More literary references here — I really don’t want to be sounding like a graduate student, but in The Letter of Marque, Patrick O’Brian practically shoves Aristotle’s Poetics in our faces. Stephen’s sidekick, the one-eyed naturalist minister Nathaniel Martin, is attempting to translate the Poetics from Greek, and trips on the word peripeteia, which Stephen renders as “a reverse.” It seems that the poetry-writing Lieutenant Mowett intends to write an epic about Jack Aubrey called The Sea-Officer’s Tragedy, which prompts discussion of the nature of tragedy or comedy, as laid out by Aristotle. O’Brian’s characters discussing his own literary project? How meta is that?
As The Letter of Marque opens, Jack is what we might consider clinically depressed. Despite the satisfying successes at the end of The Far Side of the World, he is still an exile from his beloved Royal Navy: “his open, florid, cheerful face had grown older, less full; it was now lined and habitually sombre, with a touch of latent wickedness…” You know how that feels, right? That sensation that if one more person crosses you, terrible things could happen? Stephen feels like that often, but it’s new for Jack. And the habitually irritable Stephen begins the novel tiptoeing along the very edge of despair, because he has so deeply offended Diana, whose now lives in Sweden.
Of course there are battles, and even successes, for our old friends. A particularly delicious feat of courageous seamanship, in which Jack invades a French harbor and captures a French frigate, helps to restore his reputation. Thanks to some strategic captures, Jack is even rich. The subterranean battle of international intelligence that concerns Stephen continues, but in the background here. Stephen renews his acquaintanceship with “the horrible old Leopard,” and is aboard when it runs aground (good delaying tactic on O’Brian’s part; distracts the reader while postponing resolution). A voyage to South America is discussed and planned, but Jack and Stephen actually end up in Stockholm, where Stephen intends to return Diana’s immense blue diamond to her. Both Stephen and Jack undergo terrible physical wounds as well as the psychic ones.
But The Letter of Marque is a comedy, in Aristotelian terms. O’Brian refers several times to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, which involves suspected adultery and subsequent forgiveness — Jack and Stephen play morsels of it and the final scene of the book finds them, with their wives, singing the final chorus from Figaro: Ah tutti contenti saremo cosí. Can I really imagine Sophie singing freely in Italian? Can Stephen sing at all? Never mind: they are united in “surprisingly melodious full-throated happiness” and that’s good enough for me.