Fiction. Historical Fiction. HTML: In the early 1800s, the British Navy stands as the only bulwark against the militant fanaticism of Napoleonic France. Captain Jack Aubrey, a brilliant and experienced officer, has been struck off the list of post-captains for a crime he has not committed. His old friend Stephen Maturin, usually acting as the ship's surgeon to cover his activities on behalf of British intelligence, has bought for Aubrey his old ship, the Surprise, to command as a privateer. Together they will sail on a desperate mission against the French that, if successful, may redeem Aubrey from the private hell of his disgrace. In this twelfth installment of the beloved Aubrey-Maturin series, Patrick O'Brian has created another tale of great narrative power. O'Brian's attention to period detail and his ability to weave excitement and high seas adventure into every yarn make his novels utterly delightful must-haves..
But while there is a fair amount of action in this novel, what distinguishes "LoM" is O'Brian's further exploration of his two heroes, Captain "Lucky Jack" Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin.
The novel opens with Aubrey bereft after being unfairly stripped from the lists in the Royal Navy. Unfairly charged and convicted of a financial scheme in which he played an entirely unwitting part, Aubrey has had his lifeline to the Navy cut as harshly as with a boarding axe. Now this merry captain, who used to delight in dreadful puns and baroque music, has been reduced to a cold, frightening visage. Remote, distant, joyless, Aubrey is at his lowest ebb.
Thankfully, Aubrey's boon companion, Dr. Maturin, has a lifeline. Thanks to a prodigious inheritance, Maturin buys Aubrey's beloved H.M.S. Surprise and outfits her as a privateer - with the titular letter of marque. This letter essentially authorizes the Surprise to be a pirate for the British Navy. While this offers Aubrey a chance to go to sea in his favorite ship, this joy is tempered by the shame that is attached to the word "privateer" by the serving sailors of the Royal Navy. Aubrey feels this acutely.
But privateer or no, the command of the Surprise offers Aubrey the chance at redemption through a heroic action . . . possibly even reinstatement to the lists! And so Aubrey leads the Surprise into various actions, including a complicated night-time raid on a French-held port to steal a ship from under French noses. O'Brian writes these scenes as only he can.
But this novel is not only about Aubrey. Dr. Maturin continues to ply his intelligence trade. He also continues to struggle with his two demons - an addiction to opium and an addition to Diane Villiers, his estranged wife. Maturin has heard that Diane has fled to Sweden with the attractive Swedish colonel Jagiello after she heard (incorrectly) that Maturin was having an affair in Malta. And so Maturin heads north to confront her, and possibly Jagiello, with the truth.
All of these plots allow O'Brian to explore both Aubrey's and Maturin's characters in new ways. Aubrey has had his troubles before with the law, but those were always civil matters involving nothing more than unsavory characters. Here, Aubrey is confronted with shame for the first time. Maturin also must confront his own nature, for as a man of intellect and science, he is not proud to be addicted to either a drug or a woman. And yet he is.
"The Letter of Marque" may be the shortest of the Aubrey-Maturin novels so far, but there is a lot of meat on this small bone. Do not read this novel unless you have read those that come before - the characters won't make nearly as much sense. But you will be thankful once you get to this novel - it is well worth the wait.
The ending is, like the rest of the book, charming, triumphant, poignant, beautiful and entirely unsentimental.
In general, I've always thought it makes more sense to think of the Aubrey/Maturin books as one long novel, as the overarching story is sometimes far more important that the current events chronicled in any particular book. This is one of the O'Brian books that I suspect doesn't work as a stand-alone novel; too much of the story is tied to things we long-time readers have been watching develop for years. Nonetheless, it gives O'Brian (and Jack) an opportunity to look at the Navy from the outside, and it's delightfully well-written.
This is perhaps my favorite Maturin novel; he's become very rich, which makes him (oddly, inconsistently) frugal. Stephen spends the entire story dreading the upcoming reunion with Villiers--but when they accidentally encounter each other on a Stockholm road she (inevitably) just picks up the relationship as though it had never been broken. It's easy to see what the man dreads and loves about his wife and lover.
Having been sent on a special mission (remember that he is still an English secret agent), Stephen obtained a special exemption for the men of The Surprise to prevent them from being pressed into service should they be stopped by an English naval vessel. O'Brian really has a delightful way of writing. Here's another example of that wry humor that pervades his books. Russell is declaiming how all Frenchmen are worthless and uses as examples some French proverbial expressions, ". . .when the French wish to describe anything mighty foul they say, 'sal come un peigne', which gives you a pretty idea of their personal cleanliness. When they have other things to occupy their mind they say they have other cats to whip: a most inhuman thing to do [at least we beat dead horses] And when they are going to put a ship about, the order is 'a- Diue-va', or 'we must chance it and trust to God', which gives you some notion of their seamanship." One can only guess about O'Brian's early relationship with publishers, but from numerous comments made by a variety of characters, I suspect it was not a happy one: "You were telling me about publishers," asks Stephen of Mowett. “ ‘Yes , sir: I was about to say they were the most hellish procrastinators--' " 'Oh, how dreadful,' cried Fanny. 'Do they go to special houses, or do they . . .' " 'He means they delay,' said Babbington." O'Brian was a big fan of opium apparently, for Maturin is constantly singing its praises as a cure for all sorts of ills, and when queried about its ostensible addictive qualities, he replied in this book: "The objections come only from a few unhappy beings, Jansenists for the most part, who also condemn wine, agreeable food, music and the company of women: they even call out against coffee, for all love! Their objections are valid solely in the case of a few poor souls with feeble willpower, who would just as easily become the victims of intoxicating liquors, and who are practically moral imbeciles, often addicted to other forms of depravity; otherwise it is no more injurious than smoking tobacco." One learns all sorts of interesting things. Jack returns to his ship only to discover the word Seth written on the side.
The Sethians were a Gnostic Christian group who believed that Cain and Abel were brought into the world by angels, and that Seth, who was born after Abel’s murder, was the Almighty’s direct and pure creation. Anyway, there were pockets of Sethians scattered throughout England and, naturally, there were two schools of Sethians, the old that wrote the S backwards, and the new that wrote it in the conventional manner. Unlike Quakers, “they have no dislike for warfare,” so Jack has several Sethian sailors who celebrated recent good fortune by honoring Seth by painting his name on the side of the ship. When ordered to remove the name, they refused, not wishing to dishonor Seth. What makes this interesting is Jack’s novel way of making everyone happy. Rather clever, I thought. (Check out the Sethians on the web. They have a rather different perspective on the universe.)
Events close in Summer 1913? These are days between stations: still intending for South America on intelligence mission, but first seek prizes in South Atlantic and Mediterranean, and then diverted to Riga and Sweden.
Militarily: A complete sweep and return to fortune. Surprise first takes Merlin, consort to Spartan, thus learning of latter's plans against Azul. "Lord Nelson's Bridge" manoeuvre wins both Azul and Spartan, subsequently coaxing Spartan's prizes out of harbour with Merlin pretending to be consort still. Later, a cutting out of Diane and two French gunboats plus two merchantmen from St Martin's (an action which seems based in historical events). Again O'Brian plays with names: here, the Diane foreshadowing events later with Villiers.
Politically: Duhamel dies escaping to Canada; Blaine is again head of Naval Intelligence, though Wray & Ledward avoid capture and "someone high up in Admiralty" remains sympathetic. Schuyler: "However, papers found at Wray’s house implicate him in the stock scandal so that it is now obvious to all that Jack was set up." Stephen captures Paul Ségora aka Red Admiral during the Diane expedition, but Ségora later escapes disguised as woman.
Domestically: situations for both Jack and Stephen change dramatically.
● Stephen inherits his godfather's considerable fortune, and purchases Surprise to ensure he and Jack may continue their South America venture; Padeen's addiction after injury in gunnery practise, leading to Stephen's unwitting weaning from laudanum; and, reconciled with Diana in Sweden, though at considerable injury. Briefly stranded on Old Scratch.
● The prizes and attendant actions propagate a sea change for Jack, in money, legal problems, naval career. Initially offered a "pardon" but is offended at the underhanded suggestion by Soames at a party of Blaine's; and, Gen Aubrey is found dead in a ditch, with Jack inheriting Woolcombe and put up for county seat by Cousin Edward. Jack promises to support Navy in Parliament and "be mild", in exchange for reinstatement.
Together with Reverse of the Medal, marks a watershed in Jack & Stephen's joint adventures. Conceivably the next book is actually the 3rd in this mini-series, with the South America mission finally taking center stage.
Though Jack starts out rather glum as a result of being stripped of rank following the fallout from the Stock Exchange Fraud, in which Jack was implicated, the novel soon turns a corner as he applies himself to the thing he does best. On the very first trip to the Azores, the Surprise captures a fleet of merchant vessels, one filled with precious quicksilver, thereby earning Jack his crew’s esteem and clearing the debts that had plagued him over the previous few novels. He next sets about capturing the French ship, Diane, along with a few gunships. All of this paves the way for his eventual reinstatement on the Navy List as well as a place in Parliament. Stephen, meanwhile, works to aid Jack behind-the-scenes and seeks the opportunity to reconcile with his wife, Diana Villiers. The motif of a balloon, in vogue since their creation in 1789, occurs throughout as O’Brian uses it to represent Stephen’s fortunes and his mood (pgs. 105, 109, 199). The very real possibility of a gas balloon rising to an altitude at which the aeronaut passed out from lack of air and froze to death while the balloon was carried off fills Stephen’s nightmares, particularly when he learns of his wife’s hopes of making an ascent in her own hydrogen balloon. While O’Brian is willing to put his characters through a great deal of melodrama, he also knows when the reader needs a respite, and this novel returns to the form of his happier tales, with an ending full of the promise of hope.
Like the previous five novels, The Letter of Marque exists outside the normal flow of time – this novel being the sixth of twelve to exist in what O’Brian described as an extended 1812, with these dozen books taking place between the beginning of June 1813 and November 1813. Like his previous novels, O’Brian perfectly recreates the world of the Napoleonic War in 1812, using Aubrey and Stephen’s activities to comment on the rapid changes occurring in this era and the passage of time in the series’ internal chronology. This Folio Society edition reprints the original text with insets containing historical portraits and sketches to illustrate some of the scenes.
It took less than 20 pages to make me realise (for the umpteenth time) just how much knowledge of the human mind, elegance and fleetness of expression there is
This first chapter shows us how Jack is coping with his dismissal from the navy. The extra dimension to our familiar conflicts between Jack and Stephen with regard to catching the tide in that Stephen now owns the ship. This is a fact which Jack knows only with the very uppermost tip of his mind.
Stephens moral attitude to his sudden vast wealth and it's impact on him. His amusement at seeing the almost opposite impact of far more modest wealth on his friend Martin.
Oh yes its good to be back reading O'Brian again.
If you haven't tried them then you owe it to yourself to give them a go.
Must go - which that vittles is up
Everything about this book was beautiful and perfect and much-longed for. The only flaw was that the voice the narrator gives Diana Villiers is cloying and fake, and it nearly ruined my enjoyment of her scenes with Stephen. But not quite, for nothing could take away my adoration for the slow, weird ways they reconcile with each other.