No, I didn’t skip. Being a methodical person I did read The Yellow Admiral and The Hundred Days before embarking on Blue at the Mizzen, but as many an O’Brian fanatic has found, our beloved author does run out of steam at the end of this magnificent series. I didn’t actually intend to combine my comments on these three novels into one, but in fact there’s no reason not to. The Yellow Admiral maintains some of the energy and focus of the earlier books but the plot meanders: Jack is ashore, in money troubles again. He’s sent to join the Brest blockade, and we know from The Ionian Mission that blockade duty is necessarily dull. Napoleon surrenders. And in addition, Jack and Sophie are at odds. Worse is to come. The Hundred Days opens in Gibraltar with the dreadful news of Diana’s sudden death and Stephen is a shadow of himself. But grief, with its repetitions and unpredictability and general unpleasantness is not a good subject for a novel. What’s more the plot is choppy and confusing, involving various locations along the Mediterranean and levels of plotting that I found difficult to follow. Blue at the Mizzen places Jack and Stephen on the west coast of South America, fostering the development of a Chilean navy. Jack is functional but still fundamentally unhappy since the British Navy no longer exists to fight Napoleon.
Especially in the last two books, I sensed that O’Brian was going through the motions. So many of the set pieces recurred: Killick’s crabbiness, Stephen’s drug use, rigging church, knocking the rust off cannon balls, “a taut ship is a happy ship.” But new characters are barely distinguishable one from the next, and the plot tension is almost nonexistent. At the end Jack is finally given his blue flag in a very touching scene, so we are allowed to think of him as an admiral, in perpetuity. But as far as perpetuity goes, I’d like to return to a vignette from The Yellow Admiral that describes an ideal life for these characters we’ve spent so much time with. They are all at Jack’s inherited estate of Woolcombe, healthy and moderately rich, waiting while the Surprise is repaired for a long voyage:
The big, spreading old house lived at the steady pace it had been accustomed to for so many generations, a mild but continuous activity. Stephen, with the help of Padeen and old Harding’s grandson Will, established a pretty exhaustive census of the nesting birds…; Sophie, and often Diana, paid or received the necessary calls; while at all times Diana trained, exercised and took care of her Arabs; Clarissa taught George and Brigid Latin verbally, as well as French…: and always there were familiar faces at hand, in the house, in the stables, in the village and all over the countryside.”
I began reading this series at the end of August as a kind of farewell to my father, an avocational sailor and a writer himself. I don’t know that he was an O’Brian fan, though I rather think not. But reading has always been my source of refuge and some useful instinct guided me toward this immensely capacious, humane set of novels. I found them comforting, in their frank acknowledgement of pain. Also entertaining, amusing, enlightening, stimulating and wholly admirable.