Who would you say is the greatest historical novelist of all time? Novels have not been around that long: a thousand years or so if you think of the Tale of Genji, more if you include sagas and traditional tales like Homer’s Illiad. But the title is still enormous, considering the great flowering of literature in the last thousand years. The title was given by The Times to Patrick O’Brian.
Who the heck is Patrick O’Brian you say? And until 4 years ago I would have said the same thing. I have now read what insiders call the ‘Aubrey-Maturin series’ of 20 books four times. I am just starting the fifth time. (That is why I was glad to learn that there are two English translations of The Tale of Genji – if I wish I can at least re-read it with a different translation and a different nuance).
Patrick O’Brian’s serial masterpiece is set in the heyday of the age of fighting sail in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Britain is fighting a war for her survival against Napoleon’s France and foremost in the struggle is the Royal Navy of the period. The heroes are Jack Aubrey, whose career we follow from lieutenant to master and commander to frigate captain and finally to admiral, and his ‘particular friend’ Doctor Stephen Maturin, physician, naturalist, and spy, who sails with him on most of his adventures.
Now, this is a subject (naval life) and a period (Napoleonic) that I did not feel particularly attracted to. But I am here to tell you that such is O’Brian’s genius that I could not put the books down until I had read the whole series, which took me about 5 months, a book a week. And even more, when I had finished, it wasn’t long before I felt withdrawal symptoms. More on this later.
What is O’Brian’s magic?
These novels are neither Forester nor Marryat, though O’Brian pays the respect due to both. There is adventure and there are battles. The historic furniture and vernacular you can trust absolutely because O’Brian is so steeped in his period but there is also something of his heroine, Jane Austen. He writes with her irony, humour and moral toughness, almost as she might have written of the adventures of her naval brothers. Above all, they are accessible novels, so well written that you settle into each as into a warm bath, knowing you are in good, considerate hands. In evoking so vividly what it was like to be alive then, O’Brian shows by reflection elements of what it is to be alive now, and of how we should live. He achieves that simultaneous dislocation and bridging that is the essence of all imaginative art, and is what distinguishes it from everything else.
From Alan Judd’s review ‘The Winning Post at Last’
From the first opening paragraphs of the first book, you know you are in the hands of a master. The themes are immediately evident: you know there will be authenticity and scholarship, elegance and adventure. You know there will be honour, duty, courage, and friendship. But what strikes you as the guiding light of these themes is O’Brian’s projection of the humanity of his characters in the way he uses humour. Humour is never far away, even in the midst of battle. Never a sarcastic, cynical, negative humour. Always the delightful humour of the portrayal of the characters’ sense of what is right and what is wrong, for the morality of the time. The very fact that they care what is right and what is wrong is endearing and nostalgic to us today, in our age of ‘my way or the highway,’ instant gratification, moral and philosophical poverty.
Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin’s initial meeting almost leads to a duel and the death of one of them. They are attending a musical evening and happen to be seated together. At the end of the first movement Jack turns to his neighbour with a smile:
The words ‘Very finely played, sir, I believe’ were formed in his gullet if not quite in his mouth when he caught the cold and indeed inimical look and heard the whisper, ‘If you really must beat the measure, sir, let me entreat you to do so in time, and not a half beat ahead’.
Jack Aubrey’s face instantly changed from friendly ingenuous communicative pleasure to an expression of somewhat baffled hostility: he could not but acknowledge he had been beating the time; and although he had certainly done so with perfect accuracy, in itself the thing was wrong. His colour mounted, he fixed his neighbour’s pale eye for a moment, said, ‘I trust…’, and the opening notes of the slow movement cut him short.
We are in the hands of a master but the scholarship and the authenticity never intrude, are always subordinated to the background. The flow of the action and the richness of the characters are ever in the forefront of our mind. We are in the hands of a master but the narrator never intrudes, never do we see his craft - oh here is a bit of character description, oh here we are setting up some tension with an antagonist, oh here is a bit of scholarly research. The narrator is forgotten, as if we are listening to an old, old friend, wise and true, knowledgeable and discerning, in whose presence we relax completely.
As we get to know the characters and life aboard ship, we settle into the surroundings and escape into this other world. That is the only way to describe the feeling, as insiders will agree. The captain’s cabin of HMS Surprise is for us almost a second home, a refuge that we can find when our real home becomes too wearing on the spirit.
It is a world closer to nature, before the industrial devolution. Ships were built by hand of wood and cordage and they were managed by hand and eye, always in a spirit of humility with regard to wind and tide. Great practical skill and knowledge of the sea and the weather were essential. The enemy could always be seen, was never anonymous, and had no great technological advantage. Skill, courage, and fortitude decided the day. And honour. Prisoners were taken and released on parole that they would not take part in the war again until exchanged with the enemies’ prisoners. They were not tortured. A man’s word of honour was everything, and so such practices were possible.
We see, indeed we almost participate in, the great friendship that develops between the main characters, a friendship based on shared hardships and dangers. They would risk their lives for each other and sometimes do. This feeling of comradeship is absent in my life at least, I don’t know about yours, and is another reason why I find a refuge in this old world, in their company.
I hope I have given you a taste of the books. There is such a wealth of beauty and delight to discover in them. I can only warn you of one thing: like all good things, they come to an end.
Image: cover of the second book of the series, a painting by Geoff Hunt