Introduction: In terms of depicting life at sea this is probably the most historically accurate series of them all. It is a joy to read for the wealth of detail and the finely drawn secondary characters. Jack Aubrey's cross is his eternal gullibility (which I have to confess I find wearing at times) but his mysterious friend, Stephen Maturin, is usually there to pull him out of the pits into which he falls. Lacking the gift of precognition O'Brian set his first novel in 1801. By the 10th he was running out of war so the later novels do not have a historical chronology. About five years of action are set in 1813, so don't even try to tie things in to a real-world timeline. Just sit back and enjoy the stories.
During the series Jack becomes a skilled mathematician and astronomer and I love his correspondence with the Herschels, William and Caroline. His work on the longitude problem is accurate and interesting; if you can make the lunar observations you can find your longitude. The reason the technique did not become widely used is that the observations cannot always be made, and the calculations are difficult. Jack also visits Sydney on his travels, which is nice for me. The Royal Navy was a big influence in the early years of the colony, supplying many of the governors and a number of explorers (e.g. Matthew Flinders).
Sadly O'Brian died in 2000 so they will be no more Aubrey/Maturin novels. Still sadder, a group of his fans have taken to pushing his novels as "high literature" in an attempt to gain kudos in the world of intellectual snobbery. Personally I find the splitting of contemporary works between fiction and literature artificial. Posterity will decide which works have that touch of greatness required for survival as literature.
The Film: When I heard that a film was to be made with the title "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" (the titles of the first and tenth books combined) I shuddered. Hollywood's reputation for butchery, vandalism and and total desecration is not unfounded. The choice of Peter Weir (an Australian) as director was comforting. The film is very loosely based on "The Far Side" but the books are known in America as the "Master and Commander" series so the titles were combined. Dark-haired Russell Crowe does pretty well as the blond-haired Jack Aubrey though he is nowhere near as big and bulky as O'Brian's Aubrey. Blond-haired Paul Bettany (Slender Billy in "Sharpe's Waterloo") is brilliant as the devious and cantankerous Maturin. The Rose is perfectly cast as HMS Surprise. This replica of the 18th century British frigate HMS Rose was constructed in Nova Scotia in the 1970s and until 2001 was a sail training ship based in Bridgeport, Massachusetts. The supporting cast is solidly filled from the capable ranks of British character actors. The stand-out for me was David Threlfall as Preserved Killick, the curmudgeonly captain's steward. Billy Boyd in a reasonable job as well as the tough and intelligent captain's coxswain, Barrett Bonden.
Peter Weir has always been a great projector of atmosphere - think "Picnic at Hanging Rock" or "Witness" - and the final script line allowed him full play. They sensibly cut the film back to just the sea chase allowing Weir to concentrate on the changing tensions within Surprise during the cat and mouse game which develops between them and the more powerful French frigate, Acheron. Yes, French frigate. This is probably the change which will be most vigorously debated. The producers claim that it was to enable them to set the film earlier in the war, around 1805, leaving scope for many sequels. One wonders... As usual Weir's use of music is masterly. Apart from the music written specially for the film there is only one piece which is anachronistic. However I can't quibble. The playing of Vaughan Williams' Tallis Variations over the scene where they are forced to cut the mizzen loose even though the captain of the top is still clinging to it reduced me to tears.
No, it's not a direct filmic retelling of one of O'Brian's stories. Very few good novels can be directly translated to screen. I enjoyed it and I've already got the DVD on pre-order.(Up to date information courtesy of The Weir Cave.)
Here follows a list of the Aubrey/Maturin novels with publication and estimated setting date. As I re-read or read the novels I am adding little resumes or teasers. These change in character as the series progresses since the novels change in character. The first few are much more self contained and tightly plotted. Later story lines can extend over several books. There may be SPOILERS for those who haven't yet read the novels.
|Master and Commander||1970||1800||Rank: Commander|
Ship: Sophie (Brig/Sloop 14)
We meet Commander Jack Aubrey, bluff, honest, reasonably intelligent, insensitive, and his new found friend, the physician and naturalist Stephen Maturin, an hispano-irishman with a past. Together they cruise the Mediterranean, escorting convoys and annoying enemy shipping.
|Post Captain||1972||1803||Rank: Commander, Captain|
Ship: Polychrest (Sloop 24), Lively (Frigate, 38)
Location: England, Channel, Atlantic
Bankrupted by his defaulting prize-agent, and with his captaincy knocked back Aubrey accepts command of the experimental (and rotten) ship Polychrest. Despite himself, the ship, his commanding officer, and his men, he survives and is gazetted Post Captain.
|H.M.S. Surprise||1973||1804-1805||Rank: Captain|
Ship: Lively (Frigate, 38), Surprise (Frigate, 28)
Location: Mediterranean, Indian Ocean
Aboard the Lively Aubrey learns to love spherical trigonometry and saves Maturin from the French secret service. He is then given his own frigate together with a mission to the East Indies.
|The Mauritius Command||1977||1808||Rank: Captain, Commodore|
Ship: Boudicea (Frigate, 38), then Raisonable(64), squadron: Boudicea (Frigate , 38, Eliot), Sirius (Frigate, 36, Pym), Nereide (Frigate, 36, Corbett), Otter (Sloop, 18, Clonfert), Wasp (armed Schooner)
Location: Indian Ocean
Jack is finding love in a cottage anything but blissful with an impoverished mother-in-law, a young niece and twin baby girls added to the household. Luckily Stephen Maturin turns up with not only the offer of a ship but the possibility of a squadron. The mission: to take Mauritius, last base of the French commerce raiders in the Indian Ocean.
|Desolation Island||1978||Rank: Captain|
Ship: Leopard (50)
Location: Southern Ocean
Jack is ashore again with his pockets full of gold, a prey to card sharps, horse copers and swindlers. Sophie asks Stephen to help, so when Stephen needs a Captain for a ship to take a spy (and some other decoy convicts) to Australia naturally he asks for Jack. But between the weather, gaol fever and a Dutch 74 the trip will be anything but easy!
|The Fortune of War||1979||1812-1813||Rank: Captain|
Ship: Leopard (50)
Location: Malaya, Atlantic, Massachusetts
With the old Leopard demoted into a store ship, Jack and his personal crew take passage on the La Fleche for England and a new command. But Fortune is a fickle mistress, particularly in war. La Fleche catches fire and burns in mid-Atlantic and the crew survive many days in the boats before being picked up by Java just before her encounter with Constitution. Seriously wounded, Jack is taken back to the United States a prisoner, where it seems as though he will pay the price for Stephen's intelligence activities.
|The Surgeon's Mate||1980||1813||Rank: Captain|
Ship: Ariel (corvette-sloop, 18)
Location: Atlantic, Baltic
The Shannon limps into Halifax with her prize, the Chesapeake, and Jack Aubrey, Stephen Maturin and Diana Villiers on board. Jack gets up to his usual high jinks despite his barely healed wounds and is relieved to be suddenly ordered to England on the packet Diligence. Stephen, however, is annoyed as the summons has interrupted his proposal of marriage to Diana. En route to England the packet is chased with unusual perseverance by a pair of American privateers. Is it Jack they are after, or has Stephen's cover been blown? Pregnant by Johnson, Diana refuses to consider Stephen's offer until after the baby is born. To preserve her reputation in England Stephen takes the opportunity of an invitation to speak at the Institut in Paris to leave Diana with an academic friend there for the duration of her pregnancy. He then joins Jack in a diplomatic expedition to the Baltic which, after various convolutions, end up with them shipwrecked on the coast of France.
|The Ionian Mission||1981||1813||Rank: Captain|
Ship: Worcester (74), Surprise (Frigate, 28)
Stephen leaves Diana, now his wife, to join Jack on his new command Worcester under orders to join the Toulon blockade. Worcester is one of the "Forty Thieves", a group of ships notorious for the poor quality of both the raw materials and the workmanship that went into them. More than one of her sister ships has disappeared without trace. On joining the fleet Jack is distressed to find the Admiral, a man he admires and reveres, is terminally ill and his deputy is none other than Admiral Harte, a man he blatantly cuckolded during his previous posting in the Mediterranean. Blockade duty in a 74 is tedious work, especially when there is so little chance of the French coming out. Worcester at least has the relief of ferrying Stephen around on intelligence and diplomatic missions, though Harte's maliciousness nearly has Jack in deep trouble after one particularly delicate mission. The French do come out and the Worcester starts to fall apart in the ensuing chase through rough seas. While she is in dock in Malta being refitted Jack is given temporary command of the Surprise and sent on... the Ionian Mission!
|Treason's Harbour||1983||1813||Rank: Captain|
Ship: Surprise (Frigate, 28)
Jack and Stephen are back in Malta. Despite everything the Ionian Mission turned out a resounding success, the best result being Tom Pulling's promotion to commander. But Malta is not a good place to be at this time; it is overstocked with shipless captains and is a hot bed of intrigue. Stephen discovers that Laura Fielding, the Italian wife of an imprisoned English captain, is being blackmailed into helping the French, and he pretends to be her lover in order to plant false information and trace a potential traitor in the English ranks. But before he can complete the scheme he is ordered to sea with Jack Aubrey, sailing in the Dromedary on a diplomatic mission to the Red Sea. He is forced to depend on foreign office envoy Andrew Wray. The mission is not a success - there is obviously a leak in the Malta hierarchy - and on his return it becomes obvious that Stephen's cover has been blown. Jack is ordered to take Surprise back home to England to be broken up. Stephen takes the opportunity to spirit Laura Fielding out of harm's way leaving Andrew Wray to clean up the nest of traitors.
|The Far Side of The World||1984||1813||Rank: Captain|
Location: Sth America
While in Gibraltar on the way to England in Surprise, Jack is diverted to chase an American commerce raider reported to be heading for the South Seas. Because the Surprise was believed to be en route for England there are a couple of odd-balls onboard: an ageing midshipman widely believed to be a Jonah and a middle-aged gunner of a violent temperament with his young and beautiful wife. The voyage is dogged by misfortune and the sailors starts to believe that the ship is jinxed and Jack has lost his luck. Tragedy strikes and Jack is lucky that nature performs his mission for him.
|The Reverse of the Medal||1986||1813||Rank: Captain|
Loc: Atlantic, England
After their adventures in the South Seas, the Surprise stops in Barbados on the way back to England. While there Jack has to sit on the Court Martial of a number of Hermiones he has recaptured and meets a bastard son, product of a youthful fling with an African woman. On the trip across the Atlantic Surprise keeps an eye out for an American privateer which has been menacing shipping. She ends up chasing the American right into the heart of the channel fleet and Jack cops a blast from the Admiral for reckless sailing. On arrival in Britain Jack apparently assists and gentlemen being attacked by ruffians. They share a coach to London and this chance met acquaintance gives Jack some advice on stock trading. After some thought Jack follows the advice and also passes it on to his father, accidentally starting a stock market surge. This leads to his arrest for fraud. Stephen has returned to find that Diana has run off to Sweden with Jagiello. Deciding to devote his life to natural history and wanting to cheer Jack up he buys Surprise at the navy auction and obtains Letters Of Marque.
|The Letter of Marque||1988||1813||Rank: None|
Loc: England, the Channel
Dismissed from the service and deep in debt, Jack Aubrey knows how lucky he is to have a friend like Stephen Maturin. Stephen has purchased the Surprise on her sale from the service, acquired a Letter of Marque from the government and asked Jack to captain her. Despite his good fortune, Jack's essential joie-de-vivre is missing. Not even a successful shake-down cruise complete with a valuable prize to ease his debt burden can bring the spark back to Jack's spirit. Several more successes follow, including a daring cutting-out expedition against an American 30-gun frigate. Behind-the-scenes Stephen is using all his influence to try and get Jack reinstated and every success assists. If Jack's public life is a mess, so too is Stephen's private life and he must travel back to the Baltic to try and effect and reconciliation with Diana.
|The Thirteen Gun Salute||1989||1813||Rank: Captain|
Loc: East Indies
A combination of Stephen's behind-to-scenes machinations and his own success have seen Jack Aubrey reinstated to the navy and returned to his place on the Captain's list. He is still in command of the Surprise, however, as the navy has chartered her to take Stephen Maturin on a secret mission to South America. When the Admiralty learns that the mission has been betrayed, Stephen and Jack are transferred to the Diane to escort a diplomat on a mission to Malaysia. Things go well despite the diplomat, and Stephen is able to repay a few old debts. Then their luck runs out.
|The Nutmeg of Consolation||1991||1813||Rank: Captain|
Ship: Nutmeg, Surprise
Loc: East Indies, SYDNEY, NSW.
After surviving an attack by pirates, the shipwrecked Dianes are finally rescued by Chinese traders and taken to Batavia. There Governor Raffles gives them a new ship which Jack christens Nutmeg of Consolation. Jack and his crew set off through Melanesia to rendezvous with the Surprise and try to catch the French frigate CornÚlie. After the usual trials and tribulations, Jack succeeds in both endeavours. He then sends the Nutmeg home to England with the Surprise's prises and the Surprise heads South to Sydney Cove.
[US Title: The Truelove]
Location: SYDNEY, Pacific Ocean
On leaving Sydney Jack Aubrey is horrified to discover that one of his midshipman has smuggled a convict woman, Clarissa Oakes, onboard. This fact causes a certain tension when Surprise is chased by a sloop from the colony but the ship is only carrying a change of orders. As Surprise journeys to protect British interests in the Pacific Islands, Clarissa causes tensions and divisions in the wardroom seriously threatening the smooth running of the ship. She confides in Stephen, and some of those confidences may hold the key to a major security issue.
|The Wine Dark Sea||1993||1813||Rank: Captain|
Loc: South Pacific
Surprise is chasing a US privateer across a Pacific Ocean which has turned the colour of dark wine. Just when the prize seems about to escape, nature takes a hand and the Surprise has a consort when taking Stephen to Peru to undertake his original diplomatic mission. Of course, nothing ever goes to plan...
|The Commodore||1996||1813||Rank: Commodore|
Ship: Surprise, then Bellona. Squadron: Bellona, Stately, Aurora, Thames, Laurel, Camilla, Ringle
Loc: Gulf of Guinea, Atlantic off Ireland
|The Yellow Admiral||1997||1813-1814||Rank: Commodore|
Ship: Bellona, Surprise
Loc: England, Channel (Brest blockade)
|The Hundred Days||1998||1815||Rank: Commodore|
|Blue at the Mizzen||1999||1816||Rank: Commodore, Admiral|
Ship: Surprise, Ringle
Loc: Mediterranean, Pacific off Chile
"Harbours and High Seas" by Dean King is an excellent companion to the Aubrey/Maturin novels of Patrick O'Brian. The second edition, published in 1999, covers all the books except the last. There is a good introduction by John Hattendorf which explains the wind and current basis for trade and travel in the days of sailing ships. Then a section with general maps of Britain, London and Europe. The third (and by far the largest) section covers each of the books, with plotlines, maps (including some originals) and descriptions of key places and aspects.
In addition to "Harbours and High Seas", Dean King has also written "A Sea of Words", a lexicon of specialist naval and medical terms in use in the time of Jack Aubrey together with a translation of all the non-English phrases used in the novels. John Hattendorf has contributed an essay on the structure of the Royal Navy, Worth Estes has contributed one on Naval medicine of the era, and there is a section of sketches of different types of ship with sail and rigging terminology.
Images on this page are used by kind permission of Harper Collins.
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Last update 16/11/05