George V. Reilly

On Circumnavigating the Aubreyiad Again

At the beginning of 2021, prompted by Russell Crowe’s defense of Master and Commander, I began yet another re-read of the twenty Aubrey-Maturin novels. Or, as the fandom would have it, another cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion. It’s probably my fifth or sixth cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion, since I bought the complete boxed set as a Christmas present to myself in the early aughts.

I completed the twentieth book, Blue at the Mizzen, yesterday, and also the few pages of the final, unfinished novel, 21. (I also read about 120 other books in 2021, down from a stupendous 200 books in 2020, but that’s neither here nor there.)

I think I'm due for another re-read of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels (all 6,500 pages) and a rewatch of Master and Commander.

— George V. Reilly (@ge­orgevreil­ly) January 17, 2021

Why did I put myself through re-reading 6,500 pages of a dense roman-fleuve yet again? For the sheer pleasure of joining up once more with my old friends, Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin, in their 15-year fight against Napoleon.

They are an unlikely pair of friends. Jack Aubrey, a big, hearty English naval officer, is utterly competent in his domain, mag­nif­i­cent at sea but naïve and easily duped on land. Stephen Maturin, the il­le­git­i­mate son of an Irish officer and a Catalan lady, is a renowned physician and naturalist, a former United Irishman turned British in­tel­li­gence agent, a Catholic in a Protestant service, and a perpetual landlubber and sloven. They have little in common, save a shared love of music and of natural philosophy. Both are Fellows of the Royal Society—Jack, to many’s surprise, is a math­e­mati­cian and astronomer.

And yet, they are fast friends and Stephen follows Jack from ship to ship. A captain must hold himself aloof from his crew and his officers. He is the sole authority, often months of sailing away from his superiors. He dines alone, save when invited to the officers’ wardroom or when he invites them to join him. Stephen, as Jack’s particular friend, is exempt from the normal strictures, allowing Jack to retain his humanity on the long voyages.

It is the friendship and the two main characters that hold me, along with the adventure and the travel. O’Brian immersed himself in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and his en­cy­clopaedic knowledge helped him bring the era to life with incredible verisimil­i­tude. O’Brian was an ac­com­plished sto­ry­teller and often very funny.

The characters sound and act like people of the time, not like trans­plant­ed twentieth century Americans. Jack, Stephen, and the other characters would be at home in the pages of Jane Austen (sister to two Royal Navy officers).

Jo Walton’s re-read will give you a taste of the books.

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