Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Books: Ship of Dreams
The provenance of December 12th was discussed in brief yesterday, with one of my favorite little scenes from the 20 plus series of books by Patrick O’Brian sometimes referred to as “The Aubreyad”. I find that title is a bit pretentious but, in all honesty, I don’t think O’Brian ne Russ would. He strikes me as the kind of guy that sort of thing would appeal to.
I racked my brain for a post that would fit the occasion and then the best idea of all fell into my lap as I was just about to give up and write about jib sails. Why not review, in brief, my very favorite book from the series which I have just recently finished rereading? Thus, I offer my take on Patrick O’Brian’s HMS Surprise; there will be spoilers.
HMS Surprise is the third book in the series and when it opens the key involvement in all of the books – the close personal friendship between Captain John “Jack” Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin – is well established. One of the most attractive things about the Aubrey/Maturin series is these two gentlemen’s fraternal love for one another. Even when they are about to come to blows, we know without doubt that they still have each the other’s back. O’Brian makes you wish that you had a friend like Aubrey or Maturin, particularly in times in your life when you don’t.
Jack’s command, the sloop of war Lively, has been involved in the capture of a Spanish treasure fleet and the debate at the Admiralty is what to do about this. Spain is not yet a British enemy, and therefore the ships in question cannot properly be libelled as prizes. This means that the Admiralty and the government, not the crews involved in the action, stand to gain the most financially. We are privy to this discussion and to the unfortunate name dropping of the First Lord who indicates Stephen Maturin is a British spy during the course of the debate.
Given that the Napoleonic Wars are in full swing, this is a dangerous misstep on the part of the Admiralty lord, particularly since quite literally even as he speaks Maturin is on a covert mission in Southern France. When Jack and the crew of Lively put in to pick Stephen up, they are informed that he has been captured by the French and – to the seamen’s horror – is being tortured for information. There is not a moment to lose as Jack, Barret Bonden, Preserved Killick, Tom Pullings, William Babbington and a handful of others attack and kill the French in their dungeon, freeing Stephen from an intricate device whose application permanently – if only partially – impairs the use of his left hand.
Lively returns to London, where Stephen spends his recovery time teaching Jack’s coxswain Barret Bonden how to read. Jack, meanwhile, is in dire financial straights. To such a degree, in fact, that he is arrested and carted off to debtor’s prison. This is a catastrophic turn of events for his love life. The young woman he hopes to marry, Sophia “Sophie” Williams, has a shrew of a mother that will not allow her to wed unless her groom is “comfortable”. An indebted sailor is not at all to Mrs. Williams’ taste and Sophie is forced to start shopping about elsewhere. Very Austen-esque indeed.
Stephen, returned to good health, jumps to Jack’s aid with both feet. Through his association with the powerful Sir Joseph Banks, Stephen sees to it that some of the Spanish treasure finds its way into Jack’s pockets. This allows Aubrey to pay off at least a few debts, putting him back in the hunt for Sophie’s hand. Stephen’s behind the scenes maneuvering also wins Jack command of the titular frigate that will be his favorite ship throughout the series. Surprise is given a mission to transport a new ambassador via India. Before they leave, however, Stephen manages to arrange a secret meeting between Jack and Sophie at which they promise not to marry anyone but each other.
The voyage to the East Indies is arduous, with a long stint in the Equatorial doldrums in the Atlantic that finds many of the Surprises sick with scurvy. A quick stop in Brazil to replenish fresh food and water solves the problem, but more trouble is on the way. The ambassador, Arthur Stanhope, becomes debilitated due to seasickness. Upon arriving in India, things look up, but the unfortunate Mr. Stanhope will eventually die despite Stephen’s best efforts.
Surprise is in need of a refit and port becomes home for some weeks. While Jack and the crew are busy with their ship, Stephen wanders the local streets and markets, befriending a lower caste girl named Dil. He also, very unexpectedly, runs into his true heart’s desire, Sophie Williams’ cousin Diana Villieres. Unlike Sophie, Diana is a widow and is unfortunately free with her virtue – if she had any to begin with. She has been stringing Stephen along since Post Captain, even going so far as to have a brief sexual liaison with Jack. Not surprisingly she is in compromising circumstances in India, being “kept” by a wealthy merchant named Richard Canning. It should be noted that Sophie and Diana are the archetypes of the two kinds of women to be found in the series – and in O’Brian’s novels in general. Sophie represents the noble, but very frigid, wife who has every potential to become a shrew, while Diana is the manipulative sexual predator who happily eats men for breakfast.
When Maturin and Canning meet the two become enraged with one another over Diana, whom Stephen has asked to marry. After young Dil is killed in the streets over a set of silver bangles given to her by Stephen, the doctor falls into despair. He takes his rage out on, not Diana who will not commit to him, but Canning. A pistol duel is arranged and, though Stephen is shot in the ribs, he kills Canning outright. This only increases his guilt as he realizes that Diana now has no one to take care of her, Stephen being in dodgy financial circumstances himself.
Surprise, which has in the meantime driven off a squadron of French ships bent on capturing a flotilla of British East Indiamen loaded with specie, is now ready to sail and Stephen, his situation deteriorating, offers Diana conduct to England aboard her. Jack, who is leery of Diana with good cause and desperately worried for his good friend, will not allow it. Diana will have to book passage aboard an East Indiaman.
Stephen is violently ill with fever caused by the ball lodged in his chest and – as in the scene from the movie Master and Commander – operates on himself with great success once Surprise arrives at a little island in the Indian Ocean. It is here, while recovering, that Stephen finds and collects the tortoise he will christen testudo Aubriae in recognition of his friend. The poor old turtle is seasick the entire way back to England.
When Surprise reaches Madeira, where Jack and Stephen were to rendezvous with their ladies, there is nothing for our heroes but disappointment. Sophie has returned to England, although she leaves word for Jack that her promise of marriage is still firm. Stephen, on a much less cheerful note, finds that Diana has again chosen the life of mistress over wife. She has left Madeira for the United States with the shady if decidedly rich Henry Johnson.
The book, which has so many favorable things occur for Jack – particularly at sea – has a decidedly down ending. Though both Jack and Stephen are on the rise as far as their careers, their personal lives are in shambles. Once again O’Brian, in a not very subtle way, reminds us that women are bad news and the only happiness for any true sailor is at sea. All that said, the rich tapestry of people and places offered by HMS Surprise makes all the disappointment well worth the while. And then too there’s always the next book The Mauritius Command; what ever might be in store for us there?
Header: Current paperback cover of HMS Surprise with painting by Geoff Hunt