I had forgotten how many ships Stephen and Jack sail in: somehow I conflated them all into the Surprise, but in The Nutmeg of Consolation, Jack commands a little Dutch-built sloop that has been captured by the English. He calls it the Nutmeg after the Sultan of Pulo Prabang (see The Thirteen Gun Salute, volume 13 of the series) and consolation is needed, for one reason or another, throughout the book. Goodness, it opens with the crew of HMS Diane shipwrecked on a deserted island, running out of food. In fact, although the ultimate mission of the Surprise — a South American visit — is still envisioned, our friends get no closer to it during the course of this book.
Instead, they go to Australia. I get the sense that Patrick O’Brian has read Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore. He paints a very harsh picture of the penal colony, sharpening his criticisms by having various members of the crew fall afoul of the administration in one way or another. Stephen, for instance, gets off on the wrong foot by fighting a duel with a grotesquely rude soldier, making it almost impossible for Jack to get the Surprise fitted out for her long voyage to Chile. O’Brian is so adept with the physical descriptions that there’s almost a grayish dusty feeling to the pages.
But there are consolations. For Stephen and his friend Martin, the flora and fauna beggar belief. Jack has the maritime pleasure of sinking a French frigate and saving most of its crew, including an old friend’s nephew — a friend, though French. I’ve mentioned before that the Aubrey/Maturin series is above all a portrait of masculine friendship; one feature I just grasped is how often O’Brian mentions affection. Brutal as the seagoing world is, the bonds among these men are very strong and often warmly expressed, whether in words or, more often, in actions. In fact the final pages of the book are extremely touching, as Stephen recovers from a near-mortal wound — a situation that would have been sentimental in another author’s hands.
Miscellanea: substance abuse continues to be an interest of O’Brian’s. After Stephen’s addiction to laudanum (his mental justifications for indulging were familiar to any twelve-stepper), he is introduced to cocaine, in the form of leaves. So, alas, are the rats aboard the Nutmeg, which devour not only his entire store but their wrappings as well. “They stood about me as I gazed at the ruins of my store… gibbering, barely able to contain themselves.”
And finally, these words on fiction, delivered by (naturally) Stephen: “I look upon good novels … as a very valuable part of literature, conveying more exact and finely-distinguished knowledge of the human heart and mind than almost any other, with greater breadth and depth and fewer constraints.”