Patrick O’Brian, “Master and Commander”

Comfort reading. We all have it. For a long time now I’ve resorted to Georgette Heyer when things got tough, but I think I might have worn her out, the way a small child finally chews through his blankie. (First the Velveteen Rabbit comes alive, then it disintegrates. Ouch.) Recently I got that “anywhere but here” craving again, and this time I reached for Patrick O’Brian, to my deep satisfaction.

I think that by definition comfort reading is re-reading, right? Surprises don’t normally console. We’re looking for the fuzzy-slippers, mac-and-cheese sensation and familiarity seems essential. So when I opened Master and Commander to find Jack Aubrey sitting in a music room in Port Mahon, Menorca, next to a cranky and disagreeable Stephen Maturin, I settled into the tale with relish and recognition. I may or may not get through the O’Brian canon on this re-reading (it would be the fourth time through, I think), but however many I read, I will especially cherish O’Brian’s remarkable portrait of a friendship developing over time. There’s a weird mirroring act going on here, if you think about it: O’Brian creates, calls into being, Jack and Stephen. As the series develops over time in our reading, it must also have developed over time in the novelist’s writing. He got to know the men better as time went on, as we do. Reading the first volume now, I recognized the foundations of the bonds that will form, the liking that will turn into deep loyalty, the quirks that will turn sanguine Jack and bilious Stephen into complex, deeply human characters.

18th century British warships, perhaps contemporary with Jack’s command, the “Sophie”

Another pleasure is the charm of the familiar episode: the time when Stephen first falls overboard, the subplot involving Irish rebel James Dillon. And every time I read the Aubrey/Maturin books I discover more deadpan humor, like this: “James Mowett was a tubular young man, getting on for twenty; he was dressed in old sailcloth trousers and a striped Guernsey shirt, a knitted garment that gave him very much the look of a caterpillar.”

Two more quotations to set up the series. In the first, Stephen wakens from a dream, having slept outdoors on a hillside because he is too broke to pay his inn bill. He is dreaming of a girl:

Her touch was still firm upon his arm and even her scent was there:… His face reflected the most piercing unhappiness, and his eyes misted over. He had been exceedingly attached; and she was so bound up with that time…

He had been quite unprepared for this particular blow, striking under every conceivable kind of armour, and for some minutes he could hardly bear the pain, but sat there blinking in the sun.

‘Christ,’ he said at last. ‘Another day.’

And a little pen portrait of Jack, to complete the diptych:

In times of stress Jack Aubrey had two main reactions: he either became aggressive or he became amorous; he longed either for the violent catharsis of action or for that of making love. He loved a battle: he loved a wench.

‘I quite understand that some commanders take a girl to sea with them,’ he reflected. ‘Apart from the pleasure, think of the refuge of sinking into a warm, lively, affectionate…’

Peace. ‘I wish there were a girl in this cabin,’ he added, after a pause.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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6 Responses to Patrick O’Brian, “Master and Commander”

  1. Mary Nicoll says:

    The best!!

  2. Ginny Arndt says:

    Carol, your friends at Pequot YC have all loved the Patrick O’Brien’s series. In our committe for producing The Pilot, monthly newsletter, we would discuss the duo’s latest escapades and even had a party where each one received some memento whether a mix for Dog’s biscuit or commodore’s hat. Thanks for the reminder. Ginny Arndt

  3. carolwallace says:

    Ginny, that sounds like a wonderful combination, Pequot Library, Pequot Library and Patrick O’Brian! What fun!

  4. Pingback: Patrick O’Brian, “Treason’s Harbour” « Book Group of One

  5. Tom says:

    The absolute epitome of comfort reading. I am a fan since initial publication, and have consumed the series at least 3 times over the years. Yet, after many months of hard work recently in my life, what am I doing? I dug out my “dog-earred” series to settle down to that which I know will be a comforting, reliable, humor filled adventure. And each time I know I will discover something new, fall upon a new understanding and realization, of another O’Brian “subtle” zinger in the character interplay between Jack and Stephen as they face the uncertain challenges of the time and circumstance within which they live.

    I have lent my books to many a friend in the past, and have yet to find one disappointed. A true 5 star masterpiece of writing. Thank you, thank you, thank you Patrick O’Brian. You may have passed, like your characters, but you will all forever be deserving, and receiving of accolades.

    • carolwallace says:

      Tom, I am so with you on this. I expect to read this series periodically until I die. The books are comforting without sentimentality; a difficult combination to find.

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