We’re getting to the end here. The Commodore is number 17 in the Aubrey/Maturin series. Jack, as you will have understood from the title, has been promoted yet again, this time acting as commodore of a fleet that’s sent to Africa to harass the illegal slave trade. He finds — as many successful middle-aged people do — that managing a large group of individuals engaged in a common enterprise is less congenial than operating on his own. Jack Aubrey is no man for paperwork.
The Commodore returns to some of the satisfying, swashbuckling activity of the heart of the series, but it is certainly shaded with melancholy. Jack and Sophie are maritally at odds and Jack — so direct, so commanding, so competent at sea — has no idea how to mend matters. There are more references to the encroachments of middle age, and there’s a sudden death that has lingered with me since the first time I read the series. Here’s a snippet of another scene that conveys some of the elegiac flavor. Stephen is staying at the Aubreys’ Ashgrove Cottage and wakens in the middle of the night to hear Jack, in the summer house, “dreaming away on his violin with a mastery that Stephen had never heard equalled, though they had played together for years and years.” Stephen has long recognized Jack as much the better player, aware that Jack tempers his expertise so as not to show off when they play together.
Now, in the warm night, there was no one to be comforted, kept in countenance, no one who could scorn him for virtuosity, and he could let himself go entirely; and as the grave and subtle music wound on and on, Stephen once more contemplated on the apparent contradiction between the big, cheerful, florid sea-officer whom most people liked on sight but who would never have been described as subtle or capable of subtlety by any one of them…. and the intricate, reflective music he was now creating. So utterly unlike his limited vocabulary in words, at times verging on the inarticulate.”
Which when you think of it, is a subtle point for the novelist Patrick O’Brian to make: words don’t suffice for everyone.
For old O’Brian hands I will add that this is the novel where we are introduced to the potto, an extremely winning African lemur that Stephen possesses all too briefly. Like the sloth of H.M.S. Surprise, it is a character more fully-realized than many humans stalking the pages of many other novels.