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  • Writer's pictureLee Elliott

20 Voyages to Adventure

20 Voyages to Adventure with Patrick O’Brian

I enjoy having a blog so that I can write about my favorite authors and perhaps introduce readers to a new adventure. Patrick O’Brian wrote 20 novels about two remarkable men and their voyages around the world in the early nineteenth century. I sailed with them. These are powerful novels and I felt that I was there on shipboard for every exciting moment. Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin became two of my best friends.

I came across the first book in the series, Master and Commander, while browsing in a book store some long years ago. Patrick O’Brian was not famous then, but Norton Press believed in the greatness of his books and began to publish this English novelist in America where he soon acquired a fanatical, if select, group of admirers. Then something happened in 1991 to make this obscure writer, already an elderly gentleman living quietly in a small French village, internationally famous. In a review in the New York Times, Richard Snow wrote that O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin naval adventure novels are “the best historical novels every written.” Of course, I’ve not read every historical novel, but I agree with Snow; the books are extraordinary, brilliantly written and with a profound and subtle understanding of human nature and friendship. After the New York Times review and being “discovered,” suddenly O’Brian was celebrated and admired around the world but especially in the United States. His publisher brought O’Brian and his wife to America for tours on three occasions. Once, missing the person sent to meet them at Dulles Airport, the couple tried to take a taxi to their destination, Charleston, SC. They were far into West Virginia when they realized their mistake, after finally calling O’Brian’s editor at Norton Press who was frantic at their disappearance.

O’Brian was a mysterious and reclusive person, who sought a peaceful life with his wife Mary, a former Russian countess, in the village of Collioure, an exquisite place on the Mediterranean, near the Pyrenees foothills. There was more at work than the temperament of a brilliant, highly intellectual man who liked his privacy. As it turned out, his entire identity was an invention. His real name was Richard Patrick Russ and he was not Irish, as assumed, or even – gasp! – a sailor! The complicated truth about his life came out the year his wife died and added greatly to his unhappiness. His actual life story is quite fascinating, and will be the subject of another post.

So, should you embark on this adventure of twenty books about an officer (captain and then admiral) in Nelson’s navy and his best friend, an Irish physician with a sideline of espionage?

The story begins on the island of Menorca in 1800 at a concert at the house of the English governor. An Irish physician, Stephen Maturin, is there, impoverished, stranded in Port Mahon, and looking for some kind of employment. He is a passionate music lover and seeking consolation for his miserable situation in a quartet by Locatelli. Alas, he finds himself seated next to a robust young man in the uniform of a naval lieutenant, who has the unfortunate tendency to beat time with his fist. This drives his neighbor to distraction, and Maturin finally shushes Lieutenant Aubrey and then elbows him the ribs. A duel is proposed but never takes place, and the two men form one of the greatest friendships in literature. The one thing they have in common is a love of music; Aubrey is a violinist and Maturin a cellist, and they often play together as they sail in and out of danger during the long course of the Napoleonic wars. They fall in love with women who are ill-suited for them– once with the same woman, whereupon they almost kill each other. They go everywhere, all over the globe, surviving hellacious storms and horrific sea battles. One of the best movies ever made takes portions of several books and creates a splendid narrative, and an absolutely faithful depiction of life in the Royal Navy. If you don’t have the time for twenty novels, then certainly you should see Master and Commander.

Battle of Trafalgar by J.M. Turner

The novels are very accessible and move along quickly. You will read quite a bit about the rigging of frigates in the first book, but don’t let that discourage you. Skip that section if you must, or if you don’t ever expect to become a frigate captain. Jane Austen was O’Brian’s favorite writer and her influence permeates these sea stories, with the telling detail and perfectly turned phrase. There is a wonderful sense of humor that can catch you off guard and make you laugh aloud. It is elegant and beautiful writing and I believe will be read for hundreds of years to come.

At least, I have some hope that the world will continue in such a way that these great books will be appreciated by many generations. May it be so…

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