While PJ and I were in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, I decided to start reading Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey novels, starting with Master & Commander, of course. We were browsing the shelves of Borders, and I decided to buy a copy.
I’d been thinking about at least starting this series since reading The Jane Austen Book Club, in which a character suggests that the club read O’Brian’s novels once they’ve finished Austen’s. (The other members don’t take him up on this, by the way.) The suggestion, however, was that at least most guys who like Austen’s novels would also like O’Brian’s. I had only ever thought of these works as adventure books, not a genre that I’m particularly interested in. Since I’ve needed a little break from reading novels that rewrite Austen’s fiction from different characters’ points of view — at least until Susan Kaye’s second Captain Wentworth novel comes out — and since I clearly enjoy late Georgian/regency fiction, I thought I’d give Master & Commander a try.
I’m glad I did, because I’ve really enjoyed reading it, but I’ll start with the most difficult part about reading it: the sea jargon. As an undergraduate history major, I took a course on the literature of the sea during my junior year. I loved it, and over the course of the class we become generally familiar with the requisite terminology — the difference between “sheets” and “sails,” for example. That’s all a distant memory, and I have to say that, while I didn’t mind the sea jargon, I ended up skipping over it mentally. As long as I got the drift of what was happening, which I always thought was fairly easy to do, I didn’t let the vocabulary get in my way. In a sense, it’s kind of like reading science fiction, where there is often lots of technical jargon that isn’t really important to the enjoyment of the work. Once you think of Master & Commander in these terms, I think it’s a great read, one that combines adventure with an interest in the social aspects of this sub-set of regency British society.
Jack Aubrey is very much an interesting protagonist. I like that O’Brian makes him a flawed character. One knock against Austen’s men is that they are rarely “interesting.” They’re “good.” They’re “appealing.” They’re “safe.” But they’re rarely really interesting. They’re ideals. Aubrey is far from being an ideal seaman, captain, or man. This makes the novel much more enjoyable and suspenseful, I think.
Even more interesting is Stephen Maturin, a physician who starts off hating Jack but who quickly comes to love him. Maturin and Aubrey get along so well that Maturin agrees to become the ship’s surgeon when Jack’s new post lacks one. Maturin is really the narrative voice of the novel even though (technically) he’s not the narrator. But it’s his opinions of the other characters that we are meant to share as readers.
Master & Commander depicts the adventures of Aubrey’s first command. He meets and befriends Maturin, they set sail for adventure, Aubrey’s ship, the Sophie, captures some Spanish and French ships, and the war against Napoleon’s navy takes a turn for the worse. I also like that the battle scenes and plot don’t become repetitive. Rather, the reader’s interest is maintained by the characters and the tight situations they’re placed in.
And finally, I liked the novel’s depiction of late Georgian culture. While most of the novel takes place aboard ship, it nevertheless gives you a feel for the period. One can imagine Captain Wentworth before he was a captain as a crewman on one of these ships. I can see why Grig recommends the book to the Austen book club.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading Master & Commander. I’ve just purchased the second novel in the series, but I’m going to hold off reading it for a bit. I have an ambitious pleasure reading agenda for the summer. In addition to the O’Brian novels, I want to read some golden age detective fiction — Christie, Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers, etc. — more Austen rewrites (especially Kaye’s novel when it comes out), maybe the early Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan novels, the Star Wars series I’ve recently started, and Tennyson’s poetry. My plan is to alternate series and kinds of novels. I’m not sure yet how Tennyson fits into the schedule — maybe a poem or two every now and then?
I’m really looking forward to reading this summer. I’ll be doing a lot of writing, but I’ll need lots of breaks too. I’ll also be a little busy with committee work (yuck!) and preparing to take over as director of our honors programs. Captain Jack Aubrey, Tarzan, Luke Skywalker, Captain Wentworth, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Tennyson, among others, will be welcome distractions.