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Stephen Maturin, the early years and medical student

by Gill Cawthorn

All page numbers for the Aubrey-Maturin books are HarperCollins paperback editions (Geoff Hunt covers). Page numbers for "A Sea Of Words" by Dean King are for the Owl Books 2nd edition paperback.

Stephen Maturin, the early years.

When you are born a bastard, of unmarried parents who are themselves of different nationalities, have no memories of either parent and put to a wet-nurse from birth, then you are indeed fortunate if relatives of both families accept you lovingly. This is what happened to the boy Stephen.

His father (Maturin) was related to the noble Fitzgeralds and was "an Irish Officer in the service of His most Catholic Majesty", in an Irish regiment attached to the Spanish army. (Desolation Island, page 7) His mother (of the Domanova family) was third cousin to the wealthiest man in Catalonia, but as they were not married Stephen was born illegitimate, a bastard, about which he was naturally rather sensitive. There seems no reason why they should not have married and the relatives on both the Irish and Catalonian sides were very acceptive of Stephen throughout his life, so there was no perceived shame; perhaps his father died before the pregnancy was discovered?

As was usual with an unmarried pregnant woman of good birth, his mother would have been sent away from her home until after the birth, the baby then being fostered or adopted, and to Ireland she went. Being of the Catholic religion, it is possible that there was a Domanova female relative in religious orders in Catholic Ireland, who would be responsible for their care; it was usual in the Catholic community for members of religious houses to serve in other countries. In a similar case he speaks of his father's Irish aunt (Aunt Petronella), who was the Abbess of a Benedictine house, in Avilla. (The Commodore, pages 135, 145). At no time does he ever mention memories of either parent, so perhaps his mother died in childbirth or soon after.

At birth, Stephen was placed with a wet-nurse and remained with this peasant family during his infancy and very early childhood. Pigs reminded him of his time living there "fostered with peasants in the ancient Irish way, and in their house particular swine walked in and out like Christians, as familiar as the dogs and upon the whole cleaner". (Clarissa Oakes, page 157). He also speaks of going to see his wet-nurse "coming back to Aghamore when I was a boy, coming back after an eight year absence, coming back to see Bridie Coolan, and she spoke to me in Irish."(Master and Commander, page 293). That Irish Gaelic was the first language he spoke, although it was forgotten when he left that home and moved to another Irish one, one where English was spoken. This one may have been with one of the Fitzgerald family, as he speaks of a cousin James Fitzgerald with whom he had spent "many a happy day running about the Galtee Mountains together, from the house of a grand-uncle common to both". (The Nutmeg of Consolation, page 302). His passionate interest on all things of the Natural World started as a boy in Ireland, "his first sight of St. Dabeoc's heath when he was seven, of a dell filled with Gold of Pleasure the next year, and of the Pyrenean desman (that rare ill-natured cousin to the shrew) only a few weeks after that." (Clarissa Oakes, page 191).

So at eight years old he left Ireland and was taken to live with his Catalonian Domanova relatives, to be educated as a gentleman. "I spent a great deal of my young days with my uncle in Barcelona or with my grandmother in the country beyond Lerida" (Master and Commander, page 30). "He had been carefully brought up by his Catalan grandfather, to whom elegant manners, a mastery of both languages and of French, as well as horsemanship and a real ability with pistol and small-sword, were necessary qualifications." (Blue at the Mizzen, page 141). In later years, "Stephen was after all a man of high breeding; once, when he was attending a levee, Jack had seen him walking about, perfectly at home, familiarly known and indeed caressed by a surprising number of people, some of them very grand".(The Fortune of War, page 41). His formal schooling commenced, "When I was a boy it was Homer and Vigil and many a stripe and a tear in between.". (Treason's Harbour, page 126). "At one period in his childhood he had been under the rule of a Dominican Tertiary called Sor Luisa".(The Nutmeg of Consolation, page 6). As well as his English he had Catalan and Spanish, "It was written in the Catalan of his youth, as familiar to him as English and more so of the Irish of his childhood" (The Reverse of the Medal, page 206). Also French, as the Catalan border is next to that of South Western France."In my malleable youth I came to a certain knowledge of the languages spoken at the Western end" (The Ionian Mission, pages 63 and 64).

After spending much of his youth housed by members of his mother's family, he found a true home with his godfather, Don Ramon D' Ullastret I Casademon, who was also his father's particular friend and his mother's third cousin. (The Letter of Marque, page 15 ). "The relationship was taken very seriously in the Catalonia of his youth and he spent many happy hours in his godfather's house, a passionate hunter.....and one to whom the boy Stephen owed his first wolf, his first bear and his first imperial eagle's nest"(The Surgeon's Mate, page 158). Don Ramon took the place of his father; in later years when the met in a Baltic expedition, they greeted each other thus; "Stephen saw a small, upright, familiar figure. "Padri!" he cried . "Esteve", cried his godfather, raising his arms and they ran together and embraced...".(The Surgeon's Mate, page 240).

As the time came to consider training for his future life it was obvious that he would be unsuited to an Army career, like his father. In full adult hood, his height was about five and a half feet, weight no more than eight stone and his physical condition often described as meagre."Stephen was a plain bastard at the best, sallow with odd pale eyes, sparse hair and meagre limbs".(The Fortune of War, page 15). "`Here I have a description of a man in a black coat ....,medium height, slim, pale eyes, bob wig, grey breeches, speaks French with a southern accent.`". "` Why` cried Jack,` that must certainly be Stephen.".(Post Captain, page 86). "`Five foot six, slight build, pale eyes, muddy complexion...,speaks perfect French with a southern accent`"( The Surgeon's Mate, page 328). But his quickness at learning, his passionate curiosity in all natural things and his knowledge of Greek and Latin made medicine an obvious choice.

Stephen Maturin, medical student.

Once the decision of future career had been settled, the next was where to study. It has been suggested that he started in Dublin, "He seems to have acquired his premedical education at Trinity College, Dublin" says J. Worth Estes (A Sea Of Words by Dean King, page 32). However, this ignores the position of Catholics in protestant Great Britain at the time, where they were barred from many public positions, including service in the Army and Royal Navy; in society generally, Catholics were regarded with opprobrium, distrusted because of a perceived lack of loyalty to the Crown. It is very unlikely that a Catholic would choose to go to a British University, if an equivalent one of excellence could be found in another country. As Stephen and his family were all practising and devout Catholics, the choice of University would have been that of one in a country with a predominantly Catholic religion, and not Ireland at that time, as it was part of Great Britain and owed allegiance to the King, as Head of the Church of England.

The training for the medical profession was based on an apprenticeship, where a student would follow a qualified Doctor and during the first years also attend additional lectures. There would be an initial period of about five years, to get the degree of Bachelor of Medicine (MB), then a further time to qualify with the doctorate (MD); overall a study period of ten to twelve years. Only with an MB could there be admittance to the course of study for the Doctorate.

Paris was chosen and the young Stephen was there already when the French Revolution began. "In 1789 he had been studying medicine, walking the wards of the Hotel-Dieu in the dawn of the Revolution and running about the streets of Paris" (The Wine Dark Sea, page 72)." As it was, I cheered the taking of the Bastille" (Fortune of War, page 123). He had been granted his degree and probably intended to continue studying for his doctorate at the same place, but in 1792 the National Revolutionary Committee decided to remove the hospitals and schools of medical studies from the traditional Religious Houses that had always run them and to turn these into State facilities. Instead of a Doctorate, the award was a diploma, which entitled the holder to practise medicine on the citizens of France. A diploma would be of lower status and not acceptable for students who wished to practise outside France, in their future career. ( Not many years later, this decision was reversed.

In 1794, Trinity College, Dublin decide to accept students regardless of religion (www.tcd/history), and with his Irish birth and family connections this would be ideal for the second part of his studies. No dates are given for this, unlike in Paris, but in conversations he indicates something of his time there. "He had delivered some scores of babies at the Rotunda in his student days". (The Mauritius Commend, page 30). The Rotunda Hospital, founded in 1745, is still Dublin's premier maternity hospital today. "`In Ireland, you know, we go out more often than the English,` Stephen said, he meant 20 or 30 times in a twelvemonth; in his first year at University he had known men who exceeded this."(On duelling, Post Captain, page 206).

Meeting a fellow naval surgeon, Francis Geary, "Geary and Maturin had studied medicine together; they had shared a skeleton and several unclaimed victims of the Liffey or the Seine" (Wine Dark Sea, page 148).

"If it is splendour that is required and if cloth and craftsmen are to be had, I shall go in my robes as a Doctor of Medicine, with scarlet gown and scarlet hood"(The Thirteen Gun Salute, page 198). Although a Doctorate gown would seem to be standard wear, it seems unlikely that the formality of gowns would have been granted when Stephen Maturin finished his studies in France, as the Revolution was ongoing, with equality for all and no outward signs of superiority; however, this is what Trinity College, Dublin still have, for their Doctors of Medicine.

It must have been at about this time that he became interested and embroiled in another revolution, this time with the United Irishmen, which began as a movement to intended to join the various types of faith in Ireland.