Oh wow, are you sitting down? Major Literary Discovery here. I was happily absorbed in The Reverse of the Medal when PLOT SPOILER (sorry) I got to the section when Jack is imprisoned at the Marshalsea — what we might call the white-collar prison of Georgian London. Stephen goes to visit him and there’s a description of Jack’s daily routine, Sophie’s presence as a visitor, all very pleasant…. but something’s tickling at my memory, some familiarity: Patrick O’Brian is referring to Little Dorrit! It’s plain as day. I remarked earlier on O’Brian’s borrowing from Stendhal in The Surgeon’s Mate. That was very clear — and I did feel, reading through The Far Side of the World, that Moby-Dick was present in a shadowy way. Of course as reader Antony pointed out, you can’t write about whaling without Herman Melville somewhere in the offing. And I’ll add that in the earlier books, when Jack is courting Sophie, the social machinations and the dry humor did remind me of Jane Austen. (But I tend to see her everywhere.)
I’m too lazy to do the research to substantiate these claims, but I offer them freely to O’Brian scholars who may have a field day with them. I would just add that these literary references don’t in any way spoil the fiction; even when you perceive the source, you are still firmly anchored in the Aubrey/Maturin world. Which is quite complicated, in The Reverse of the Medal. A lot happens. O’Brian goes from gentle, generous comedy (the introduction of Jack’s black illegitimate son Sam Panda, for example; he is far more sophisticated than his father and resembles him very closely except in the matter of skin color), to the greatest tragedy that could befall Jack. This is one of the novels that takes place mostly ashore, and Jack off his ship is prone to misfortune. To add to the melancholy, Diana Villiers has bolted from London, furious at Stephen’s apparent wooing of another lady. (An intelligence stratagem, of course.) So both of our protagonists are severely distressed and it is moving to witness their different kinds of courage in the face of their trials. Stephen attempts distraction, whether with work or with laudanum. But Jack faces his pain proudly and stoically, accepting no help. After a criminal trial he is sentenced to the pillory, and Stephen brings him some laudanum to get him through it.
Stephen saw that he had no intention of taking it, and that the underlying pain was quite untouched. For to Jack Aubrey the fact of no longer belonging to the Navy counted more than a thousand pillories, the loss of fortune, loss of rank, and loss of future. It was in a way a loss of being, and to those who knew him well it gave his eyes, his whole face, the strangest look.”
I have to mention that the scene of Jack in the stocks is one of the most moving I know in fiction. A friend once told me about reading this series with her husband; she began each book as he finished it. One night they were reading side by side in bed and she became aware that her husband was awash in tears. He wouldn’t tell her why — he was crying too hard anyway — but when he got control of himself, all he could say was, “You’ll see.” Read it. You’ll see.
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