Patrick O’Brian, “The Surgeon’s Mate”

Kronborg Castle on Elsinore, engraving from around 1688. Easy to see how guns at the castle can fire at Jack’s ship.

Wait. Maybe The Surgeon’s Mate is even more my favorite Aubrey/Maturin than The Fortune of War. The jolly atmosphere and humor persist, but this book includes the long section where Stephen and Jack are imprisoned in the Temple, the notorious Paris prison where Louis XVI was held captive. As the ancient building is demolished around them, Jack and Stephen and their companion, the lady-killing Lithuanian soldier Jagiello, attempt to escape. When a wall tumbles down, they find that their cell now looks out on the window of a very pretty Frenchwoman. Since Jagiello is so very, very handsome, and since this lady is already supplying their meals, the relationship becomes closer. Her window box plants are watered very frequently; she and Jagiello trade signals. The entire scenario is lifted — oh, cheeky Patrick O’Brian! — from Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma. (In fact Jagiello, beautiful and affable, is a double for Fabrice.)

This is Volume 7 in the series and O’Brian’s invention has not flagged. The novel opens in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the heels of a great victory over the Americans, in which Jack played a minor part. The action moves to England and thence to the Baltic where Stephen’s rather subterranean skills are required. Lieutenant Jagiello is attached to the party for the sake of his linguistic skills, though his function to O’Brian is more comic and decorative. As ever, the settings are vivid and witty: a truly charming few pages stitches together a desultory gun battle with Danish gunners at the castle of Elsinore. As Jack steers the ship past the castle, dodging shells, he regales Stephen and Jagiello with his own version of Hamlet, in which he performed as a midshipman:

‘… it was a capital piece, capital. I never laughed so much in my life.’

‘A capital piece indeed,’ said Stephen, ‘and I doubt I could have done much better myself. But, do you know, I have never in my own mind classed it among the comedies.'”

Turns out Jack performed as Ophelia, a delicious notion.

As is so often the case with O’Brian, the plot developments are unexpected. The loss of a chronometer early in the voyage south from Sweden foreshadows bad news on the navigation front, but the subsequent turns of events surprise. I loved the brush with Talleyrand, as embodied in a massive episcopal amethyst ring that Stephen bestows on Diana as a wedding ring. Yes: Diana Villiers is the surgeon’s mate. It’s a pun worthy of Jack Aubrey.

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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7 Responses to Patrick O’Brian, “The Surgeon’s Mate”

  1. Pingback: Lee Child, “A Wanted Man” « Book Group of One

  2. I have almost finished the AM series for the third time straight through without a break. However, until I read your post I never got the pun that The Surgeon’s Mate was Diana!
    He who would pun would pick a pocket.
    I wish you joy of your blog!

    • carolwallace says:

      Thank you, Antony. O’Brian is so sly, isn’t he? I miss a great deal of the humor when I read too fast. Remember the two naval lieutenants named Kayne and Abel who get Stephen out of a tight spot? (Shaking my head.) Cheers!

      • Which book is are Kayne and Abel in?

        I love the way O’Brain uses Steven and Jack’s letters home to give us insight into their thoughts and to reveal plot points not expressed directly in the storyline.

  3. carolwallace says:

    Oh, Antony, I agree whole-heartedly. I’ve been struck by that technique on this reading — and also on the adroit way O’Brian often provides exposition by having either Jack or Stephen recapitulate the events of the previous volume to someone who wasn’t there. Only rarely does the narrator have to step forward and speak up, and it usually feels a little forced when this happens.

    I think Kayne and Abel are in “The Fortune of War;” French spies attempt to abduct Stephen from a Boston street corner by bundling him into a coach. Does that ring a bell?

  4. Pingback: Patrick O’Brian, “The Reverse of the Medal” « Book Group of One

  5. Pingback: Follow my book blog, “Book Group of One” | | Carol Wallace BooksCarol Wallace Books

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