Well. Sorrow is starting to creep into the Aubrey/Maturin series. Treason’s Harbour is volume 9, nearly halfway through the span — though Patrick O’Brian, of course didn’t know that. And while I deeply enjoy the earlier, jolly installments of Jack’s and Stephen’s adventures, I am aware that it’s this sense of creeping melancholy that keeps me coming back to the series. And I didn’t pick up Master and Commander a month ago because I wanted pure diversion. I wanted a story — a long, long story! — reminding me that frustration and loss occur along with glory in our lives. That the smallest scrap of kindness or beauty is worth remarking on. That even when things are miserable, they may be funny. That everything you know may be upended, and you will manage.
Whew! It’s not all that heavy, of course. For instance, a scene when the one-eyed parson and assisting surgeon Dr. Martin has to stitch a gaping wound in Stephen’s forehead:
‘Now, Mr. Martin, I will thank you to apply the styptic and to place twelve neat sutures while I hold the lips of the wound.’
‘I do not know how you can bear to do it,’ said Jack, looking away as the needle went deliberately through and through.
‘I am accustomed to stuffing birds,’ said Martin, working steadily on. ‘And to sewing them up… much more delicate skin than this, very often … except in the case of old male swans… there: I flatter myself that is a tolerably fine seam.”
Old male swans! Can this be true? I believe everything O’Brian says, but some of the teeming quantity of information in these books must be made up. Mustn’t it? Never mind: the fictional world has total authority, and that’s another reason I keep coming back to it.
OK, and this particular book? Largely about frustration, like The Ionian Mission. Jack and Stephen are in Malta, where the spying plotline is beginning to grow stronger. Stephen’s character as an intelligence agent has become known to a few Frenchmen and their allies, some of them in a position to do real harm to both Stephen and Jack. The Surprise, which Jack loves at least as much as his wife Sophie, is to be retired from the Navy, and Jack is heart-broken. Neither Jack nor Stephen gets to sleep with the enticing Laura Fielding, who is entangled with the French spies. Fortunately the whole tale ends with a big loud bang.