Post Captain | Patrick O’Brian #Readalong

At first dawn the swathes of rain drifting eastwards across the Channel parted long enough to show that the chase had altered course.

Post Captain begins with peace being declared. This is a not necessarily the happy occasion the modern reader might think it is. As Jack explains to an uncomprehending Stephen,

It’s the others I’m sorry for, the lieutenants with their half-pay and very little chance of a ship – none at all of promotion; the poor wretched midshipmen who have not been made and who never will be made now – no hope of a commission. And of course, no half-pay at all. It’s the merchant service for them, or blacking shoes outside St James’s Park.

The Treaty of Amiens was signed in the town of Amiens on the 27 March 1802. It signalled the end of the French Revolutionary Wars (1792 -1802), a series of conflicts, triggered by the French Revolution, that saw the French in conflict against Britain, The Holy Roman Empire, Prussia and Russia.

The first book, Master and Commander was set in the time of the War of the Second Coalition (1798 – 1802). This particular coalition included Britain, Austria, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, Portugal, the Kingdom of Naples and a few German monarchies (but not Prussia or Spain) with the aim of restoring the French monarchy and halting the expansion of the French Empire. We first meet Jack and Stephen in Port Mahon on the 18 April 1800. Their cruises around the Mediterranean on board the Sophie brought us to mid 1801.

The peace lasted one year only.

The Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815) then became the background for the remainder of the Master and Commander series.

However, before we jump too far ahead, let’s stop and revel in the pure delight of rereading Post Captain. Book one is all about Jack & Stephen and their burgeoning friendship, and for the rest of us, it’s a chance to get to know about life at sea and to get our first taste of naval battles.

But book two spends a considerable amount of time on land, thanks to The Treaty of Amiens, and we meet the wonderful female characters of this series for the first time. The feisty, unpredictable Diana and the gentle but determined Sophia take centre stage and quickly play havoc with the hearts of Jack and Stephen.

The romantic nature of Post Captain, has often caused many reviewers to refer to this book as O’Brian’s homage to Jane Austen. O’Brian was a huge fan. Pride and Prejudice was his favourite Austen. He had a collection of her books, many published while she was still alive.

Both women are in a social class and financial situation that means they simply and practically cannot marry without money. As much as Jack and Stephen attract them, they are not viable options as things currently stand. Stephen always has been poor, despite a castle in Catalonia, and Jack had the misfortune to keep his prize money with an agent who decided to abscond with all his client’s savings. As a result, Jack spends the entire novel dodging debt collectors, often in quite hilarious circumstances.

A little terminology curiosity – maybe one of you could help me out?

M&C begins in April 1800, but in Post Captain, Stephen explains to Diana how he and Jack came to be friends.

I first met him in Minorca, in the year one, in the spring of year one. I had taken a patient there…he died – and I met Jack at a concert. We took a liking to one another, and he asked me to sail with him as his surgeon. I agreed, being quite penniless at the time, and we have been together ever since.

For me, the ‘year one’ should be 1801, but then that would mean they had only been sailing together for less than a year – hardly worthy of the phrase ‘and we have been together ever since‘! Is it possible to refer to 1800 as the ‘year one‘, meaning the first year of the new century?

There are some wonderful set pieces in Post Captain that would have been a delight to see in a movie version. Jack in a bear suit being led over the French Pyrenees by his ‘master’ Stephen, watching Diana on a horse joining in the chase for a fox, jumping fences and galloping at full stretch, Jack and Stephen’s jealousy of each other building to a point where a duel is called out, Stephen’s attempt to keep bees at sea, the pride on Pullings’ face when he is made lieutenant and finally, for Jack, to be made Post Captain. The very dramatic and stirring naval battle that concludes this story would have made for tremendous viewing.

Real life character:

  • Jean-Anne Christy de la Pallière, also written “Christy-Pallière”, (18 September 1755 – 29 July 1829) was a French Naval officer, who did command the naval base at Toulon, though not in 1803.

In Real Life

  • The Battle of Cape Santa Maria in October 1804, involved four British frigates – HMS Indefatigable, HMS Lively, HMS Medusa and HMS Amphion – successfully capturing a Spanish flotilla carrying gold from the River Plate in present-day Montevideo, Uruguay. In real life, Captain Hamond was in command of the HMS Lively, not Jack Aubrey.

On Decision Making:

The situation was still fluid; it was more a potentiality than a situation. But any decision now would crystallize it, and the moment it began to take shape all the succeeding events would follow of themselves, moving at first with slow inevitability and then faster and faster, never to be undone.

On Amusing 19th Century Word Usage:

I am with child to see a dew-pond.

On Sophia:

Her looks were very much admired; she was always elegant, and when she was in looks she was quite lovely. She spoke little, in company or out, but she was capable of a sudden dart of sharpness, of a remark that showed much more intelligence and reflection than would have been expected from her rudimentary education and her very quiet provincial life.

On Diana:

She was willing, she was obliged, to accept a protectorate, and from the beginning she resolved to be meek, cautious and retiring; she knew that other women would regard her as a menace, and she meant to give them no provocation. But her theory and her practice were sometimes at odds.

In Homage to Jane Austen:

“what a capital thing it is for you girls, to have a couple of sailors with their pockets full of guineas, turned ashore and pitched down on your very doorstep. Anyone in want of a husband has only to whistle.”

On Toulon – a major naval base on the French Riveria and now home to the French Mediterranean Fleet

Toulon, France, 1850 | Image source

The silent, still-green hills, the great headlands, the enormous sweep of the Mediterranean beyond them and the islands, blue and motionless beyond expression, the flood of hot, oppressive light, and then in the middle this noisy little stirring concentrated town, filled with tiny figures  –  white shirts, blue trousers, the gleam of red sashes – all of them intensely busy….boats pulling from the Arsenal to the Petite Rade, from the Petite Rade to the Grande Rade….men swarming over the fine great ships on the stocks, plying their adzes, caulking-hammers, augers, beetles, harring-poles; gangs of convicts…all in the din and the innumerable smells of a great port, the reek of open drains, old stagnant water, hot stone, frying garlic, grilling fish that wafted over the whole.

On Friendship – Jack:

Stephen was strangely reticent these days. Jack had supposed he knew him through and through in the old uncomplicated times, and he loved all he knew; but now there were new depths, an underlying hard ruthlessness, an unexpected Maturin; and Jack was quite out of his depth.

On HMS Polycrest::

She was known as the Carpenter’s Mistake, and no one in the service had ever imagined she would be launched.

On Unusual Nautical Terminology:

He gave orders for the mousing of the horses.

  • Mousing: Several turns of light line around the mouth of a hook, to prevent unhooking accidents.
  • Horses: Prominent wooden or iron beams lying across the deck of a sailing barge taking the foresheet and mainsheet

On Friendship – Stephen:

This was a Jack Aubrey he had never seen before, larger than life, hard, cold, and strong with a hundred years of tradition behind him, utterly convinced that he was right.

On Sanctuary:

‘You may goes as far as Falconer’s Rents, and then cut through to Essex Street and go along as far as the fourth house from the corner, then right back to the City side of Cecil Street; but don’t ever you cross it, nor don’t ever you pass the posts in Sweating-house Lane, your honour, or all is up.’

  • In 1351, the great-grandson of Henry III, was made the 1st Duke of Lancaster for services rendered in the Hundred Years War. His seat was raised to a county palatine, giving him special authority and autonomy from the rest of the kingdom. This included all his property, including the Savoy, in London. Therefore, anyone being pursued by debt in London could stay in the Savoy without fear of arrest.

On Plymouth:

‘So much wretchedness, misery and squalor I do not believe I have ever seen collected together in one place, as in this town of Plymouth.’

On Stephen’s Philosophy of Life:

a petulant unhappy striving – childhood the only happiness, and that unknowingly; then the continual battle that cannot ever possibly be won; a losing fight against ill-health – poverty for nearly all. Life is a long disease with only one termination and its last years are appalling: weak, racked by the stone, rheumatismal pains, senses going, friends, family, occupation gone, a man must pray for imbecility or a heart of stone.

On Finding More Movie References:

‘But every man and boy must attend to his duty tonight, he must mind it very carefully, because Chaulieu is a tough nut to crack – an awkward set of shoals – an awkward tide – and we must be every hand to his rope, and haul with a will, d’ye hear? Quick’s the word and sharp’s the action’.

On HMS Lively:

No wonder they called her a crack frigate: her sailing qualities were quite out of the ordinary, and the smooth quiet discipline of her people was beyond anything he had seen.

Master and Commander series of books:

Book: Post Captain
Author: Patrick O'Brian
ISBN: 9780006499169
Imprint: Harper Collins
Date: 2002 (originally published 1972)
Format: paperback
This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are our first storytellers.

3 thoughts on “Post Captain | Patrick O’Brian #Readalong

  1. This is a fantastic post, Brona. I hope to be review HMS Surprise soon, and I will cite this post when I mention Post Captain. I never reviewed this one, although I loved the book. These books just intimidate me when I try to write my thoughts on them.


    1. Thanks Tracy. I thoroughly enjoyed this reread. The first time around, all the new characters confused me, I didn’t know who was going to stay or leave by the end of the book, let alone the series. This time I do, and therefore enjoyed meeting them for the first time and watching the relationships develop.
      HMS Surprise is by my bed just waiting for me to finish a couple of other books first!


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