Fiction. Historical Fiction. HTML: "We've beat them before and we'll beat them again." In 1803, Napoleon smashes the Peace of Amiens, going to war once again. This is doubly alarming news for Captain Jack Aubrey, who is taking refuge in France from his creditors. He is interned but soon escapes from his French debtor's prison, fleeing across the French countryside to lead a ship into battle. After managing to avert a possible mutiny, he pursues his quarry straight into the mouth of a French-held harbor. Stephen Maturin's struggles, with himself as much as with a proud and intelligent woman, are woven into Aubrey's, straining their friendship at times to the breaking point. The high-seas excitement continues in this second installment of Patrick O'Brian's highly acclaimed series..
Since I know nothing about boats and sailing, the battle scene descriptions, which rely heavily on naval jargon, were sometimes hard for me to follow, though exciting enough when I was reasonable sure I knew what was going on. You will learn things along the way, but even if you still feel totally at sea, har har har, when you reach the last page, you can still enjoy the book, as I did, on the levels of prose style and of period detail, which the well-supplied O’Brian heaps on the reader’s plate with merciless largesse.
In the matter of period detail, O’Brian avoids that fault of much historical fiction, where you get the feeling that the author has put into his characters’ mouths as dialogue things he or she read in a volume of general-interest history. Characters in these books (or movies, or TV shows) spend a lot of time explaining to each other things that would, in reality, have been understood by everyone, and so not discussed by anyone, leaving the reader or viewer with the impression that conversation in the past consisted mostly of clumsy exposition (see, e.g., the first episode of the History Channel’s new series, Vikings, where big chief Gabriel Byrne, presiding over a murder trial, gives a little lecture to the unshaven assembly on the cultural practices which inform Viking criminal law.)
O’Brian’s people, by contrast, may be living through events of world-historical importance, and in a world with very different codes and customs from our own, but they don’t discuss these historically significant events in terms of historical significance, and they don’t explain their beliefs and practices to each other over tea, in language borrowed from the modern social sciences. They don’t do this for the same reason that you or I don’t discuss the news, or our lives, in this way: they can’t, we can’t; perspectives of this kind lie beyond our horizons of daily concern – more than that, they are of necessity false to the richness of lived experience, and of historical causality, however necessary they may be for making sense of the past. O’Brian’s knows the Regency period well enough that he can allow his characters live in this immediate world, and they prefer to talk about the everyday things that actual people prefer to talk about: food, clothes, gossip, the latest music, professional shop.
But O’Brian’s imaginative residency in the era is most apparent in what is really the ultimate period detail, his adept mimicry of a range of vintage-early-19th-century prose styles. He can do De Quincean solipsistic reveries:
So he paced this strange, absolute and silent landscape of firm damp sand with rivulets running to its edge and the lapping sea, eating bread with one hand and cold beef with the other. He was so low to the sea that Deal and its coast were out of sight; he was surrounded by an unbroken disc of quiet grey sea, and even the boat, which lay off an inlet at the far rim of the sand, seemed a great way off, or rather upon another plane. Sand stretched before him, gently undulating, with here and there the black half-buried carcasses of wrecks, some massive, others ribbed skeletons, in a kind of order whose sense escaped him, but which he might seize, he thought, if only his mind would make a certain shift, as simple as starting the alphabet at X – simple, if only he could catch the first clue. A different air, a different light, a sense of overwhelming permanence and therefore a different time; it was not at all unlike a certain laudanum state. Wave ripples on the sand: the traces of annelids, solens, clams: a distant flight of dunlins, close-packed, flying fast, all wheeling together and changing colour as they wheeled.
His domain grew larger with the ebbing of the tide; fresh sandpits appeared, stretching far, far away to the north under the cold even light; islands joined one another, gleaming water disappeared, and only on the far rim of his world was there the least noise – the lap of small waves, and the remote scream of gulls.
Or elegant drawing-room observationalism a la Austen or Thackeray:
She came back to England with a wardrobe of tropical clothes, a certain knowledge of the world, and almost nothing else. She came back, in effect, to the schoolroom, or something very like it. For she at once realized that her aunt meant to clamp down on her, to allow her no chance of queering her daughters’ pitch; and as she had no money and nowhere else to go she determined to fit into this small slow world of the English countryside, with its fixed notions and its strange morality.
She was willing, she was obliged, to take a protectorate, and from the beginning she resolved to be meek, cautious, and retiring; she knew that other women would regard her as a menace, and she meant to give them no provocation. But her theory and her practice were sometimes at odds, and in any case Mrs Williams’s idea of a protectorate was much more like a total annexation. She was afraid of Diana, and dared not push her too far, but she never gave up trying to gain a moral superiority, and it was striking to see how this essentially stupid woman, unhampered by any principle or by any sense of honor, managed to plant her needle where it hurt most.
I wish that O’Brian had written in this elegant, worldly voice more often: the book would have shed some excess pages, and the plot and pacing tightened up, if he had indulged less often his desire to write wind-wave-and-sail prose poems.
So: if you’re a Napoleonic war nerd, or a sailing geek, you probably already know about these books and don’t need my recommendation. If you like good prose and immersive historical fiction, you could choose worse bedside reading than Post-Captain.
Firstly, and this is true of all of O'Brian's novels -- the realism of his work is entirely astounding. Never
Second, the characters could not possibly be more fun to read about. Seriously. The conflicts are incredible and usually quite humorous, like their adventures. Their outrageous, crazy adventures.
See, I should never have done this because now I'm just babbling like a little child in a candy shop. The last thing I wanted to mention -- and then I need to stop, for everyones' sake -- is that O'Brian is one of the wisest writers I have ever read from, and despite the crazy and fun nature of the books, there is much, much more to them then an irresistible knack for adventure.
[ This review was brought to you by too much of a fangirl, with lots of excited facial expressions at the screen and with lots of love. Mostly love. ]
This volume brings us deeper into the landed life
Happily, thanks to Napoleon, these two do manage to get on some ships; that is where they are at their best in my opinion. The joy of watching their friendship weather storms worse than nature is very prominent here. I love the very subtle humour throughout. I could have done without the women, and wonder if Mr. O'Brian does a better job with women characters in later books. That being said, I think he wrote them well as characters, I just didn't think much of them. Not good enough for our boys.
The writing style can be very choppy. The author flat out tells you he is going to use a Deus ex machina to accomplish the story, so you can't really complain about that. I am rather fond of happy endings, anyway. I do wish there were a translation of the French, Latin and Spanish phrases, even if you don't need it to understand the story.
Apart stands this one novel. Post Captain is the second novel in O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. It follows the adventures of Jack Aubrey, a dashing young master and commander and Stephen Maturin, his best friend and ship’s surgeon. Here we follow the pair as they make their way into both career and social advancement, with special attention to the latter.
As the peace of 1802 with Napoleon smoothes out the tensions between England and France, the number of ships necessary to the Royal Navy begins a period of decline and the commands are being awarded to the seniormost officers. Our hero, having only been promoted as ship’s commander the year before, he finds himself one of the many commanders without a ship.
As he takes vacation in rural England and awaits news from his prize agent, the man who handles the sale of the captured ships, he makes the acquaintance of the Williams family and their daughters, of whom Sophie captures his heart. He soon learns that the prize agent had fled to Bordeaux, leaving nothing behind him and that he found himself penniless and unable to settle his affairs on land and in a hefty debt.
The novel explores in detail the intricate inner workings of social interaction in 19th century English society as Captain Aubrey tries to secure a command and make good on his promises to Sophie, while dodging his debtors. Stephen Maturin on the other hand tries his best to juggle between a love interest of his own and the underworld of political intrigue and espionage into which the admiralty has dragged him.
This novel takes place more on land than at sea, and certainly has a different pacing than its predecessor, Master and Commander. That is not to say that there is not plenty of seagoing adventure to be had and enjoyed, but simply that the emphasis here has been put more on the development of the social status of the protagonists. It has earned Post Captain a well deserved reputation of being Patrick O’Brian’s homage to Jane Austen.
All of this makes Post Captain a thoroughly enjoyable read, and while I do not think that O’Brian has quite found his groove yet, there is a general broadening of scope here, the narrative extending to events on land as on sea, the narrator’s gaze not quite so focused on ships and how they are run but giving room for more general human concerns. The narrative voice still appears a bit tense and cramped compared to the relaxed, almost serene attitude O’Brian will work towards in the next two volumes (which is as far as I got on my first reading of the series), but there already is a certain… camaraderie forming between narrator and reader, which I think might be the hallmark of his writing style.
While O’Brian’s love for the sea and all things naval seeps through every page of this novel, he never unduly romanticises it, he does not gloss over the fact that life on board of a ship of the Royal Navy was extremely harsh and, for all their undeniable excitement, his battle scenes can be quite brutal and never flinch away from the gruesome details. Although one might ask oneself whether O’Brian’s congenial narration is not somewhat counter-productive here – I don’t think there is any doubt that does want to paint the whole picture, but including the sad and ugly parts, but just maybe the narrator is much too comfortable to give much conviction when his tales touch upon human suffering and the occasional tragedy. At this stage, I am still undecided about this myself and will likely come back to that point when discussing later volumes.
In Post Captain it also becomes even more pronounced than in Master & Commander that what makes and drives this series is the unlikely friendship between its two main protagonists. They are very different characters – different from each other, but also full of contradictions in themselves, which is part of what makes them so fascinating – and yet, in some mysterious way they seem to complement each other; and while right now I’m not sure whether I have enough of an interest in the Royal Navy to keep my interest up over twenty volumes of novels, I can actually imagine spending that much time exploring the friendship between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.
Still, I definitely enjoyed it and will return for H. M. S. Surprise. As with the first book in the series, they are beautifully written. I particularly like the fact that O'Brian does not dumb down the naval terminology as some other Hornblower-esque series have done; if you don't know what a stud sail is or what made a frigate a frigate in the 18th century, then he leaves it to you to find out.
Though only two books into this series so far, these are definitely on my Recommend list.
World: 5/5 Very interesting and different, most particularly the naval conflict.
Writing: 3.5/5 The language is trial; often I haven't a clue what the characters mean and sometimes
Characters: 3.5/5 The characters are interesting but tend to behave stupidly. It's a bit difficult to know whether that is intended, the period or just shallow characterisation.
All in all quite enjoyable & interesting but not stellar. I'll read the next one ;)
I enjoyed Master and Commander, and so turned to this book with an expectation of the same, but what I remember getting was a slow-paced, turgid account of two fox-hunting gentleman. I expect