Patrick O’Brian, H.M.S. Surprise

H.M.S. Surprise is the third book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series and it may be the first in which we see evidence that O’Brian now knows he’s writing a series. In fact, that seems pretty clear in the way the book ends, with Jack saying, “Now I have but to run Sophie and my treasure home, and the future is pure Paradise.” He might as well put at the bottom of the page, “To Be Continued.”

And Stephen has a pet sloth.

What’s generous about that is that O’Brian is not usually ironic at Jack’s expense — or at least, not on the important matters. When we close H.M.S. Surprise, we as readers want to believe with Jack that the future shines brightly, and O’Brian doesn’t get in our way. In fact throughout these books, he seems very intent on capturing the maximum pleasure from any situation, knowing as he does that nothing lasts forever. I think it’s this sense of tempus fugit (as Jack would probably put it) that I’m finding especially significant on this reading.

So, a couple more quotations: at the beginning of the book Stephen, now overtly a spy, needs to be rescued and Jack assumes his heroic guise — stern, hyper competent, larger than normal — to handle the situation. He knows his crew wants to participate in the rescue, or to sympathize with him, or to express concern; they are all deeply attached to Stephen. But “this was his own affair…; and at this pitch of cold tension he wanted no gestures of any kind… He had no emotion to spare for anyone else’s.” What a good way to put it: “no emotion to spare.”

It’s in this book, too, that Jack’s surly steward Preserved Killick begins to take on the comical dimensions that make him such a pleasure. Here he is, annoyed at Jack whose uniform got destroyed in battle:

‘Coat torn in five places — cutlass slash in the forearm which how can I ever darn that? Bullet ‘ole all singed, never get the powder-marks out. Breeches all a-hoo, and all this nasty blood everywhere, like you’d been a-wallowing in a lay-stall, sir. What Miss would say, I don’t know, sir. God strike me blind. Epaulette ‘acked, fair ‘acked to pieces. (Jesus, what a life.)’

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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3 Responses to Patrick O’Brian, H.M.S. Surprise

  1. Stephen is not a spy. He is an intelligence agent.

    And of course, not only does Stephen have a pet sloth, but Jack debauches the sloth. One of the funniest scenes in all the books.

    • carolwallace says:

      Absolutely. “You have debauched my sloth.” But I also find a lot of humor on this reading that O’Brian doesn’t signal, or sell. One of my favorite things about them.

  2. Pingback: Patrick O’Brian, “The Commodore” « Book Group of One

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