The Real McCoy: Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin Novels
“The historical novel, as I learnt with some concern after I had written two or three, belongs to a despised genre,”1 wrote Patrick O’Brian. At the heart of his Aubrey-Maturin novels, however, is not adventure for its own sake. Two characteristics about these books give them permanent value. The first is that O’Brian believes that this period of history about which he writes holds its own significance for the present time. The second is that, in O’Brian’s own words, the essence of his books, “is about human relationships and how people treat one another.” He writes about men, and his novels illustrate two virtues in particular that are at the heart of man and his society with others. These virtues are duty and friendship. Through the particular characters, stories, and settings of his Aubrey-Maturin novels, O’Brian explores what is universal in Man and in society.
O’Brian believed that for an author to be creditable, he had to understand the period about which he wrote inside and out. If he lacks the knowledge, his characters and story suffer, and this distracts the reader. Reading the Aubrey-Maturin novels, however, is an education in itself of the era of the Napoleonic Wars. One learns not only what a t’gallants’l is, but how to pronounce it correctly. Yet O’Brian is not a heavy-handed instructor; he teaches his readers subtly, often through dialogue or a character’s reflections, in the music, politics, and even the philosophy of the time. Sophie, Jack Aubrey’s sweetheart once says in bewilderment,
Of course, I do know it is the French who are so wicked; but there are all these people who keep coming and going – the Austrians, the Spaniards, the Russians… and not only the very day before he left, Jack mentioned Pappenburg… I was despicably false, and only nodded, looking as wise as I could, and said, ‘Ah, Pappenburg’…”2
Stephen Maturin then briefs her on the current alliances, intrigues, and happenings, from all of which the reader gains just as much as Sophie.
O’Brian’s books are not histories of the times as a whole, however, but are histories told from the point of view of sailors. O’Brian wrote that, “When one is writing about the Royal Navy of the eighteenth and early 19th centuries it is difficult to avoid understatement; it is difficult to do full justice to one’s subject; for so very often the improbable reality outruns fiction.”3 In his interviews and essays, O’Brian highlighted many reasons why he felt the period one worthy about which to be written. One reason is that this culture is permeated with civility. Even the most brutal officer gives the majority of his orders with an, “if you please,” and people take greatest pains to prevent discomfort in even small talk. At the same time, O’Brian notes that it was also a time of high ideals, of strong passions, and of great deeds. “Even an uncommonly warm imagination,” O’Brian writes, “could scarcely produce the frail shape of Commodore Nelson leaping from his battered seventy-four gun Captain through the quarter gallery window of the eighty-gun San Nicolas, taking her, and hurrying across her deck to board the towering San Josef of a hundred and twelve guns.”4
The ideals of the Royal Navy, in fact, and of the British people at this time, can be summed up best in what the same Lord Nelson famously signaled to his fleet before the Battle of Trafalgar: ‘England expects every man to do his duty.’ Duty is a theme that arises again and again in the Aubrey-Maturin novels, but it is most prominent in the first of them, Master and Commander, and in two characters in particular. After inspecting his first command, Captain Jack Aubrey reflects, “He was no longer one of ‘us’: he was ‘they’. Indeed, he was the immediately present incarnation of ‘them’…”5 The men in this time naturally respected one such as Capt. Aubrey, because they respected an office of authority. Those in authority were also aware of the duty owed to those under them. For the captain of a ship on which conditions were hard and the work was difficult, this duty consisted largely in knowing how to reward and how to punish, according to the merit. Captain Aubrey, training his men in gunnery, explains to his lieutenant, “Every forem’st jack is richer by a year’s pay, all won in a sunny morning. They must be made to understand that by teaching them their duty, we are putting them in the way of getting more.”6
James Dillon, Aubrey’s 1st lieutenant, is a foil to his gregarious captain. Whereas Aubrey is a man undivided, entirely devoted to his country and wholly suited to his profession, James Dillon, a serious and passionate man, is a highly competent sailor as well, but one with conflicting loyalties. He is both Catholic and a former Irish rebel, and over the course of the novel, Dillon becomes more and more sullen and violent. Stephen Maturin diagnoses Dillon’s disease: “So much pain, and the more honest the man the worse the pain… the moral law, the civil, military, common laws, the code of honour… to say nothing of Christianity for those that practice it. All sometimes, indeed generally, at variance… and a man is perpetually required to choose one rather than another.”7 Duty, though necessary for society, and for organizing men to meet threats such as that of Napoleon’s power, must nevertheless be founded on true convictions, or else it tears a man, and a society, apart.
Inasmuch as O’Brian’s novels are, in essence, about relationships, it is the friendship between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, which lasts through all of the novels and gives them unity and coherence, that is the measure of all the others. It is through this unlikely pair who meet when Maturin elbows Aubrey in the ribs for beating the time at a concert in Minorca that O’Brian chooses to illustrate what is important in a friendship.
Equality is the most fundamental quality. While Aubrey and Maturin’s differences are obvious, the two being, as O’Brian wrote “as unlike as men could be, unlike in nationality, religion, education, size, shape, profession, habit of mind,” nevertheless they share similarities; they share love for music, enmity of Napoleon and of oppression, and most importantly respect for one another. O’Brian writes, “Stephen’s confidence in Captain Aubrey’s seamanship was as entire, as blind, as Jack’s in the medical omniscience of Dr. Maturin.”8 Maturin and Aubrey come each to the other’s aid innumerable times over the course of the novels, and they each delight in the other’s conversation and musical ability, but their friendship is founded neither on utility nor on pleasure, but in mutual respect of the other’s great qualities.
This same respect and love that binds Aubrey and Maturin together is the same love that, from time to time, drives them apart. Dean King writes, “The two are best friends, but O’Brian never lets the friendship grow flabby. Instead, it feeds on its own tension, the pair sometimes struggling to abide each other, to communicate, to convince.”9 Even when the two are not particularly pleased with each other, yet they understand that each is better, indeed whole, with the other. For both men, the world in which they live often tempts them to become something less than human, whether it be, as in Aubrey’s case, by the abuse of authority, or as in Maturin’s by the despair and cynicism that afflict him. The ‘particular friendship’ that the two share proves over and over to be the preserver of their integrity and humanity in the face of perils both outward and inward.
Dean King wrote that in the years during which Patrick O’Brian first began to publish his books, the early 1970s, his novels seemed, “antediluvian,” for writing novels about a world, and about characters, so traditionally moral. Yet, while he did not shy away from either the noble or the ugly side of human nature, O’Brian was not writing, as he said, “to encourage virtue and lash vice.”10 He wrote for the delight of telling the stories of a time that he believed held, “its particular, time-free value,”11 and also to explore, “the condition humaine,” about which he had, “some comments, some observations… that may be sound, or at least of some interest.”12 The stories by which he made his ‘observations’ explored much more than the workings of a ship or the navigation of the seas. They illustrate what is most important for a man, and for a society, when faced with the dangers and challenges that will surely come.
1 Patrick O’Brian, Black, Choleric, & Married?, pg.21
2 Patrick O’Brian, H.M.S. Surprise, pg.20
3 Patrick O’Brian, Master & Commander, pg.5
4 Ibid. pg.5
5 Ibid. pg.33
6 Patrick O’Brian, The Mauritius Command, pg.63
7 Patrick O’Brian, Master & Commander, pg. 319
8 Patrick O’Brian, H.M.S. Surprise, pg. 187
9 Dean King, Patrick O’Brian: A Life Revealed, pg. 309
10 Stephen Becker, ‘Interview w/ Patrick O’Brian
11 Patrick O’Brian, Black, Choleric, & Married?, pg.21
12 Ibid., pg.21
Beaumains was born and raised in Ohio and is a recent graduate of Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire. A Catholic convert pursuing an ongoing classical education, he has been blessed to study abroad and embark on several pilgrimages across Europe, visiting Italy, Poland, England, and Ireland. He has long had an interest in British history and literature, and some of his favorite authors include J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, John Henry Newman, Brian Jacques, etc. Also, he is a keen fan of the works of Patrick O’Brian, which he was introduced to through the recommendation of his father. Beaumains has worked as a gardener, a farm-hand, and a librarian, and recently obtained a teaching position at a school in Kentucky.