Back in 1970, when I was just beginning to read historical fiction, especially books with naval themes passed on to me by my father, a series of novels was launched with a familiar setting but of a quality and range that is seldom seen in the genre. I’m referring to Patrick O’Brian’s novels about the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars, the first of which was Master and Commander, involving a pair of naval officers serving in the extended conflict between Britain and France and their Continental allies from 1793 to 1815. Some will be familiar with the 2003 film of the same name, directed by Peter Weir.
Many observe that O’Brian’s novels are comparable to Jane Austen’s, if only she had written rousing naval adventures. The remark is apt and not that great a stretch: Austen’s family was well connected not only in the clerical world of the Church of England but also in the nautical world of Britain’s navy. She too wrote during the Napoleonic conflict, albeit more about the experience “at home” rather than abroad. O’Brian’s novels are full of humor, much as Austen’s are, with wonderful insight into the human psyche and character. Of course O’Brian was writing years later about a world he had never lived in, which makes his work quite remarkable, the product of great erudition.
Jack Aubrey, the protagonist, is a bluff Englishman who has served virtually his whole life in the navy, “man and boy,” as he would say, much of the time on the Surprise, a frigate that’s already come to seem a bit outmoded for the “modern” naval warfare in the Napoleonic period. Above all Aubrey is a warrior, most in his element when calculating the various factors of a particular situation and determining his course. On shore he’s beset by domestic and financial troubles, and is often the victim of his own poor judgment, but at sea in the midst of battle he shines.
In many of the novels Aubrey captains the Surprise, and though situations vary the characteristic setting is detached duty with a particular mission. The first novel begins with Lieutenant Aubrey receiving his commission as “Master and Commander” of the Sophie, a sloop of war that has been awarded a number of cruises to sink or take enemy shipping in the Mediterranean around Minorca. It’s here, at a musical evening at the British naval base in Port Mahon, that Aubrey meets Stephen Maturin, a fellow musical enthusiast and amateur musician.
Maturin is a complex character whose story emerges in the course of the 20 novels of the series. He is also the character whose thoughts are most revealed to the reader, sometimes in the course of extracts from his journals, written in his own secret code. Maturin is a Catholic, the natural son of an Irish officer and a Catalan lady, who has grown up between Ireland and Spain and who has a modest estate in Catalonia. Maturin is an educated man, a university graduate and a physician; but after some disillusioning involvement on the fringes of the Irish Rising of 1798 he is out of luck and out of money. At Aubrey’s invitation he accepts appointment by warrant as surgeon of the Sophie, and their great friendship begins.
As the novels unfold, Maturin works as an agent for the Admiralty: as a spy, in other words, utilizing his contacts among Catalan separatists and elsewhere to work against Napoleon Bonaparte and an expansionist France, while maintaining his cover as a naval surgeon and a noted naturalist. A recurring motif of the novels is the presence of a pro-French cabal of double agents within the Admiralty, and there are echoes of Burgess and Maclean, not to mention the “Smiley” novels of John le Carré, as this plot unfolds. Maturin is also an addict, imbibing medicinal laudanum as a remedy against his melancholy temperament and particular troubles. The conflict against France is the framework for the series, and takes Aubrey and Maturin together by sea to the far reaches of the world on their parallel tracks — tracks that increasingly intersect and connect as the conflict heightens with the French.
Aubrey and Maturin are men of science, though not rationalists, and both fellows of the Royal Society. In reading these novels, one is exposed to O’Brian’s knowledge of the diverse worlds and disciplines his characters inhabit: navigation, hydrography, medicine, natural philosophy, and music, among others. Aubrey is an instinctive but not particularly thoughtful conservative, a hereditary Tory not much in favor in the Whig-dominated governments of Regency England; Maturin is an intellectual whose hard-won experience has convinced him of the limitations of politics and the often unscrupulous and tyrannical nature of revolutionary regimes. The two characters faithfully reflect the Britain of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), in which both Whigs and Tories were heirs of the Enlightenment (to differing degrees).
A good portion of the series is set on shore, especially Aubrey’s courtship of Sophie Williams and their subsequent domestic life, not to mention Maturin’s stormy relationship with Williams’s cousin Diana Villiers. But the world’s oceans are the main stage. The arcana of nautical life during the “Age of Sail” — foresail and mizzen, hawser and stay, etc. — are the backdrop for the action, but so is the world of the Royal Navy. Its rhythms have an incantatory and liturgical quality to them, as watch follows watch, the bell is struck, and the Articles of War are read. Here’s O’Brian in a typical descriptive passage:
On and on she sailed, in warmer seas but void, as though they alone had survived Deucalion’s flood; as though all land had vanished from the earth; and once again the ship’s routine dislocated time and temporal reality so that this progress was an endless dream, even a circular dream, contained within an unbroken horizon and punctuated only by the sound of guns thundering daily in preparation for an enemy whose real existence it was impossible to conceive (H.M.S. Surprise, p. 180).
O’Brian’s sailors are natural conservatives, not liking change in their hallowed traditions, and in this the “wooden world” is microcosm for the larger world of Britain before the Reform Bill of 1833 (I’m indebted to N.A.M. Rodger’s fine social history, The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy [Norton, 1996], for this reference from a contemporary pamphlet). Prize money and the promotion system of the Navy were no more logical than the “rotten boroughs” of Parliament or the prebendary appointments of Cathedral Churches, yet Aubrey is devoted to them. The day that he is made “Post Captain” and guaranteed to become an Admiral simply if he lives long enough is perhaps the happiest day of his life. Maturin acts as foil here, often good-humoredly but sometimes more heatedly pointing out the illogicality of “the service” and its ways.
O’Brian produces some finely drawn characters in addition to Aubrey and Maturin. Sophie Williams and Diana Villiers have already been mentioned. Some characters hint at deeper and more troubled aspects. The insecure and impulsive Lord Clonfert in The Mauritius Command is a complex and flawed character whose grandiosity edges over into tragedy, both for the navy and for him. Clarissa Oakes, who first appears in The Truelove (published in Britain as Clarissa Oakes), is a damaged person, abandoned and sexually abused, whose subsequent conviction for murder has led to her transportation to New South Wales. This surprisingly capable young woman’s interactions with Maturin lead to an intelligence coup vital to Britain’s success. That O’Brian did not do more with her in the later novels is a cause of regret.
Part of the pleasure of the novels is the fully realized world that O’Brian creates. This includes his characters but also their contexts. The dramatic finale of the Waakzaamheid’s pursuit of the Leopard in Desolation Island provoked an audible gasp the first time I read it. I laughed out loud when the young midshipman Babbington provides transport for Diana Villiers in Post Captain. I was on the edge of my seat as the Surprise comes into view at the end of The Far Side of the World.
O’Brian’s works are “merely” historical fiction, but they remind us of what’s required for historical thinking. It makes sense that this happens in a novel, as historian John Lukacs points out: interest in both history and the novel arose together about 250 years ago, connected by an evolving historical consciousness, an association that later gave birth to the historical novel (see his chapter “The Presence of Historical Thinking” in At the End of an Age [R.R. Donnelly & Sons, 2002]). There’s moral purpose in this study, for we grow in understanding of ourselves and our world as we contemplate the imagined lives of others as well as other worlds and events. That’s not to say that historical scholarship is simply a more convincing form of fiction, but rather that it too requires narrative, a framework within which to operate as a discourse.
We have to start with sympathy, a willingness to enter into the imaginative world of the past, rather than judging it by our own time or reconstructing it in our own terms. History is particular; one thing cannot be reduced to another without remainder. At the same time, we have to look for patterns that can connect our own experience with the past and illuminate it for us. Without that connection there cannot be historical thinking, nor can we learn anything useful from the past. There are analogies between one thing and another, and teasing them out and showing the pattern is the work of history.
Perhaps even more, we must acknowledge that our past informs the present. It came before. The past is prelude, not just to our present but to our future as well. In other words, in thinking about the past we’re not reduced to looking for patterns between unrelated things, because the past and present are actually connected. One informs and shapes the other, and the traffic is not all one way. Past and present are differently situated, but the “dim shades” of the past can speak to the present, while our own experience helps us connect to the past and to understand both it and our own world better.
Cyprian wrote, “Let nothing be renewed except what has been handed over” (Letter 74), and the maxim is true in terms of historical thinking as well as of Christian orthodoxy. What has been handed over has to be brought to life, and nothing can live unless we receive it and welcome it. O’Brian’s sympathetic writing invites us into a different reality, a historical fiction for sure, but one that points to the constancy of human experience and its continuity over time. By these criteria O’Brian is a profoundly humane writer, and also a profoundly good one.