readers up to speed in the series, hiding the necessary pill of background in a biscuit of appetizing narrative. But O'Brian can't resist telling us a great deal more about two characters whom we will never meet again, and in the process a great deal about the world in which Jack Aubrey lives and the sort of people he must deal with.

"No," said the captain, "it is my believe he overdid it; rode his luck to death. There is a tide in the affairs of men..." He hesitated.

"I dare say there is, my dear," said his wife.

"I do beg, Harriet, that you will not incessantly interrupt every time I open my mouth," cried Captain Goole. "There. You have driven it out of my head again."

"I am sorry, my dear," said Mrs. Goole, closing her eyes. She had come from Jamaica to recover from the fever, and to escape being buried among the land crabs; and sometimes she wondered whether that was a very clever thing to have done."

When he's at the top of his game, O'Brian builds the same sort of characters with dialogue alone. Like this scene in India, from the series' third book, HMS Surprise:

"Be so good as to call me an elephant," said Stephen.

"Sahib, at once. Does the sahib prefer a male elephant or a female elephant?"

"A male elephant. I should be more at home with a male elephant."

"Would the sahib wish me to bring him to a house of boys? Cleaned, polite boys like gazelles, that sing and play the flute?"

"No Mahomet: just the elephant, if you please."

The enormous gray creature knelt down, and Stephen looked closely into its wise little old eye, gleaming among the paint and embroidery. "I beg your pardon," murmured Stephen at the vast, archaic ear, and mounted.

They rode down the crowded Chowringee, Mahomet pointing out objects of interest. "There lives Mirza Shah, decrepit, blind: kings trembled at his name. There Kumar the rich, an unbeliever; he has a thousand concubines. The sahib is disgusted. Like me, the sahib looks upon women as tattling, guileful, tale-bearing, noisy, contemptible, mean, wretched, unsteady, harsh, inhospitable; I will bring him a young gentleman that smells of honey?"

Now, this sort of thing is shot through the Aubrey/Maturin series. It is the sort of verbal economy O'Brian learned from the one writer he considered his mentor in narrative technique, and that was Jane Austen. But Jane Austen rarely spent her gifts on minor or passing characters. That was the hallmark of Dickens. And one of the wonders of O'Brian is how ingeniously he has chosen and evoked for his great work , not just the techniques of Austen and Dickens, but a world on the cusp between Austen and Dickens. It is a world that lies not simply between the chronological worlds of the 18th and 19th Century, but in their overlapping cultures.

George III is the king of England, but we hear almost nothing about him throughout the twenty books. Instead, HMS Surprise navigates a narrow but sunlit sea between imperial tyranny of Napoleon on one philosophical shore, and the ideas Maturin associates with "that mumping villain" Rousseau on the other; between rationalism and the first stirrings of romanticism; between the traditions and institutions that O'Brian thinks we all need, to function as human beings, and what he considers the philosophical quicksands of egalitarianism and democracy.

It is never hard to guess where O'Brian's sympathies lie. Repeatedly he reminds us that a treasured farewell in Spanish and Catalan is the phrase "Let No New Thing Arise." Anything new is bound to be bad.

In Reverse of the Medal, Jack notices that the streets of London are no longer peopled by men in the colorful claret-colored, bottle green and bright blue coats of his youth. Instead, he notes, the city is more and more given over to men dressed in black which gives the streets a mourning air... Jack decides regretfully that London is no longer "the flower-garden that once it had been."

In The Wine Dark Sea, the utopian Frenchman Dutourd asks Maturin at the dinner table what he thinks of Democracy. Maturin protests that naval tradition prevents any discussion of religion, women and politics in the mess.

Some think such a tradition makes for insipid conversation, Stephen continues, but the rule "has its uses; it prevents any member from wounding any other present by saying he did not think the policy that put Socrates to death and left Athens prostrate was the highest expression of human wisdom. Or by quoting Aristotle's definition of democracy as mob-rule, the depraved version of a commonwealth."

"Can you suggest a better system?" asked Dutourd.

"Sir," said Stephen, "...tradition seals my mouth. As I have told you, we do not discuss politics at this table."

This chosen time frame for the Aubrey/Maturin novels, is no small part of their achievement. World War II may have been Britain's finest hour, but O'Brian considers the Napoleonic conflict its Trojan War; a better setting for a Homeric saga of human endeavor because it just predates the industrial Revolution that took so many achievements out of the minds and hands of men and women and turned them over to science and technology.

And so we have as our setting the world of the square-rigged ship: the most complex machine that predates the industrial revolution. The sailing ship is uniquely human in its complexity because its maximum employment is as much an art as it is a science. Another cusp, you see: between humanity and technology, between art and science.

But isn't it rather confining, we might argue? Or, as those who don't understand O'Brian might protest, what does all that sailing stuff have to do with searching out the insights into the human condition that are properly the novelist's task?

We find the answer on page forty-three of Master and Commander:

"For a philosopher, a student of human nature, what could be better?" says Stephen of naval life. "The subjects of his inquiry shut up together, unable to escape his gaze, their passions heightened by the dangers of war, the hazards of their calling, their isolation from women and their curious but uniform diet. And by the glow of patriotic fervor... A ship must be a most instructive theater for an inquiring mind."

But what about grand themes, we might ask? Don't great works of literature concern themselves ultimately with great themes?

Well, yes. But what are they? When you come right down to it, there are only six: Man vs. God or Fate, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Woman, Man vs. Man, Man vs. Society, and Man vs. Himself. Let me repeat that: Man vs. God, Man vs. Nature. Man vs. Woman. Man vs. Man, Man vs. Society, and Man vs. Himself. That's really it. All great literary themes boil down to those six. I encourage you as you read and enjoy the works of Patrick O'Brian to notice how skillfully and how profoundly he explores not just one of those themes, but every one. Every one in every book.

Now, we've talked a bit about plot and character and setting and theme in these books. I want to say a word about perspective and description.

O'Brian narrates these books almost entirely from the third person omniscient point of view. But he restrict's that omniscience rather intriguingly. For example, we are almost always observing either Jack or Stephen. Occasionally he may set a scene for one or the other by letting us see it first from the perspective of a minor character, as we saw earlier with Capt. Goole and his wife in Reverse of the Medal.

In the early going of Post Captain, O'Brian introduces Sophie and Diana by letting us overhear the dining room table talk at Mapes Court where they live. Jane Austen never wrote a scene between men, when no woman was present. She had never witnessed one, and refused as an artist to speculate on what men might say when women weren't around.

Patrick is not so humble. He lets us listen to women talking out of the presence of men, but he never really takes us into their minds, at least not beyond a point given evidence by their words or actions. Likewise, we rarely spend any time alone with members of the crew. Occasionally we learn Killick's reaction to something overheard in Jack's cabin, or he lets us listen in to foredeck chatter, or learn of a crewman's worries about some medical condition. But he almost never lets us into their reflections. Reflections we experience almost entirely through Jack and Stephen. But, once again, not absolutely. One of the techniques O'Brian employs with particular deftness is conveying the reaction of the foredeck hands by stating something in their idiom.

For example, in The Mauritius Command, fourth book in the series, Jack inquires about the health of a crewman named Francis. This is how O'Brian tells us who Francis is:

"Francis, until today the most popular topman in the ship, endeavoring to gild the maintopgallant truck, had lost his hold, making a most spectacular fall from that giddy eminence, missing the deck and certain death by the grace of the frigate's roll, but grazing her #12 portlid with such force as to play havoc with his thoracic cage, and above all to smear the bleeding paintwork, the grass-combing bugger."

This, of course, is more unexpected copulation of ideas. O'Brian loves sentences that start off in one place and end up in another. Your English composition teacher; and mine; said good writers don't do that. O'Brian does it anyway. And look how much fun he has.

This from Master and Commander:

"Two bells in the morning watch found the Sophie sailing steadily eastward along the 39th parallel with the wind just abaft of her beam; She was heeling no more than two strakes under her topgallant sails and she could have set her royals if the amorphous heap of merchantmen under her lee had not determined to travel very slowly until daylight, no doubt for fear of tripping over the lines of longitude."

This leads us to O'Brian's power of description. We could sit here all day talking about the precision of his language, the power of his images or the heart-searing effect of his emotional restraint. Most of you, I'm sure, have your own favorite examples. I'm going to read you only two. But as I do, I'd like you to consider not just the picture he paints but how precisely, and with what restraint his words and images convey mood and tone? the most difficult qualities in any narration for a writer to control.

The first passage is from the opening chapter of HMS Surprise, third book in the series. We have just been to a meeting where the lords of the admiralty have, without Jack's knowledge, removed from him a considerable sum of prize money he was counting on to clear his debts and enable him to marry. We won't actually meet Jack in this book until the next chapter. Instead O'Brian takes us right to Mapes Court where Jack's fiancee, Sophie Williams, is having tea with Stephen Maturin. Sophie is worried. Stephen's own emotions, we are to learn, have been all but paralyzed by the loss of his love. These are not happy times. Watch how O'Brian sets the scene.

In Whitehall a gray drizzle wept down upon the Admiralty, but in Sussex the air was dry; dry and perfectly still. The smoke rose from the chimney of the small drawing-room at Mapes Court in a tall, unwavering plume, a hundred feet before its head drifted away in a blue mist to lie in the hollows of the downs behind the house. "The leaves were hanging yet, but only just, and from time to time the bright yellow rounds on the tree outside the window dropped of themselves, twirling in their slow fall to join the golden carpet at its foot, and in the silence the whispering impact of each leaf could be heard; a silence as peaceful as an easy death.

The second is from Treason's Harbor, the ninth book, where Jack's fortunes are once again at an ebb. He's had bad news from home while on convoy duty in the Mediterranean and he's finding what solace he can in the nautical life he so loves.

He was eating his dinner, not in the dining-cabin but right aft, sitting with his face to the great stern-window, so that on the far side of the glass, and a biscuit-toss below, the frigate's wake streamed away and away from him, dead white in the troubled green; so white that the gulls, poising and swooping over it, looked quite dingy. This was a sight that never failed to move him: the noble curve of shining panes, wholly unlike any land borne window, and then the sea in some one of its infinity of aspects; and the whole in silence, entirely to himself. If he spent the rest of his life on half-pay in a debtors' prison he would still have had this, he reflected...and it was something over and above any reward he could possibly have contracted for.

Now, this symphonic orchestration we find in the Aubrey/Maturin novels; this orchestration of plot and character, of theme and detail, of description and mood; this, I would persuade you, is the stuff of genius. If it is not unique, it surely embodies the "excellence of form and expression, treating ideas of permanent or universal interest" that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as literature.

But in looking up that definition I came upon further evidence to make our case for O'Brian's permanent worth on the literary landscape. As is its wont, the OED supplies an exemplary literary quotation to make its definition clear. And for the definition of literature I've just described it provides the following:

"Literature stands related to man, as science stands to nature." Think about that. "Literature stands related to man, as science stands to nature."

The author of that quotation is given as J. H. Newman, but it could just as well be Stephen Maturin. For just as Maturin uses science to probe the secret mysteries of nature, so Patrick O'Brian uses his naval tales to probe the mysteries of man. And when we sign on for a book-length voyage with him, we know that we'll drop anchor at the end both wiser and more sensitive to the precious gifts that surround us in our embattled, always imperfect, and ever-doomed existence.

His world, we come to understand, is really our world. And the dilemmas and triumphs of his characters are the maps of our very own lives.