To great joy, I recently discovered that Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World one of my favorite movies was based on a series of historical novels by Patrick O’Brian. In these books, the fictional characters Captain Jack Aubrey and physician-naturalist Stephen Maturin are set amid the actual naval battles, natural discoveries and scientific inventions of the early 19th century in Europe. The series came highly recommended and I picked up the first book in the series: Master and Commander.
This book is set in 1800 in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars being waged between England and the French-Spanish alliance. Aubrey has been given command of a Royal Navy sloop named Sophie and he signs up Maturin as the ship’s doctor-surgeon. Aubrey has the unenviable task of bringing together a new crew on his ship, teaching them their roles and forming a cohesive fighting unit. Using the British-controlled Spanish island of Mahon as their supply base, they patrol the shipping routes in the Eastern half of the Mediterranean Sea, protecting British merchant ships and fighting (or capturing) Spanish merchant/military ships. Aubrey has some great tricks under his sleeve using which he initially trumps over many warships, some of which are more powerful than the Sophie. Towards the end, his luck runs out when Sophie faces a formidable set of French frigates near Gibraltar from whom it is unable to escape.
I found Aubrey-Maturin to be a great set of characters and it is a delight to witness their philosophical arguments and friendship develop along the book. The era of ships that were powered by the wind was centuries before my time. The book goes into intricate detail about the various masts, sails and parts of such a ship, the crew and their daily roles aboard such a ship. All of this is seamlessly integrated in an intriguing manner into the plot. Every page creaks with the weight of sailing-ship nautical terms that are used. I highly advise keeping this wiki page open on your smartphone. This is not a downer because it is such intricate details in a book that make it worthwhile to read.
Except for the folks aboard Sophie, every ship they encounter and the world they inhabit is supposedly historically accurate. Though published in 1970, O’Brian uses the language, narration and dictionary that would’ve been employed had this been written in 1800. It genuinely feels like an unabridged Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. This means that it took me about 50 pages before I started to get comfortable. Also, I had to use the dictionary and Google Image Search on almost every page, since most words and objects that appear are from that time period. There is a ton of humour and puns hidden in the text which I started to discover only after I got used to the Dickens’ English.
Aubrey undertakes many journeys along the Spanish coastline, visiting various ports along the way for war and restocking. These journeys and places are so interesting that I found it useful to track them using Google Maps on my phone. Only later I discovered that Aubrey-Maturin fans have a website where you can check out these routes and places on Google Maps as you read the books! This is a great resource that makes the reading all the more interesting.
Master and Commander was a fantastic read! When a fictional thread is enmeshed in terribly interesting historical periods by a great author, the books are a double-whammy: un-put-downable and enriching at the same time. (Another example of this is Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, set in the middle of WWII.) I now look forward to many more dreamy days chomping down on this series.
Maturin is musing about Aubrey, himself and friend Dillon and how the character of a human develops over time: Is this the cause for James Dillon’s agitated state of mind? Yes, I think so. Some strong pressure is certainly at work. What is more, it appears to me that this is a critical time for him, a lesser climacteric—a time that will settle him in that particular course he will never leave again, but will persevere in for the rest of his life. It has often seemed to me that towards this period (in which we all three lie, more or less) men strike out their permanent characters; or have those characters struck into them. Merriment, roaring high spirits before this: then some chance concatenation, or some hidden predilection (or rather inherent bias) working through, and the man is in the road he cannot leave but must go on, making it deeper and deeper (a groove, or channel), until he is lost in his mere character—persona—no longer human, but an accretion of qualities belonging to this character. James Dillon was a delightful being. Now he is closing in.