When I started reading Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander in the first week of January, it was almost 17 years to the day, since I had read it for the very first time. During my first 2004 read, I found the nautical terminology challenging. However, by the time I had finished all 20 and a half books a few years later, and got caught up in a rerun of Horatio Hornblower with Ioan Gruffudd, I was far more at home with sailor’s jargon. And when I read Moby-Dick last year, I found myself very comfortable with all the nautical parlance. The knowledge had stuck!
Marrying into a sailing and boating family may have also helped.
It was, therefore, a genuine pleasure to sink bank into Navy life with Captain Jack Aubrey and physician, Stephen Maturin. Second time around, I also appreciated how funny were the many nautical puns that O’Brian sprinkled liberally throughout the story.
This time, without all the worry about which mast was what, I could simply enjoy the story. Because, although, these stories are based on Navy life, with battles and lots of sailing around the oceans, the main meat of the story is about friendship. Master and Commander makes this clear from the very first, with the unlikely and unpromising, meeting between our two protagonists at a musical soiree and not at sea.
The minuet set Jack’s head wagging with its insistent beat…It was a witty, agreeable minuet, no more; but it was succeeded by a curiously difficult, almost harsh last movement, a piece that seemed to be on the edge of saying something of the very greatest importance.
Jack’s energetic appreciation of the music, did not go down well with his neighbour, Stephen Maturin, no less, who was being jostled. They almost came to blows. But instead, they decided to have supper together, where they discussed music and how they both came to be at a loose end in Port Mahón. And so, a beautiful friendship was born.
The first two chapters feature the island of Menorca in the Mediterranean, and the English naval base in Port Mahón.
It has one of the longest natural harbours in the world: 5 km long and up to 900 metres wide. During the time of these stories, the island was under British rule. The former ruler was the Catalan King of Aragon (dating back to 1287) which helps to explain Stephen’s presence in the area (we quickly learn he was a fluent speaker of Catalan and had had many boyhood visits to Catalonia).
The British had established a dock yard and royal naval hospital in this much sought after, strategic naval base, which is why Jack was hanging around – a new made master and commander, waiting for a ship to command – flirting with the wives of admirals.
I found this lovely post about Menorca & Port Mahon by a dedicated blogger who had visited the area and taken modern-day pictures of the places mentioned in the story, so there is no need for me to add to that here!
Instead, I will pull out quotes and words and thoughts from some of the chapters.
- On Music: Locatelli’s C major quartet “the ruminative ‘cello uttered two phrases of its own and then began a dialogue with the viola.“
- New Word: truckled – obsequious, to be servile
- On Leadership: “He saw and appreciated all he was meant to see. He was blind to the things he was not meant to see.”
- On Commanding: “he realised the nature of this feeling. He was no longer one of ‘us’; he was ‘they’…he had been surrounded by deference…it had surrounded him like a glass bell, quite shutting him off from the ship’s company.“
- Jack’s History: “nominally at sea since he was nine, and in fact, since he was twelve.” The sea is his life, it’s all he knows. Many of the admirals and captains are like father-figures, the ships are his home. It’s where he feels safe and at peace – a place where he has purpose and a sense of belonging.
- On HMAS Sophie: “He loved her dearly – had loved her from the moment his eye first swept her sweetly curving deck – but calm intelligence told him that she was a slow brig, an old brig and a brig that was very unlikely to make his fortune.”
- On Latin: aliquid amari – from Lucretius (Of the Nature of Things) – Medio de fonte leporum surgit aliquid amari quod in ipsis floribus angat – direct translation: from the very centre of a fountain of delights arises something bitter that chokes us in our prime (in our very flowering) – the general gist: being a victim of our own success.
- On Correct Terminology: Stephen is a physician not a surgeon!
- Stephen’s History: The Irish Rebellion of 1798 – it is two years since Stephen last saw Dillon
- On Ship Life: “He pondered gloomily upon the extreme care that should be taken with shipmates – cheek by jowl – very like marriage – the inconvenience of pragmatic, touchy, assuming companions – incompatible tempers mewed up together in a box.”
- A Telladonna: (noun. From the West Wing Weekly Podcast. “The often-used device when a character explains a policy or procedural issue in the episode to another character. Most frequently – but not exclusively – employed with Josh Lyman explaining (or mansplaining, or Lymansplaining) an issue to Donnatella Moss.”)
- Mowat names and labels the various parts of the ship for Stephen’s (and our) benefit. “You could not explain this maze of ropes and wood and canvas without using sea-terms, I suppose.”
- On the History of the United Irishmen: “the emancipation of Presbyterians, dissenters and Catholics and for a representative government of Ireland.“
- From the 2003 Movie: Jack’s Lord Nelson story about not needing a cloak on a cold night as his zeal for King and country was enough to keep him warm.
- On Sodomy and Punishment: ‘the goat must be slaughtered – that’s but fair – and it shall be served out to the mess that informed on him.’
- On Rituals and Traditions: reading the articles, beating to quarters ‘The idea is that every man shall know exactly where to go in action – in an emergency.’
- Stephen’s History: “he was used to this sense of isolation, of being a colourless shade in a silent private underworld.” What is Stephen really up to?
- A Telladonna: when Jack explains to Stephen the difference between master and master and commander and captain.
- From the 2003 Movie: ‘this is a depressed cranial fracture, sir, and I must use the trephine…as soon as the sun is up I must have off the top of his skull with my little saw.‘
- Jack’s History: as a midshipman reprimanded for petulance and turned before the mast because of a girl. Queeney, who helped to bring him up after his mother died & who happened to marry an admiral who then helped Jack get promoted.
- On Humour: ‘I don’t despair of making our gunnery at least as dangerous to others as it is to ourselves.’
- Catching Up: Stephen & James Dillon finally chat about where they have been and what happening in Ireland two years ago.
- Stephen’s Philosophy: ‘I have a sickening of men in masses, and of causes… The only feelings I have… are for men as individuals; my loyalties, such as they may be, are to private persons alone.’
- Stephen’s History: – ‘he wrote in his minute and secret shorthand.’ Secret shorthand? Some early foreshadowing from O’Brian.
- From the Movie: At a dinner party Jack explains how Stephen saved their gunner by opening his skull ‘roused out his brains, set them to rights, stuffed them back in again…bade the armourer take a crown piece, hammer it out thin into a dome…and so clapped it on, screwed it down and sewed up his scalp as neatly as a sailmaker.’
- On Humour: ‘in his gaiety of heart, Jack was very near a witticism, he felt it floating there, almost within reach.’
- On Location: Cape Nao (Cap de la Nau – cape of the ship) – easternmost tip of the Gulf of Valencia, Mediterranean. I’m constantly surprised how close everything is when I look at the locations on the map. It often feels like they are sailing for days. Yet Port Mahón (now known as Maó) looks like it is just a hop, skip and a jump over Mallorca and Ibiza to Cape Nao on the Spanish coast. Stephen is then put ashore nearby Tarragona, an area with a fresh water creek, that he knows well ‘silence, darkness and these countless familiar scents and the warmth of the lands had become (in their way) as necessary to him as air.’
- On Stephen: ‘If you chose, you could find out what ships and convoys were sailing, when expected, how laden, and so on. Even the galleons themselves, I dare say?‘
‘Certainly I could,’ said Stephen, ‘if I chose to play the spy.‘ More foreshadowing.
- On Being Becalmed:
The Sophie picked up enough moving air with her topgallants to draw a long straight whispering furrow across the water, a line brilliant with unearthly phosphorescence, visible for quarter of a mile behind her. days and nights of unbelievable purity. Nights when the steady Ionian breeze rounded the square mainsail…and he and Jack on deck, sawing away, sawing away, lost in their music, until the falling dew untuned their strings. And days when the perfection of dawn was so great, the emptiness so entire, that men were almost afraid to speak.
- On Correct Terminology: and the correct meaning of post captain ‘At present I am called captain only by courtesy…Whereas was I to be made post some day, I should be captain by right; but even so I should only shift my swab from one shoulder to the other. I should not have the right to wear both until I had three year’s seniority.’
- From the Movie: ‘we will make a raft to carry a stern lantern and three of four smaller ones‘ as an overnight decoy to escape being chased down by a much larger enemy ship.
- On Battle: ‘I hope to God we may see a touch of real action before it is too late. I am very curious to know what you will think of it: most men find it entirely unlike what they expected – like love in that. Very disappointing, and yet you cannot wait to be starting again.’
- New Word: flocci-naucinihili-pilification – something that is worthless or unimportant – a made up word using Latin roots (Eton college, 19th century).
- On Youth: ‘what private lives the young led, he reflected, how very much apart.‘ Now and always.
- On Politics: ‘You are an antinomian,’ said Jack. ‘I am a pragmatist, ‘ said Stephen‘ (antinomian – someone who rejects laws and social norms).
- On Humour: ‘am with child to know what it was‘.
- On Grief and Loss: ‘a serving officer in an active war has an intense rather than a lasting grief.’
- On Latin: fenum habent in cornu – literal meaning ‘they have hay on their horn’. In context – Horace, Satires 1. The hay was used on oxen inclined to gore people, as both a padding and visible ‘danger sign’; Horace uses the phrase (with the singular habet) to mean ‘he’s a dangerous man’. Maturin’s use of this quotation is also a clever pun on the ‘cuckold’s horn’ in respect of Admiral Harte.
- On Court-Martials: ‘The thing is officially called the trial of the captain, officers and ship’s company; and they formally ask the officers if they have any complaints to make against the captain, and the captain whether he has any to make against the officers.’
- On Happy Endings:
‘Captain Aubrey: it is no small pleasure to me to receive the commands of the court I have the honour to preside at, that in delivering to you your sword, I should congratulate you upon its being restored by both friend and foe alike; hoping ere long you will be called upon to draw it once more in the honourable defence of your country.’
Another advantage with (re)reading this series, is to do with the large cast of characters. Knowing which names will be important going forward is handy. First time around I was a little overwhelmed by the number of crew, but now I know which ones are ongoing characters and which ones will not reappear later.
It has been an utter delight to return to the world of Jack and Stephen. I believe I will be signing up for book two, Post Captain, when I return from my holiday.
- O’Brian was approached by the publisher of C S Forester, after his death in 1966, to write a nautical series that might fill the gap left by Horatio Hornblower.
- Longlisted for the Lost Man Booker Prize of 1970 (in 2010).
- If you would like to read a summary of the chapters for this book, please visit The Journal of Blue Lou Logan.
- Nick @One Catholic Life is also providing chapter posts as he has time.
Book: Master and Commander | Patrick O'Brian ISBN: 9780006499152 Publisher: Harper Collins Publication Date: 26th March 1997 (first published 1969) Format: Paperback