Yes — this is where the Aubrey/Maturin series starts to bog down. In which, perhaps, it reflects life as we know it: Jack and Stephen are now in full middle age and The Truelove is full of testiness, misunderstanding, and emotional malaise. Sure, we need conflict to keep a novel going and the contrast between our two protagonists is one of the wonderful sources of interest in the series. But for the first time, Jack and Stephen are philosophically, ethically at odds. Furthermore Stephen’s mate, the naturalist/cleric Nathaniel Martin, has somehow changed into a less congenial companion for Stephen. This does sometimes happen in the course of a long friendship, but the result is to make this novel a little bit discomfiting.
Of course Patrick O’Brian was 78 when he wrote it, which is a fine age, and he might conceivably have seen some disappointments in all of those years. But I think what I take away from this book overall is… well, maybe it’s a diminished appetite for life. For instance, the one battle on a Pacific Island is a frank bloodbath, necessary but devoid of the usual elation for both Jack and the sympathetic reader. For another thing, “the people” behave badly. I’ve always loved the way the crew of Jack’s ships become a unit, and are alternately known by the name of the ship (so you could be a Surprise, a Sophie, a Nutmeg, a Leopard, etc., a lovely bit of identification with the sailing craft itself). And the crew is often known as “her people.” Well, there’s a woman aboard the ship, and she sows all kinds of havoc. She is a handsome, well-spoken, appealing convict, escaping from the penal colony of New South Wales, and her name is Clarissa Harvill. Now, in an earlier book, Stephen discusses Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa,which deals at great length with a young woman’s attempt to remain virtuous despite her family’s manipulations and the ardent efforts of a rake. The Clarissa of The Truelove is also, despite all odds, virtuous, in a very modern way, but her presence aboard the ship is terribly destructive.
And Jack, throughout the book, is ageworn, careworn, grim. He finds gray streaks in his long yellow hair, but finds little pleasure in what has usually made him happy. Jack is in fact depressed, and depression doesn’t suit him. I mentioned earlier how much I enjoyed the Mozartian interweaving of major and minor keys in these books, but the The Truelove moves us into something very much more melancholy. And, possibly, more modern: Bruckner? Richard Strauss? Would Jack appreciate the “Four Last Songs,” do you think?