Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

Master and Commander I do not usually like books set at sea. However hard I try, I just can’t seem to keep track of the nautical terms and as soon as I see words like ‘mainsail’, ‘fo’c’sle’ or ‘bosun’ my brain just seems to switch off. As a fan of historical fiction, I have been unable to avoid this entirely – after all, until the 20th century the only way to cross the sea was by ship and many historical fiction novels do involve a sea voyage or two – but the thought of reading a book where seafaring forms a major part of the plot is always quite daunting for me. For this reason I’ve resisted reading the Aubrey/Maturin series for a long time, despite it being described as one of the best historical series ever written, but a couple of weeks ago I decided it was time I gave Master and Commander a try.

The story begins in Port Mahon, Minorca, with Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin meeting for the first time at a concert in the Governor’s House. After an initial disagreement that almost results in a duel, Aubrey and Maturin discover a shared passion for music and a friendship begins to develop. Jack Aubrey has just been given his first command of the sloop, HMS Sophie, and after discovering that Stephen is a physician, he invites his new friend to join him as ship’s surgeon. With Britain at war with France (it’s the year 1800), life at sea is both dangerous and exciting and as the Sophie cruises the Mediterranean she becomes engaged in a series of sea battles and encounters with enemy ships.

I loved Patrick O’Brian’s writing style from the beginning, but as soon as the Sophie set sail all my fears about naval novels were realised. I did try – there’s a useful diagram at the front of the book and of course there’s always the option of looking up unfamiliar words and finding pictures of ships online (if, like me, you don’t know the difference between a brig and a frigate and have always thought a settee was something you sat on) – but in the end I decided not to worry about it and luckily, there were still plenty of things for a landlubber like me to enjoy, not least the wonderful characters. Too often characters in historical fiction are depicted as having modern sensibilities and come across as twentieth century people dropped into a historical background – that was thankfully not the case with this book; they felt realistic and believable. O’Brian’s prose and dialogue is completely appropriate for the time period and the same is true of the behaviour and thought processes of the characters.

I liked both of the main characters and the contrast between their very different personalities and am looking forward to getting to know them better over the course of the series. At the moment Stephen Maturin is my favourite; I also appreciated the fact that he doesn’t have much more knowledge of seafaring matters than I do and has to have even the most basic naval facts explained to him by other members of the crew. It was good to know that someone else shared my bewilderment of the nautical world and I loved the way even at moments of high drama at sea, he was more excited about spotting a rare bird or fish.

Master and Commander doesn’t have a lot of plot, being of a more episodic nature, but I finished the book with a better understanding of what conditions were like onboard a ship in the Napoleonic era and what daily life involved for a sailor in the Royal Navy. It seems that not being able to follow all of the terminology or the more intricate points of the various naval manoeuvres was not the problem I was afraid it would be. I didn’t instantly fall in love with this series, but I still enjoyed my first introduction to Aubrey and Maturin and I’m sure I’ll be reading the next one very soon!

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17 thoughts on “Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian”

  1. Hooray and welcome aboard! I’m about a third of the way into the series now and it gets better as it goes. I still can’t follow all the nautical bits, but O’Brian does a great job making sure the essential plot points are clear, and I’m learning a little as I go. The second book, you’ll probably be happy to hear, is mostly on land, and it has some wonderful character development.

    1. It was really only the nautical bits I struggled with; I loved everything else and I agree that the story was easy enough to follow overall. I’m looking forward to the second book being more land-based!

  2. I am a big fan of this series, and I rank Patrick O’Brian with Dorothy Dunnett among the best authors of historical fiction I have read. Despite having two companion volumes, though, I do sort of let the nautical details just wash over me, without worrying too much about them – though I do enjoy looking up the various parts of the world that the series takes Jack & Stephen. With Teresa, I think you’ll enjoy the next book, which is also one of the more Austenesque.

    1. Along with Teresa, you’re actually one of the bloggers who has inspired me to try Patrick O’Brian – I know you’ve said before that you rank him with Dorothy Dunnett.

  3. I have the same problem with nautical terminology, when I read amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies I found the sailing jargon and the many obscure references and terms a bit of a challenge, in the end I just stopped trying to find a meaning for every unfamiliar term and went along for the ride, I ended up enjoying that book a whole lot. Patrick O’Brian has written a biography of Joseph Banks I am very keen to read and I keep hearing good things about his novels, I think that biog of Banks might be where I start with O’Brian.

  4. Thanks for this, Helen. This series has been recommended to me in glowing terms by a friend, but I’ve always been slightly wary of the naval element. I have seen, and loved, the film “Master and Commander”, and so would like to give the books a try – and your thoughts have just cemented that. Have a lovely weekend. 🙂

  5. I have watched the 2003 film entitled Master and Commander never realising it was inspired by a book series. I really enjoyed the character dynamics between Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and Maturin (Paul Bettany) so maybe this series is worth considering as something I would enjoy too. Thank you for sharing 🙂

    1. I haven’t seen the film so I don’t know how different or similar it is to the series, but the character dynamics form a big part of this book too so I would probably recommend reading it since you enjoyed the film.

  6. I feel the same, books set at sea put me off, though I did like The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (I suppose the fantasy element helped there). It sounds like this is a good book for aiding understanding though, if the main character doesn’t know anything either, as long as it’s explained well and not overdone.

  7. You will find vol 2 Post Captain more to your taste as much of it is set on land during the peace of 1802 and concerns the love interest, introduced thus:

    ‘ . . ‘Get over, you – ,’ said the girl, in her pure clear young voice. Jack had never heard a girl say – before, and he turned to look at her with a particular interest. She was busy coping with the mare’s excitement, but after a moment she caught his eye and frowned. He looked away, smiling, for she was the prettiest thing – indeed, beautiful, with her heightened colour and her fine straight back, sitting her horse with the unconscious grace of a midshipman at the tiller in a lively sea.

    She had black hair and blue eyes; a certain ram-you-damn-you air that was slightly comic and more than a little touching in so slim a creature. She was wearing a shabby blue habit with white cuffs and lapels, like a naval lieutenant’s coat, and on top of it all a dashing tricorne with a tight curl of ostrich-feather. In some ingenious way, probably by the use of combs, she had drawn up her hair under this hat so as to leave one ear exposed; and this perfect ear, as Jack observed when the mare came crabwise towards him, was as pink as… . . ‘

    We discuss the anon, as we call it, and much else at: http://www.wwnorton.com/pob/forum/ceilidh.htm#122150

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