Master and Commander

Monday June 27, 2005 @ 04:11 PM (UTC)

Book cover

Those in the know may find it humorous that I am only now reviewing Master and Commander, the first in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series; I am, after all, nearing the close of The Nutmeg of Consolation, the fourteenth. Some O’Brian nut even suggested, based on the author’s having written all 20 books as one long novel, that I should crack on like smoke and oakum and keep the reviewing to myself until I could review the entire work (or should I say oeuvre?).

However, such a review, if compendious enough to do its subject justice, might break the back of the internet, so I will proceed to review, or perhaps simply muse upon, Master and Commander.

It is simple to state in the baldest terms what this book is about. It’s set when the British Navy was chivvying Napoleon in the world’s oceans, and concerns Jack Aubrey, a hitherto disappointed first lieutenant in that navy, and Stephen Maturin, an even more disappointed physician and naturalist. As the title implies, Jack, eating and drinking himself into moderate debt whilst he awaits his first command, does receive that command; and I spoil very little by saying that Dr. Maturin is convinced to come aboard as ship’s surgeon. The novels could hardly be called ‘The Aubrey-Maturin series’ if they merely bumped into each other in the street once and met no more, or if one killed the other in a duel in the first few chapters. The book follows the fortunes of their first voyage together.

Simple enough, in theory, and stripped of the more exciting elements of that voyage in order to keep them a delightful secret. But what any bare description of the matter of the books fails to convey is the richness; of character, of detail, of reality. These are painstakingly researched books which do not seem dry; books full of specialized detail which do not seem didactic; books which recreate a long ago world with men who belong to it, and do not seem alien or archaic. In some ways the burden of learning and detail is heaviest in this book, for most of us have a sad dearth of naval knowledge or merely the dusty remnant of what we gleaned from our voyages with Ishmael long ago. However, Dr. Maturin — who never, despite his preening, truly becomes an experienced sea-dog — is in precisely the same state of ignorance. As he is enlightened, so are we, and by the time the weathergage truly comes into play, we have at least some idea of what a weathergage may be.

As for the rest, the characters are, as I said, vivid; to begin with, perhaps, Maturin has a little more depth and focus — all the more natural if you consider Maturin has a great deal in common with his creator — but I assure you that if you acquire a taste for O’Brian and read on, you will find that Jack Aubrey has more to him than wine, women, and naval genius. The secondary characters are evocative sketches which, in many cases, fill in and become familiar and beloved as the books progress.

The third class of characters, one might say, are the ships, the sea, the creatures of the multifarious world in which the ships and sea strive, clash and reconcile. These are just as vivid, especially the sea, which occasionally flares into prominence and fills a page with glorious description, leaving the reader gazing around the static, enclosed world in which she reads, confused by the sudden lack of glinting waves and white-scrubbed deck boards, and by the sudden silence after the delighted song of the wind in the sails and shrouds.

Beyond the simple outline I gave above, I think Master and Commander is about fortune and greatness; the way in which our deeds are determined not only by our merits but by the people we happen to meet along the way. Jack is, there is no doubt, a tactical genius, a thoroughgoing seaman and a bold, energetic fighter; but without Stephen’s counsel, tact, knowledge and quiet interference, some if not all of his potential would never have come to fruit. Stephen is brilliant, resourceful, subtle and, frankly, a badass. But without Jack’s impetus to entrain him back into the world, his vigor, directness, and his intense ability to live in a single moment, Stephen would have wasted away in his poverty, fatalism and melancholia. This is one of the great friendships, by dint of which both friends are raised above themselves, brought closer to their ideal potential, enriched and bettered. Even while Master and Commander whisks us away to a vanished world, it inspires us to look about ourselves, and recognize, if we are fortunate enough to have them, such friendships, such partnerships.

Master and Commander, stellar as it is, is only the first movement of the concerto, the first statement of the theme. The visceral excitement of a sea battle will return again in various forms, as will the dry and raucous humor of the doctor and the crew respectively; but they will be joined by political intrigue, personal tragedy, love, discovery and triumph. Tide waits for no man! Come aboard, and waste not a moment!

Bottom line: O’Brian’s writing is literary to the point of shivers; exciting to the point of 3 am bedtimes; funny to the point of laughing raucously in the echoing vastness of the Nike cafeteria. The first treasure in a great gleaming trove.


Ok. I’ve resisted the impulse for this long, but I can’t take it anymore. It’s impertinent – especially since you have waxed poetic over this guys work. But what we really want to know is he Master (and Commander) of his domain?

Puns are never completely rejected here, or I would have IP-banned EMeta long ago.

If his domain is ‘the modern nautical novel,’ then quite probably. Reviewers are always saying things like “Heir to the greatness of Conrad and Melville!” which rather implies he has no modern peer!

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