HMS Surprise | Patrick O’Brian #Readalong

*Spoiler alert*

‘But I put it to you, my lord, that prize-money is of essential importance to the navy. The possibility o, however remote, of making a fortune by some brilliant stroke is an unparalleled spur to the diligence, the activity, and the unremitting attention of every man afloat.’

So says Sir Joseph Blaine, the man largely responsible for arranging Stephen Maturin’s various secret missions throughout this series. He is a senior official in the Royal Navy’s intelligence service and is Stephen’s prime contact within the Admiralty. He is a fictional character. But throughout Post Captain, I thought that any time Stephen went to visit Sir Joseph, to discuss missions and beetles, that he was in fact, meeting up with Sir Joseph Banks.

A quick check, shows that O’Brian did base his fictional Sir Joseph in part, on Banks, especially with respect to his naturalist tendencies. However, they are two separate characters (as the real Sir Joseph Banks makes a cameo appearance later in the series according to wikipedia – I had forgotten that as well).

This is one of the benefits of rereading a series. In the early books, you are still getting to know the characters, the writing style of the author and which things it is important to pay attention to. Many things are missed or overlooked, and little errors or assumptions can be made.

Having the wrong Sir Joseph in my mind affected my reading of the series first time around. Early in HMS Surprise, Maturin becomes aware of a rat in the ranks of the secret service. First time around, I had no sense of being suspicious of Sir Joseph, because how could Sir Joseph Banks possibly be a traitor? With this read however, I was less certain and held everyone under suspicion, because I cannot recall who the traitor turns out to be (this matter is not resolved in HMS Surprise).

Most of the action (after Stephen’s spying-escapade-gone-horribly-wrong early in the book) takes place in the seas to and from India. Jack is given command of the Surprise and a tour to India, in part to get Stephen out of London safely and in part to given Stephen time and space to recover from his injuries (this spying work is dangerous stuff indeed, and if not for Jack’s derring-do rescue, Stephen may have been tortured to death by the Spanish in Port Mahon).

There are a number of dramatic and memorable scenes along the way.

From Stephen being left behind on a guano covered rock in the middle of nowhere, to Stephen returning from shore leave in Brazil with a sloth. There is Stephen’s first meeting with Diana after she ran off with Canning to India and his heartfelt marriage proposal a few scenes later. From Jack & Stephen’s climb up the topmast to see Jack’s initial’s carved into the masthead when he was a midshipman, to the protracted sea battle that protects the East India Company fleet from the French. Stephen’s duel followed by the operation he performs on himself to Jack’s long awaited meeting with Sophie, his bride-to-be. Action, drama, adventure and romance.

But, of course, the real magic of this story, as with all the others in the series, is the fraternal feeling between Jack and Stephen. One every page, at every turn, theirs is a friendship that deepens as they confront the realities of each others frailties and flaws. They are vastly different characters with different passions, yet there is friendship based on mutual interests, intellectual curiosity and love of music.

On Stephen:

Stephen had spared himself no expense in making himself more unhappy, his own position as a rejected lover even clearer. “Why do I gather all these wounds?” he wondered.

On Rescuing Stephen From Being Tortured:

‘God knows I should do the same again,’ said Jack, leaning on the helm to close her, the keen spray stinging his tired, reddened eyes. ‘But I feel I need the whole sea to clean me.’

On Mrs Williams, Sophia’s mother:

…a widow with considerable property under her own control, is deeply stupid, griping, illiberal, avid, tenacious, pinchfist lickpenny, a sordid lickpenny and a shrew.

On Rescuing Stephen From Saint Peter and Saint Paul Archipelago (referred to as St Paul’s Rock by Stephen):

Captain will be main glad to see you, sir. Said you could never last on that – rock; on deck all day and night – hands ’bout ship every glass. God love us,’ he said with a chuckle, remembering the ferocious compulsion, the pitiless driving of men three parts dead with fatigue, ‘he was quite upset.’

He had indeed been quite upset, but the news from the mast-head that the returning barge carried an animate surgeon reassured the greater part of his mind…the two emotions showed on his face as he leant over the rail – gravity, and yet a flush of pleasure and a smile that would be spreading.

On Friendship:

Stephen’s confidence in Captain Aubrey’s seamanship was as entire, as blind, as Jack’s in the medical omniscience of Dr Maturin.

On Naval Life:

From his earliest acquaintance with the Navy, Stephen had been oppressed by this sense of hurry – hurry to look over the next horizon, hurry to reach a certain port, hurry to getaway from it in case something should be happening in a distant strait.

On India:

‘I had expected wonders from Bombay; but my heated expectations, founded upon the Arabian Nights, a glimpse of the Moorish towns in Africa, and books of travel, were poor thin insubstantial things compared with the reality. There is here a striving, avid and worldly civilisation, of course….but I had no conception of the ubiquitous sense of the holy.’

On Colonial Life in Bombay:

But hypocrisy has never failed the English middle class in any latitude.

On Dil, the Street Urchin Who Adopts Stephen:

I am tempted to purchase her: above all I should wish to preserve her in this present state, not sexless, but unaware of her sex, free of her person and of all the gutters and bazaars of Bombay, wholly and immediately human: wise, too.” But only Joshua could halt the sun. In a year’s time or less she will be in a brothel. Would a European house be better? A servant, washed and confined? Could I keep her as a pet? For how long? Endow her? It is hard to think of her lively young spirit sinking, vanishing in the common lot.

On Seeing Diana:

Bringing his eyes down from the vultures and the glare, Stephen found himself looking directly into Diana’s face. She was sitting in a barouche under the shade of two apricot coloured umbrellas with three officers, leaning forward with lively interest to see what had stopped them….she twisted around with a movement Stephen had forgotten but that was as familiar as the beat of his heart.

On Relics of Youth:

On the broad rim of the square hole that sat on the topmast head there were the initials JA cut deep and clear, supported on either side by blowsy forms that might have been manatees, though mermaids were more likely – beer-drinking mermaids.

On Rescuing the East India Company Fleet From the French:

The Company did think the world of him, indeed. Fireworks; prodigious banquets, treasures of naval stores poured out….This was gratitude expressed in food, in entertainment on the most lavish scale in oriental splendour, and in many, many speeches.

On Fighting A Duel:

‘Why should tomorrow’s meeting affect me in this way? I have been out many, many times. It is true my hands are not what they were; and in growing older I have lost the deeply illogical but deeply anchored conviction of immortality; but the truth of the matter is that now I have so much to lose. I am to fight Canning: made as we are, it was inevitable, I suppose; but how deeply I regret it.’

From the Movie:

“…the ball is badly lodged…but he insists on performing the operation himself, and I dare not cross him….” Blood he had seen, to be sure; but not blood, not this cold, deliberate ooze in the slow track of the searching knife and probe. Nor had he heard anything like the grind of the demilune on living bone, a few inches from his ear as he leant over the wound, his head bent low not to obscure Stephen’s view of the mirror.

On Feverish Ravings:

So there Jack sat, sponging him from time to time….he had looked upon Stephen as the type of philosopher, strong, hardly touched by common feelings, sure of himself and rightly so; he had respected no landman more. This Stephen, so passionate, so wholly subjugated by Diana, and so filled with doubt of every kind, left him aghast.

HMS Surprise is certainly one of my favourite books in the series. It’s full of humour and pathos, disappointments and success. The romance of life at sea is now firmly established as we see not only Jack and Stephen flounder on land, but also the rest of the crew.

Stephen does not fair well in this story. He is tortured, marooned, unable to protect an innocent child, rejected and gravely injured. Despite the trauma, he bounces back. Resilience is another trait that he and Jack share.

For the record, HMS Surprise was a real ship. She began life as the French Unité in 1794, but was renamed Surprise when the Royal Navy captured her in 1796. In 1799 she recaptured HMS Hermione in a famous action. She was sold out of service in 1802.

Favourite Quote:

‘I am of her caste,’ said Stephen to the man in front of him.

Book Notes:

  • Purchased 25th February 2004 in Mudgee, and read over the next month.
  • Reread 9th – 23rd December 2021
  • #AubreyMaturinReadalong (I am now one and half books behind schedule!)

Master and Commander series of books:

Title: HMS Surprise
Author: Patrick O'Brian
Imprint: Harper Collins
Published: 2002 (originally published 1973)
Format: paperback (I couldn't find a cover image for my edition, so I've used the 2010 40th anniversary cover that features the same illustration by Geoff Hunt)
Pages: 370
  • This post was written in the area we now call the Blue Mountains within the Ngurra [country] of the Dharug and Gundungurra peoples.

16 thoughts on “HMS Surprise | Patrick O’Brian #Readalong

  1. A great review, that brought back many memories. I read this many years ago, probably about the time you first purchased your copy; interestingly enough I went through most of the series when I was on a birding trip to Australia. I was so hooked on the characters and so eager to follow the story that, after being out all day looking for/at birds, I’d skip dinner at the end of the day and stay up late to read (believe me, sacrificing dinner/sleep on a birding trip is quite the sacrifice!)
    Re-reading the series sounds like a fabulous project. There’s so much there, it’s easy (as you say) to miss many of the details; not to mention that by this point I’ve muddled the story line in each book.


    1. I love that you were reading this series on a birding trip to Australia 🙂
      Where did you go?
      It’s a very addictive series, although I did need breaks in between. I’d read a couple back to back, but then would just suddenly feel like I’d been at sea too long and needed something different. But each time I picked up the next book, I was enthralled once again.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We started in Darwin, to see a few tropical birds (Kakadu, unfortunately wasn’t on this particular trip) then quickly on to Queensland, where we spent most of our time. Around Cairns we stayed at a place called Cassawary House, right in the middle of a huge expanse of rainforest. I don’t remember too many other specific stops, other than O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat (Lammington Nat’l Park?); Yungaburra (Atherton Table I think) & Georgetown (tour billed it as “edge of the outback”). After all this, it was on to Tasmania for a few days (actually saw a Tasmania Devil. We were lucky). It was a fabulous trip and I loved it. On a different trip, I managed a few days in Sydney, which was fun and a change from the usual birding thing. Australia’s such a huge country (I’m telling you, right?) and one trip is obviously quite limited. By this time, I thought I would at least have also visited western Australia and Uluru, which I’d give a great deal to see but life (and pandemics) have a way of interfering, don’t they?
        I spent my non-birding time reading the O’Brien series (think I’d already read the first two). Reading is hard to manage on these type trips so it was mostly done during “van/plane” time getting from point A to point B; during dinner when the others were eating and staying up as late as possible (when you’re getting up anywhere from 3 to 5 am this isn’t very late). I ran out of books (this was pre-kindle days), so it became quite suspenseful — during our next foray into an airport would the gift shop have any O’Briens? Anyway, for me Patrick O’Brien and Australia are inextricably interlinked!
        I’ve read the entire series except for Blue at the Mizzen, which I decided to save for a special treat.


        1. I had a quick look at Cassowary House – what a fabulous location! I’ve had a number of holidays up near there, although we tend to go a bit further north to Palm Cove or Port Douglas, which is then an easy daytrip into the Daintree.

          I hope that sometime in the near distant future you can return for your visit to Uluru & WA, both are extraordinary places, although WA is so big, where would you even start??

          And I know what you mean about books being linked to the travel done with them. When I had my first 2 week driving tour around southern WA, I was reading Salman Rushdie’s The Midnight Children. The sights, sounds and smells of India are now forever linked to places like Margaret River and Denmark.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I remember the name “Port Douglas” but that’s about it. You’re so lucky to be able to take holidays in an area like that! During the terrible brush fires, I thought of all those wonderful natural areas and kept my fingers crossed.
            A neat factoid about Cassowary House: Margaret Atwood stayed there and went birding with Phil Gregory, the owner (he was the tour leader on my own trip). There’s a bit about it in a NYT article. Apparently she saw the (very rare) red-necked crake and had a vision for her next book, which ultimately became Oryx and Crake. Here’s the link (you need to scroll down a few paragraphs):

            I think the other big Australian birding trip begins in Melbourne. From there, it’s on to Adelaide, with stops in several national parks. It includes Alice Springs & southwestern Australia (Gardner Peninsula maybe? my geography is weak). The distances are so vast, I think there are a couple of internal flights. Sigh — maybe one day.
            What a lovely memory — reading Rushdie and your drive in souther WA. You’re so right about the link between reading and memory; it’s a sensory link, along the lines of Proust and the madeleine.


  2. I’ve only read the first seven books in the series, but this is one of my favourites so far. I particularly loved Stephen’s sloth! You’ve reminded me that I really need to pick up the eighth book soon.


    1. Details like the sloth are part of the huge list of things I have forgotten about this series, although I remembered clearly Stephen being marooned on St Pauls Rock, stark naked, with nothing but his flock of white boobies to look at!


  3. HMS Surprise was eventually used as a ship to transport victims of the state to Australia and other places. Often those poor people had been fitted up, or had just stolen some bread as they were starving. An ancestor of mine was transported on Surprise, he was Secretary to the British Convention who wanted equality and the vote extended so he was done for sedition! In 1794 those in positions of power were terrified that revolution would spread from France. It was more or less a death sentence.
    I enjoyed this book which obviously I just had to read.


    1. It may have been a different HMS Surprise as this particular one was broken up when sold out of service in 1802. She was a sixth rate frigate.
      There was another HMS Surprise (1812) – a 38 gun frigate that was hulked as a prison ship 1822.
      And the Surprize that came to Australia as part of the second fleet in 1790, was a 3-deck merchant ship, spelt with a ‘z’. (Gotta love wikipedia!)

      I have a few ancestors that did little more than steal a copper pot, but one guy was a serial offender (sheep rustler, con man etc) and seemed to cause trouble wherever he went. He ended up assigned as convict labour on the Macarthur Farm at Camden.


    1. Because of Stephen’s Irish heritage, O’Brian is able to use him to throw out such wonderful zingers against colonialism.
      Reading and rereading such a big series, is a commitment, but a thoroughly enjoyable one.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Sorry Brona, not even a little bit tempted. Though when I get really old I may re-read (and review) all my old PC Wrens. And the Holloways were all as honest as the day is long and came out under their own steam in the 1850s.


  5. Pingback: 2021 in Review

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