In a series as long as the Aubrey/Maturin books (twenty, all told), there are going to be standouts and there are also going to be low spots. The Fortune of War, Volume 6, is one of my favorites. First, humor me as I share another charming-animal passage. As we begin, Jack Aubrey is getting ready to go ashore in Pulo Batang (factual present-day Malaysia, maybe?) and has put on his full-dress uniform. He hears his steward Killick (the comic-manservant role, possibly bettered only by Baldrick in the priceless Rowan Atkinson “Blackadder” series) complaining because the wombat has got hold of Jack’s hat.
‘Now, sir,’ cried the Captain, striding into the great cabin, a tall, imposing figure. ‘Now, sir,’ — addressing the wombat, one of the numerous body of marsupials brought into the ship by her surgeon, a natural philosopher — ‘give it up directly, d’ye hear me, there?’
The wombat stared him straight in the eye, drew a length of gold lace from its mouth, and then deliberately sucked it in again.
‘Pass the word for Dr Maturin,’ said the Captain, looking angrily at the wombat: and a moment later, ‘Come now, Stephen, this is coming it pretty high; your brute is eating my hat.’
‘So he is, too,’ said Dr Maturin. ‘But do not be so perturbed, Jack; it will do him no harm, at all. His digestive processes –‘
At this point the wombat dropped the hat, shuffled rapidly across the deck and swarmed up into Dr Maturin’s arms, peering at close range into his face with a look of deep affection.”
In fact, this volume of the series is quite light-hearted. It is the source of the “lesser of two weevils” joke that Jack repeats often in the following books. There’s a wonderful passage in which Jack, recuperating from wounds in a Boston insane asylum, treats three American officials as if they were fellow patients astray in their senses. At one point Patrick O’Brian even ventures into farce, forcing Stephen to hide beneath the covers at the foot of Diana Villiers’ bed, while a pair of French spies searches for him. To be sure, the mirth isn’t unmixed. There’s a rather Mozartian mixture of major and minor keys in this novel. Both protagonists are more or less heartbroken, Jack by a series of English naval defeats, Stephen by his changing emotions toward Diana. Yet there’s also a great deal of dry humor: an operation Stephen performs in Boston was not only “successful in itself, but there was a real likelihood that the man might live.” And finally O’Brian brought me to tears with the letter Jack writes to his wife Sophie as he is about to go into battle: “should I be knocked on the head, this is to bring you and the children my dearest, dearest love. And you are to know, a man could not die happier.”