Aubrey-Maturin: A balanced consideration

by Kenny Brechner

(The following essay was originally printed in the Franklin Journal with the express permission of Northeast Magazine, where it will appear in the January 2000 issue.)

    When the literary detritus has been washed away from the last twenty years by the perpetual migration of contemporary attention, one fresh feature will be left on the enduring landscape. For, as long as there are persons not averse to immersing themselves in a twenty course meal of sustained pleasure and excellence, right thinking individuals will continue to sit down to the peerless table of Patrick O'Brian.

    Anyone moderately sensate who has picked up the Aubrey Maturin novels (excepting the mumping villains who would defend the honor of C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower books by binding their eyes and stuffing their ears against the supposed infidel) is aware of their manifest virtues. At the same time, knowing that many sensible readers are not aware of O'Brian, and remembering my own actively engaged principle that "friends don't let friends not read Patrick O'Brian," I thought a brief enumeration of some of O'Brian's virtues to be a matter of pitch and moment.

   The Aubrey Maturin novels are set during the Napoleonic Wars, beginning in 1802. The central characters are Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. Aubrey is introduced as a naval Lieutenant just given his first command and thus promoted to the station of Master and Commander. Maturin enters the series as an accomplished physician and amateur naturalist who takes up with Aubrey as ship's surgeon for complex personal reasons.

   Among the many virtues of these books are a whole range of marvelously human and engaging characters, tremendously exciting naval actions based on actual ship's logs, and splendidly detailed and established historical backdrops. All the aforementioned elements are maintained with neither a flaw nor a visible seam.

   Furthermore, one would be just to note O'Brian's unfailing attention to narrative tension along with his timely reinvention of personal circumstances which is necessary in order to reestablish both tragic force and its inevitable interplay with humor. Finally, his depiction of every aspect of life and social class, without ever being awkward or crude, marks the sublime mastery over historical fiction which is O'Brian's.

   In the end the urge to criticism is quickly laid aside as needless. Characters and circumstance are taken to heart as they were old friends. As you should not wish to be deprived of one of life's central pleasures, I advice you not to sleep until you hold volume one, Master and Commander, in your hands.

(Blue at the Mizzen, the twentieth volume in the Aubrey-Maturin series, has just been released in hardcover. The Hundred Years, the nineteenth volume in the series, has been released concurrently in paperback.)