The Ionian Mission is volume 8 of the Aubrey/Maturin novels, and it’s clear that by the time he wrote it, Patrick O’Brian knew he was writing on a very large scale. I bet he was grateful, over and over, that he’d launched a series with such potential scope. Think of it: he could focus on the intimacy of shipboard relations or the shifting geopolitics of the era. He could send Jack and Stephen literally anywhere in the world — and did so. Stephen’s naturalist bent provided an essential contrast to the inevitable battles. And though I suppose there are always conflicts brewing all over the world, the early nineteenth century, with Napoleon rampaging all over Europe, offered an historical setting teeming with incident.
Which is not to say that the books don’t sometimes get dull. The Ionian Mission is set in the Mediterranean as Jack joins the English navy in blockading the port of Toulon. It’s a terrible job: “another world, quite cut off; short commons, brown shirts, foul weather, the people bored and harassed with keeping exact station under the admirals’ eyes — and already the ship is like a prison.” The dramatic issue: it’s very hard to write about monotony.
Think for a minute about how this might play out in film: a camera moving slowly, recording the worn sails, the half-filled water barrels, the frayed ropes, the sea empty but for other blockading ships, just barely in sight. A snappish exchange between crew and officer, the captain adding up worrisome figures in a ledger — point made. It takes a lot longer to make the same point in prose. Longer to write, longer to read — and O’Brian returns to it. Actually, you might say that the real subject of this novel is naval tedium and frustration. Hoped-for battles do not occur and a secondary plot line concerns a ship-board performance of Handel’s “Messiah” — also aborted.
And then when the battle finally does take place it takes all of ten pages, and O’Brian instantly ends the book. No rejoicing, no reveling in the results. Done.
But by book 8, you’re in or you’re out. A little monotony isn’t going to scare away the devoted reader. Part of the appeal of these novels is the stability of the framework. The routine is what we relish. Zipping through the series this quickly I’m aware that at least once in each book, O’Brian offers up two set pieces: the cleaning of the deck (holystones; swabbing) and preparation for battle (the heady scent of the slow match). I’m also more aware of the way he juggles the narrative arc across books. The Ionian Mission closes with Jack standing on the deck of a sinking ship. I’m certainly not going to leave him there. I need to know what happens next — in volume 9.