Complete Aubrey/Maturin Novels Five Volumes Boxed by Patrick O'Brian (W.W.
Norton) These five volumes, beautifully produced and boxed, contain over 7,000
pages of what has often been described as a single, continuous narrative. They
are a perfect tribute to such a literary achievement, and a perfect gift for the
serious O'Brian enthusiast.
The recent release of the film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World has focused even more attention on the publishing phenomenon of the late Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels about the Royal Navy in the age of Nelson. Now, four years after O'Brian's death, his estate has agreed to release the chapters of the novel he was working on when he died. It is both fitting and moving that in these pages we are given a glimpse of Jack Aubrey raising his admiral's flag at last.
In 1970, a little-known writer named Patrick O'Brian, having found scant success writing well-reviewed but "difficult" works of fiction, tried his hand at a historical novel set in the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Its protagonists were Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, a captain and physician who forged an unlikely friendship in the service of the Royal Navy. And even though, as he later wrote, "the public turned a deaf ear, a blind eye," O'Brian—encouraged by his British publisher—continued delving into the lives of Aubrey and Maturin, heroes from a bygone era.
The rest of the story has now become legend: how O'Brian's then U.S. publisher, underwhelmed at the books' sales, dropped the series after the fifth novel; how American fans of the novels, increasingly desperate for each successive installment, began pestering Canadian and British booksellers to get their fix; how Starling Lawrence, the editor in chief of W. W. Norton, read The Reverse of the Medal on a flight from London to New York and decided that the works of Patrick O'Brian should be published in the United States once again.
It was Richard Snows 1991 essay in the New York Times Book Review, on Norton's publication of The Far Side of the World, that proclaimed the Aubrey/Maturin books "the best historical novels ever written" and helped catapult O'Brian to literary recognition. (This was only after the Times ran a review calling O'Brian's prose "long-winded" and "turgid," and Jack Aubrey "colorless.") Soon, Internet discussion groups were springing up to discuss the novels; professors were lecturing and writing papers on Aubrey, Maturin, and the times in which they lived; and fans were flocking to O'Brian's rare appearances on three U.S. tours. Some early reviewers haltingly compared the books to C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower novels, but others drew a line to O'Brian's more literary predecessors: Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, and Jane Austen, who was his favorite author.
As the years passed and O'Brian's reputation grew, it became clear that the unfolding series did not comprise individual stories at all, but rather chapters in a single, continuing narrative—one that used the backdrop of war to plumb the complexity of human emotion, the depths of intimate friendship, and the threads of luck and tragedy that govern every person's life. When O'Brian passed away in January 2000, he left a legacy of twenty interwoven novels, written over a span of thirty years. He had once vowed that the twentieth Aubrey/Maturin novel would be his last, and thus the long narrative seemed to stand complete, ending much as it began—Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin heading out to sea, new orders in hand, the ocean stretched out like a blank slate before them.
Yet just as O'Brian's readers could not bear to let go of the characters that had become so dear and familiar to them, neither, it turned out, could the author himself. In the months before his death, he had hinted that work had begun on a twenty-first Aubrey/Maturin novel. Lying on his desk at the time of his death were the first three chapters of what is now being called 21. These pages contain proof that O'Brian's extraordinary literary powers, and his fierce affection for his characters, remained undimmed even as he neared the end of his life.
With W. W. Norton's publication of the complete Aubrey/Maturin series in a five-volume boxed set, O'Brian's masterpiece may finally be considered as a whole, to be held up against the other great multivolume works of literature: Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Anthony Trollope's six Barsetshire novels, Anthony Powell's twelve-volume A Dance to the Music of Time, and Marcel Proust's seven-volume In Search of Lost Time. It is among these works that the Aubrey/Maturin series finds its true peers. As George Will wrote in a tribute to O'Brian after his death, his books "actually constitute a single 6,443-page novel, one that should have been on those lists of the greatest novels of the 20th century. Some list-compilers probably decided that O'Brian was only—only!—a historical novelist. But as Cezanne said, `Monet is only an eye, but my God what an eye!' "
It is in Master and Commander that Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin meet—an encounter that Richard Snow, citing an old friend, compares to "Prince Hal meeting Falstaff'—at a concert of Locatelli's Quartet in C Major, where Maturin crisply observes that Aubrey has been keeping the time half a beat ahead. "The ill-looking son of a bitch," Aubrey thinks to himself; fortunately, the two become fast friends rather than enemies. The two could not, on the surface, be more dissimilar. One is a gifted seaman of bold appetites and broad humor (described later in the series as "a man who liked old ways and old wine"), the other a physician, amateur naturalist, and secret intelligence agent who prefers beetles to broadsides. Still, they share a love of music and food, a natural curiosity about the world, and an appreciation for the vast differences that distinguish but do not divide them.
Aubrey, who has just been promoted to captain, hires Maturin as his ship's surgeon and brings him aboard his new ship, the Sophie. Here, amid the gaggle of Aubrey's untried crew, we first meet master's mates Thomas Pullings and James Mowett, who will stay loyal to Aubrey through many a further adventure; and here also is our first glimpse of the delightfully surly captain's steward, Preserved Killick, who slips onto the scene with the seemingly innocuous words, "Your coffee's up, sir." The adventures of Aubrey and his crew culminate in a stunning David-and‑Goliath victory over the Spanish frigate Cacafuego, a hulking ship against which the tiny Sophie seems hopelessly outmatched.
With Post Captain, O'Brian shifts gears away from the sea, turning to drawing rooms, fox hunts, and social mores in a narrative that might have been written by Jane Austen. Aubrey and Maturin spend much of their time in England, where they meet two cousins who will become their wives: the graceful, reserved Sophia (Sophie) Williams and the passionately independent Diana Villiers, who is initially courted by both men. In France, Aubrey's money troubles come to light—he is thrown into debtor's prison and must escape—and Maturin's intelligence activities are more fully described.
In the course of the eighteen novels that follow, O'Brian sends his characters all over the globe—to India in H.M.S. Surprise, the Balkans in The Ionian Mission, the South China Sea in The Thirteen-Gun Salute, the Andes in The Wine-Dark Sea—and almost teasingly, with the great patience of some-one who has twenty volumes in which to tell his tale, reveals more shadings of the characters his readers had come to know so well. Aubrey runs into even greater financial trouble in The Reverse of the Medal, which sees him investing in a shady business deal and eventually being court-martialed for his involvement. Maturin, already afflicted with a taste for laudanum and coca leaves, succumbs to opium addiction in The Letter of Marque. Our heroes encounter invasions, revolutions, mutinies, shipwrecks, disease, volcanic explosions, even the ominous threat of peace. There are thrilling battles, such as that in which Aubrey, aboard his beloved Surprise, must take on a superior French fleet in H.M.S. Surprise; or the chase that sees the Dutch frigate Waakzaamheid pursuing Aubrey's hopelessly undermanned and outgunned Leopard into the reaches of Antarctica in Desolation Island. And throughout, O'Brian presents, with breathtaking precision and accuracy, the wonders of the natural world his heroes explore. As the series progresses, Aubrey and Maturin, no longer young men at liberty, have families to care for. Aubrey has not only twin girls and a son with Sophie, but also a much older son whose mother is an African woman. Maturin's daughter, Brigid, is autistic, a situation with which Diana can barely cope. And neither Aubrey nor Maturin is immune from personal loss; both Diana, Maturin's complicated wife, and Barrett Bonden, Aubrey's longtime coxswain, meet their deaths in The Hundred Days.
In 21, the unfinished twenty-first novel in the series, Aubrey and Maturin pick up as though they've never been away, sailing around South America from west to east to meet up with Aubrey's new squadron, where Lucky Jack hoists his flag—and becomes a rear admiral—at last. In port, they encounter a brewing local insurrection, and Aubrey blusters his way through a typically ignorant and charming discussion of Catholicism with Maturin, a Catholic. Aubrey has an unexpected union with his black son; Maturin fights a duel over the woman he loves; and there is Killick, fussing over Aubrey's best uniform and the toasted cheese. Abundant on every page of 21 is the warmth, imagination, and humor that mark all of O'Brian's books. Starling Lawrence described his reaction to the text: "I loved it and laughed out loud as I was reading it." And Richard Snow, in his afterword to 21, writes, "Patrick O'Brian has given a farewell to his followers that is as gracious as it is gallant. And we, in turn, may find some solace in the thought that of all people, this man would not have hated to be taken out of action much as Nelson was: deep in triumph, shedding glory on the service he loved, and still at the peak of his powers."
To DATE , the books in the Aubrey/Maturin series have sold over six million copies. But that number does little to describe the fierce devotion of O'Brian's fans (whose more famous members have included Joan Didion, John Gregory Dunne, Robert Hass, Charlton Heston, Ted Koppel, David Mamet, Iris Murdoch, Eudora Welty, Walter Cronkite, and George Will). Ken Ringle of the Washington Post, prior to writing his influential article "Is This the Greatest Writer You've Never Heard Of?" (which earned him O'Brian's friend-ship and led to O'Brian's naming a boat after him in The Commodore), was first just a fan, obsessed with the books but unable to get his hands on The Reverse of the Medal, the tenth volume in the series. At that time, the book had not yet been published by W. W. Norton, which was reissuing the backlist at a rate of four a year. "So being a typical arrogant journalist," he wrote after O'Brian's death, "I rang up Norton and demanded to know just what was going on. There, like a drunk stumbling into an AA meeting, I discovered I was not alone."
To cope with his fans' insatiable thirst for all things O'Brian, Norton created an Internet listserv that often generated hundreds of messages a day. (O'Brian was baffled by such things, naturally; he once asked a reporter, "Have you heard of this thing called Network? Is it very difficult to understand?") The members of what came to be called "the Gunroom" discussed—and to this day continue to discuss—every O'Brian topic under the sun: the attractions and flaws of Diana, the difference between a mizzenmast and a top-mast, the origin of the term marthambles, the aptness of comparisons between O'Brian and Forester or Austen. They swap recipes for corned beef; they sample marmite and report on the results; they index mentions of characters, birds, and ships throughout the series; they write up puns in the style of Aubrey's famous "lesser of two weevils" line. (Another fan favorite, from The Ionian Mission: "There is an art in puddings, to be sure, but what is art without suet?")
Norton also published a cookbook, Lobscouse and Spotted Dog, with which fans could attempt to cook Bashed Neeps, Figgy-Dowdy, Drowned Baby, or "a roasted lamb with a pudding of bright yellow rice in its belly." ESS.A.Y Recordings issued two CDs containing music that Aubrey and Maturin, the amateur violinist and cellist, played together in the captain's cabin, among them works by Handel, Boccherini, Haydn, and Bach. And the big-budget movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, directed by Peter Weir and starring Russell Crowe (as Aubrey) and Paul Bettany (as Maturin), finally reached the big screen in 2003, bringing even more fans into the fold.
At one point, Norton put out a free O'Brian newsletter; by the time the newsletter was discontinued in 1995, its subscription base was 40,000 people. The newsletter provided fans with news on the series as well as glossaries, book recommendations, advance excerpts, and the occasional bit of misinformation: in the March 1993 issue, O'Brian's editor reported that after the seventeenth novel, the author "may break off for a while and pursue another writing project."
Perhaps the greatest interest of the newsletter, however, was O'Brian's own contribution to it. Here fans could catch a glimpse of O'Brian himself:
On his house in Collioure: "There is a little stone house among the vines and here I sit writing in the high summer at those times when there are too many people on the coast; for although the place is no more than twenty-minutes' drive away from the village it is wonderfully quiet and peaceful, and the sun is rarely too hot.
"To be sure this remoteness has its disadvantages, for wild boars live in the dense maquis above and in the forest below. ... But the boars are little to pay for the quietness and the other creatures that live up there—golden orioles, bee-eaters, three kinds of eagle, ocellated lizards, badgers and the occasional genet, to say nothing of the honey-buzzards on theirspring migration, standing northwards by the thousand under a pale blue sky."
On marthambles: "Marthambles is a very fine word that I found in a quack's pamphlet of the late 17th or early 18th century advising a nostrum that would cure not only `the strong fires' and a whole variety of more obvious diseases but the marthambles too."
On his arrival in New York for his first U.S. toar: "We landed from our flying machine still bemused by our attempt at working out the time in New York, and stood by the wrong carousel for a long while, growing sadder and more lonely in the empty airport. Eventually a strikingly handsome young woman came and said that if we were looking for luggage from the London flight there was a better place over here. We followed her, and there, entirely by themselves, were our bags, solemnly going round and round. I found a trolley, but it scorned my paper dollars: the dear young woman fed it coins, refused my greenback, saying, `This is on me; welcome to America,' and hurried off."
Each of O'Brian's accounts of America, in fact, was suffused with tidbits of wit and appreciation: the Golden Gate Bridge was "all that I had hoped for and more," and the Oregon independent booksellers were "an intelligent set who really understood what breakfast meant." He met Samuel Goldwyn in Los Angeles and found that "as a magnate he was a disappointment—no diamonds, no top-hat, no cigar"; and although he was disheartened at a troubling lack of puddings in the United States, he was sufficiently pleased with the clam chowder he ate at Newburyport to declare it "a dish that is served in Heaven, every Friday."
Although O'Brian had many friends and a close relationship with his wife, Mary, he guarded his privacy fiercely, almost never discussing the details of his life or the myths surrounding his personal history. Left to speculate about his background, more than one observer has pondered how much of O'Brian was written into the erudite Stephen Maturin. William F. Buckley wrote of O'Brian, "It was dumbfounding to weigh his knowledge, as a naturalist, linguist, translator, biographer, the most evocative writer on the sea since Homer." Like Maturin, O'Brian spoke some half a dozen languages; and like Maturin, he found his keenest pleasures in the examination of nature, in the spotting of a rare bird or view of a misty mountaintop. His publisher often lured him to visit the United States by dangling the promise of bird watching expeditions as bait.
But so too, did O'Brian share Aubrey 's love of wordplay, his steadfast belief in honor and loyalty, his faith in friendship and courage. The timeliness of these values is, in the end, what causes the Aubrey/Maturin series to resonate even with those readers who cannot tell a futtock-shroud from the fore-castle. As Richard Snow wrote in his influential review, "On every page Mr. O'Brian reminds us with subtle artistry of the most important of all historical lessons: that times change but people don't, that the griefs and follies and victories of the men and women who were here before us are in fact the maps of our own lives." The novelist Stephen Becker once wrote, "To compare Patrick O'Brian with `writers of sea stories' is to compare Proust and The Orchid Fancier's Quarterly. O'Brian is literature. I am one of your surly pragmatical polyglot landlubbers, and I read him and reread him with awe and gratitude. His Aubrey/Maturin volumes are in effect one great book, and if I could keep only a half a dozen contemporary writers, O'Brian would be one of them." And David Mamet, writing after O'Brian's death, declared the Aubrey/Maturin series "a masterpiece. It will outlive most of today's putative literary gems as Sherlock Holmes has outlived Bulwer-Lytton, as Mark Twain has outlived Charles Reade."
Perhaps the last word should belong to one of O'Brian's many, many ordinary fans, those who possess neither celebrity nor byline, but whose devotion and appreciation fueled the O'Brian phenomenon, making him, at last, both rich and famous. At O'Brian's death, one of the Gunroom members wrote the following:
When I tardily read the first post that spoke of Patrick O'Brian's passing, I immediately thought of the man at a desk writing fiction in longhand—of discipline and connection, hand to pen, pen to paper, ship to sea—of the unfinished book on a page somewhere, waiting.
There is a curious vitality for me in that image, as though one time the pen got put down, and the man, whose writing soul stretched to the horizon, became imagination, and words were no longer enough to hold him.
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