Desert Isle Keeper
The Aubrey/Maturin Series
Okay, I admit it: I can be as shallow as the next gal. When I learned that Russell Crowe was set to star in a movie based on the seafaring adventure stories by Patrick O’Brian, I decided it was time to strap on a life preserver and take the plunge into the 20-volume series. By the end of the first book, Master and Commander, I was hooked. It took me a couple of months to get through them all, but I didn’t come up for air until the very last page of the final installment, Blue at the Mizzen.
The books tell the story of a remarkable friendship between Lucky Jack Aubrey, a captain in the Royal Navy, and Dr. Stephen Maturin, a physician, natural scientist, and sometime secret agent for the Crown. They meet in 1801 at a concert – indeed, just about the only thing these two have in common is their love of music. Both down on their luck, they throw their lots in together, with unforeseen results. Over the course of the series, the fortunes of the two men – in love and war, for richer and poorer, at sea and on land – unfold across the decks of Jack’s ship HMS Surprise, and lucky the reader who stows away for the voyage.
Stephen and Jack are opposites in every way imaginable. Small and slight, with dark, sparse hair, Stephen can disappear in the presence of Jack, who’s tall and solid, with flowing blond hair that earns him the nickname of Goldilocks. Where Jack’s manner is bluff and to the point, Stephen employs a more nuanced, diplomatic approach. Jack is just what he appears to be – a sailor, albeit one of the best around – but Stephen’s job is far more involved than merely seeing to the physical needs of Surprise’s crew.
The easiest way to explain the difference between the two men is this: where Stephen is more at home in his head, Jack is more comfortable in his skin. Jack’s a very physical character, and his inner life is pretty straightforward: if he sees a pretty woman, he wants to sleep with her. If an enemy ship crosses his path he’s ready to fire on it, and hang the political consequences. He’s in his element in the heat of battle. Stephen detests violence and has one of the more tortured psyches in recent popular literature. Bastard son of the Irish and Catalan nobility, he falls in love with a woman totally unsuited to him, and even in the face of her rejection he remains faithful. He’s torn between his disdain of the British and his hatred of Napoleon. The poor fellow also develops an addiction to coca leaves and later laudanum, and his attempts at withdrawal are agonizing.
Jack’s whole life is the sea, and Surprise and her crew. He knows every man on board; he knows every bolt and beam, every inch of canvas and line. The fact that he has to deal with the Admiralty, that he has a family, that things happen on land as well as at sea – all these are incidental details to him. The attention he has to pay to other affairs takes away from time better spent on his quarterdeck. If they’d had bumper stickers in the early nineteenth century, Jack would have plastered the side of his coach with “I’d Rather Be Sailing.” He’s really not adept at all once he sets foot on dry land. He makes a couple of fortunes but loses them (or comes darn close) because he doesn’t know whom to trust or believe when it comes to matters non-nautical. Stephen has to save his friend’s bacon on more than one occasion – he sees it as payback for all the times Jack has literally kept him from drowning – and tries to help Jack steer in the uncertain shoals and reefs of politics and the law on shore.
The books are populated with a cast of supporting actors that Central Casting never could have dreamed up. Demure and innocent Sophie Williams, her shrewish mother (Jack will rue the day he made Mrs. Williams’s acquaintance!), and her alluring cousin Diana Villiers, a young widow who attracts both Stephen and Jack, play major roles in the men’s lives. Surprise’s crew is comprised of many one-of-a-kind characters: peevish steward Preserved Killick, coxswain Barrett Bonden, Tom Pullings, young Babbington, the simple Irishman Padeen Colman, the young gentlemen who come and go in the midshipmen’s berth, as well as latecomers like Sam Panda, the Sweeting sisters, and the Lithuanian Jagiello. Just because they’re featured players, though, doesn’t ensure their physical safety, and I came close to flinging one of the books across the room in a rage when…well, never mind. Read it for yourself.
Parts of the book are straightforward adventure; parts are detailed descriptive passages, of either flora and fauna or naval customs and routines. I was surprised that there was so much humor: Jack has a childlike delight of puns, and is inordinately proud when he’s able to make a (usually incredibly lame) joke. Stephen’s unrelenting ignorance of even the most basic nautical terminology or procedure is a running gag, as is his inability to swim and his penchant for falling in the water when getting on or off Surprise, and the crew’s matter-of-fact ways of dealing with him. It doesn’t take long for the reader to fall into the rhythm of life at sea – piping up the hammocks, cleaning the decks, taking the noon reading, hearing the Articles of War on Sundays, running out the guns, and settling down in the evenings for a little music and toasted cheese with the captain and the ship’s doctor. And oh, yeah – there’s the occasional battle, typhoon, or shipwreck to liven things up.
It’s been said that the Aubrey/Maturin series is not so much twenty books as a single 5,000-page novel told in twenty installments, and I’d agree with that. For the most part the action flows from one book to the next, and as I started one volume I made certain that I had the next one close at hand so I wouldn’t have to wait for it to show up. This phenomenon is not unknown to AAR readers, such as those among us who are Outlander fans. Once you start, you just want to keep going.
Reading these books is an education in itself; the casual reader may be put off by some sections dealing with plant life in the South Pacific, or the importance of current on sailing speed. I just kept reading and figured I’d learn something useful. It didn’t matter that I knew next to nothing about nautical terminology or naval warfare and even less about biology and botany. Following the exploits of O’Brian’s protagonists has been a rewarding experience, and along the way I’ve learned to tell the difference between a maincourse and a foretop. But that was just a bonus: the real reward for making my way through the series is that I got to know, and came to admire, Lucky Jack and his best pal Stephen. Sometimes being shallow pays off, in spite of my best efforts.