This is the fourth of Patrick O’Brian’s novels following the adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin. I have always been (and I’m sure I always will be) a landlubber, so I’m actually quite proud of myself for managing to get so far into a series which is set largely at sea! Unfortunately, the nautical details and terminology are not getting any easier for me to understand and that made this fourth novel, in particular, slightly challenging at times – but I did still enjoy this one, if not quite as much as I enjoyed the first three books.
In the intervening period between the end of the previous novel, HMS Surprise, and the beginning of The Mauritius Command, Jack Aubrey has married Sophie Williams and she has given birth to twin girls. Despite these happy events, however, Jack is feeling restless and miserable. Currently ashore with no ship to command, he is having to live on half-pay, and as his mother-in-law has lost all her money, including Sophie’s dowry, the whole family are crowded together in a small, damp cottage on the Hampshire coast.
Jack’s spirits are lifted when his friend, Stephen Maturin – ship’s surgeon, naturalist and occasional spy – arrives bearing the news that Jack is required to lead a naval campaign against the French with the aim of taking control of the islands of Mauritius and La Réunion. Setting sail aboard the HMS Boadicea, a thirty-eight-gun frigate, Jack is temporarily promoted to commodore and given command of a squadron. As if his mission wasn’t already going to be difficult enough, he also faces problems in the form of his own captains: Lord Clonfert, a handsome, dashing young man who is determined to outdo everybody else, and Captain Corbett, who believes in strict discipline and whose crew are always on the verge of mutiny.
Until now, we have only seen Jack Aubrey as captain of one individual ship; here he is in command of several, something which brings new challenges and requires a new set of skills. Whereas in the past he has been able to concentrate on getting to know his own crew and his own ship, now he is responsible for coordinating the movements of more than one vessel and working with other officers of various ranks.
‘Why, don’t you see,’ cried Jack, his mind fixed upon this question of command, ‘it has always been the command of a single ship. You are bred up to it—it comes natural. But high command is something you come to suddenly, with no experience. There are captains under you; and handling the captains of a squadron, each one of them God the Father of his own quarterdeck, is a very different matter from handling a ship’s company under your own eye. You can rarely choose them and you can rarely get rid of them…’
The plot of The Mauritius Command is based on a real naval campaign in the Indian Ocean (the Mauritius Campaign of 1809-11, part of the Napoleonic Wars) and I think this is possibly why I didn’t get on as well with this book as I did with the previous ones. Sticking so closely to historical events meant less time was spent on fictional storylines and on developing the friendship between Aubrey and Maturin; apart from the opening chapters, there is almost no land-based action either and a large portion of the novel is devoted to naval battles which, well-written and accurate as they may be, I find it hard to get excited about. This is just my personal opinion, of course, and I’m sure readers with different tastes will love this book for the very reasons that I didn’t!
Although we are given a glimpse at the beginning of the book of Jack’s married life with Sophie (and have our first chance to meet the twins) I was sorry not to see anything of Diana Villiers in this novel and I’m hoping she will make an appearance in the next one. So far I have found each book in the series to have its own different strengths and weaknesses; maybe book five (Desolation Island) will be more to my taste than this one.