Writers we like #4: Christopher Nugent on Patrick O’Brian

You will note that the name of this series is “Writer we like” not necessarily love, or recommend. And not everyone is going to necessarily love Patrick O’Brian’s work. He is not an easy read, although some people describe his style as very modern, he uses quite a lot of pre-Jane Austen turns of phrase which are demanding and even boring for the causal reader. But you know, the long title could be “Writers we like that you might not but are interesting to check out”.

 

When C.S.  Forrester died, his publishers were looking around for a snappy young author to replace him, and this O’Brian guy had written a couple of similar books so they decided to try him. And it was a big fail as we say now. So the original publishers dropped the series but a different publisher kept it going and over time the readership grew.

“Lucky” Jack Aubrey is a happy-go-lucky Royal Navy officer in approximately the year 1805.  I don’t remember if we are ever told directly but he is perhaps thirty years of age at the start of the series, waiting for command of his own small warship, and through an unfortunate disagreement at a concert, he meets and challenges to a duel the borderline autistic Dr Stephen Maturin, a French-Irish medical doctor with a bad temper who we presume is about the same age.  Instead of fighting a duel as originally intended, the occasion of Jack’s appointment to command a vessel results in their polite patching up of differences and acknowledging their shared love of music. And so they become friends for life. This is all done in a witty and sometimes humorous manner which again may put some readers off. For instance, in one of the later books, Dr Maturin misses the start of a cricket match due to a spying mission and comes back in time for his turn to bat. He assumes that he is playing a variation of the Irish game of hurling, with comically disastrous results. As the series develops it covers a lot of ground, there is much naval jargon and talk of parts of ships that anybody not used to sailing boats will be baffled by, but also interesting facts on the development or science and medicine of those times. And much discussion of music. Also remarkable is the recreation of the claustrophobic and self-contained world of the sailing ship at sea. This artful but artificial recreation of a bygone time is somewhat similar to what Georgette Heyer did, in bringing Jane Austen into the twentieth century.

I have read nearly all of the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey/Maturin series , but to date I have only re-read “The Wine Red Sea” which I originally read first and it actually reads better in its approximately correct place in the sequence .

I am not un-critical of the series, I really enjoyed the first eight books or so but I think, and I speak as a reader firstly here, that the quality of the stories drops off slowly but increasingly from “Clarrssa Oakes” onwards. It may just be that the story-lines were not to my taste, but I felt the series crested around “The Surgeon’s Mate” where the original story question of “Will Maturin ever get a clue or  will he marry Diana Villiers?” is partly of answered and one of the continuing elements is tied up, and the end of the “Ionian Mission” felt like the end of something too.

If you want an amazingly level of detail, a great write up is Jo Walton’s re-read (http://www.tor.com/features/series/re-reading-patrick-obrians-aubrey-maturin-series/) over at the excellent Tor books web site

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