Wednesday Book Club: Master and Commander

Wednesday, 30 September 2009 — 10:32pm | Book Club, Literature

This week’s selection: Master and Commander (1970) by Patrick O’Brian.

In brief: The first of the twenty Aubrey-Maturin novels is more of an opening salvo than a completely satisfying story unto itself, but immerse yourself in the music of its naval jargon and you will find it a rich, endearing overture of neo-Romantic escape.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Master and Commander, keep reading below.)


Astute followers of my as-weekly-as-I-can-manage-it book feature will have noticed by now that I make an effort to direct each review at an author I have not written about before. I do not write about everything I read, but it has been some time since I have made any attempt to absorb an author’s oeuvre all at once. Sooner or later, I expect to relax my self-imposed restriction and explore select writers in greater depth.

I say this now because having read Master and Commander, I would like to get through the rest of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series of Regency naval adventures—twenty books in all—sometime within the next twenty years. Or better yet, within the next five. It’s not happening this year, I can guarantee you that much.

What piques my curiosity is the sense throughout Master and Commander, without having read the books that follow it or even acknowledging their existence, that it is merely the germ of something much bigger. Part of this certainly comes from history. O’Brian’s saga opens in 1800, and like any naval story set in the era of Lord Nelson, the modern reader cannot help receiving it as a cautious prelude to the inevitable escalation of what you might call the Napoleon problem.

That is perhaps the best way to understand Master and Commander: as preparation, as an appetizer. By itself it is a rich historical novel that promises no more than to introduce us to the bellicose sailor Jack Aubrey and the effete physician Stephen Maturin, put them together on a sloop (the Sophie, Aubrey’s first command), and drive them through a series of breathtaking ship-to-ship rencounters until it is convenient to stop.


Every time I review a twentieth-century novel written in nineteenth-century English, I make a point of my habit of reading a great many twentieth-century novels written in nineteenth-century English. Master and Commander belongs to this lot, but the formal features of its Regency nostalgia extend well beyond the style of narration.

Like many novels of the era it depicts, it is highly serial, organized in chronological episodes with negligible concern for lengthy threads of character and plot development or sweeping gestures of dramatic unity. (The one continuing subplot of note—Maturin’s past involvement in the Irish insurgency along with Aubrey’s lieutenant, James Dillon—exits the stage so abruptly as to ring literarily hollow but historically true.) It is also rife with tactical detail of a definition that virtually begs for an accompanying map. If we are at any point not aware of the precise number of guns and the condition of the sails on every ship in an engagement, O’Brian has not finished with us yet.

Neither characteristic is likely to arise in the current climate of fiction publishing, least of all in the debut novel of a series. This is partly due to the ascension of motion pictures as the predominant vehicle of action-packed entertainment, as the medium permits a great richness of scene-setting activity without incurring a proportional expense of time. Nowadays, written fiction usually compensates for declining attention spans by jettisoning some of its descriptive powers. Words alone are no longer the prime stewards of the excitement of combat, not because films convey it better, but because they deliver it faster.

To be honest, even I found O’Brian’s depth of vision to test my patience from time to time. I thankfully went into Master and Commander with a working literacy in naval terms, having read my share of naval histories and travel writings by explorers like William Dampier (combined with far, far too many hours of Sid Meier’s Pirates!). I cannot imagine how opaque some of the lexicon must seem to an unseasoned reader, especially if it is the sort of reader accustomed to skimming along and translating paragraphs into clear mental pictures without the aid of a dictionary. To that I say, good luck.

O’Brian is not unaware of the difficulty of naval jargon, even as he indulges in it—and it is hard to blame him for indulging in it when the language sings for itself. Like a foreign-language opera with the supertitles shorn off, it is sufficient to listen to the musicality of the sentences without comprehending everything they depict. You could isolate any of O’Brian’s paragraphs and imagine it hanging in a gallery of Romantic art, even if you have no idea how the picture would look.


In fact, one of the most prevalent thematic undercurrents in Master and Commander is that of language acquisition. We come to know Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin initially through their facility with communication. Aubrey clumsily flubs his way through a patois of French and Spanish malaprops, but is perfectly at home at sea; Maturin speaks several languages and is fluent in the current terminology of science and natural history, but doesn’t know his foresail from his mizzenmast.

Most readers will find themselves in Maturin’s place, for he is himself a reader with no experience of life at sea. O’Brian commands our trust because he is fluent in both languages, that of the sailor and that of what we conventionally think of as the educated man. He writes capably in their respective forms, be it the songs that deckhands sing about the officers who have wronged them, or the objective detachment of official correspondence. Sometimes he writes in both at once, as when Aubrey struggles with written formalities in his communiqués to those superior in rank.

If O’Brian makes an argument with especial persuasive force, it is for the nobility of seamanship as a challenging and rigorous profession as developed as any other; that the brave men of the Royal Navy were highly trained specialists with a unique language, customs, and body of knowledge—all of which is worth preserving, but most of which is lost to us as an experience now that apprenticeship is no longer central to the educational organization of society.

And this is but a fragment of what Master and Commander displays. It is a paradoxical novel, a work of historical fiction so particular about historical accuracy, so intent on recapturing the grandiose ethos of the Royal Navy and the granular rituals of shipboard action, that one has to ask how it differs, really, from a history book of the documentary type. The question of how we choose a prose style to present history—of “genres” of historical writing—was of considerable interest to the historiographer Hayden White, whose most influential work arrived not long after the Aubrey-Maturin series began. O’Brian, however, was hardly one to take the varieties of historical representation as a mask occluding the empirical reality underneath. What he has done is command a romantic genre as the most personable way to present a romantic age.


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2 rejoinders to “Wednesday Book Club: Master and Commander

  1. Aubrey isn’t that great at the English language either, and makes plenty of malapropisms there too. Maturin, on the other hand, for whom it is the third language after Catalan and Irish, speaks it impeccably, even if O’Brian makes him mention diseases (like the famous marthambles) that don’t exist.

    What I find particularly notable in the books is the naval jargon that once had a technical meaning but has spread out into ordinary speech, sometimes distorted. By and large is a good example: sailing by is sailing upwind, and sailing large is sailing downwind, so by and large means ‘in all circumstances’ to a sailor, but ‘more or less’ to a landsman.

    Monday, 5 October 2009 at 9:19pm

  2. That’s a very interesting point, and it would be neat to look into how the language of the navy percolated into general use (through which cultural sources, for instance).

    One thing I neglected to discuss above is the looseness of commitment that prize-hunting seamen had to a national mandate or cause, and the similarities of management of privateers and pirate bands to the incentives/punishments laid out by the Articles of War. I bring it up now because there appears to be a striking parallel between nationality and language in play. Aubrey, who behaves with a privateer’s spirit in many ways, dabbles in several languages but is never quite comfortable in any outside his profession; Maturin, the dedicated Irishman now in service of the English, speaks with the conviction of his loyalties. (I’m not sure how to work Catalan into that, but nobody ever knows how to work Catalan into anything.)

    Monday, 5 October 2009 at 9:35pm

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