Let us pause in the day’s labors to raise a glass, preferably containing Madeira or a rich, full-bodied port, to the centenary of the greatest historical novelist ever, and one of the best novelists of our era.
Patrick O’Brian was born Dec. 12, 1914—or, rather, Richard Patrick Russ was born on that date in Chalfont St. Peter, England, and grew up to become a novelist of middling success. O’Brian was technically born in 1946, when Russ adopted that pen name and went on to develop a new persona as an elusive Irish writer ensconced in the south of France.
Although O’Brian would produce much estimable fiction and nonfiction under his nom de plume, his signal achievement was the series of 20 novels set during the Napoleonic Wars and informed by O’Brian’s encyclopedic knowledge of nautical matters from that era. The heart of the novels is the friendship between the charismatic Captain Jack Aubrey of the British navy and the Irish-Catalan Dr. Stephen Maturin.
For those unfamiliar with the books, the two men meet cute. On the opening page of “Master and Commander,” the 1969 debut of what would become a fiction series with devotees around the world, Aubrey is attending a musical performance at the Governor’s House in Port Mahon, Minorca. A large man—his “big form overflowed his seat, leaving only a streak of gilt wood to be seen here and there”—the young lieutenant loses himself in the music and starts to keep time with gusto. This causes the small, dark man next to him, Dr. Maturin, to whisper, “If you really must beat the measure, sir, let me entreat you to do so in time, and not half a beat ahead.”
Aubrey broods on the rebuke and decides to challenge the man to a duel, though this is entirely a case of misplaced anger: He is far less bothered by the remark than by the dismal state of his career. Aubrey’s mood soars, though, when he receives unexpected word that he has been given command of a sloop. “There you are, sir,’’ says Aubrey when he sees Maturin the next day. “I owe you a thousand apologies, I am afraid. I must have been a sad bore to you last night, and I hope you will forgive me. We sailors hear so little music—are so little used to genteel company—that we grow carried away. I beg your pardon.”
The novel continues: “ ‘My dear sir,’ cried the man in the black coat, with an odd flush rising in his dead-white face, ‘you had every reason to be carried away. I have never heard a better quartetto in my life.’ ”
And with that exchange, a great literary friendship begins. Aubrey persuades Maturin to become his ship’s doctor, and off they go, to jungles and South Sea isles, around the Mediterranean and to the Galapagos, to an Algerian palace and a Parisian prison and the admiralty offices in London. They sink and get sunk, get captured and escape, enjoy splendid triumphs and more than a few reverses.
At first, the two have little in common except music, which is perhaps why they are such a perfect fit: Aubrey is jovial, confident, intrepid, a master of the human and seafaring complexities of the war machine he commands on the water, and rather inept in the family and business issues he confronts on terra firma. Maturin is ironical, sarcastic and skeptical, viewing his enemies with a “dangerous, pale, reptilian eye.” Along with his medical knowledge, he is a linguist and a natural philosopher who subsumes his Irish resentment of the British to join the fight against the despot Napoleon.
Aubrey is an apostle of duty, an advocate of order, and yet he knows that leading his men depends less on his power to punish them than on his power to inspire. Maturin has a far greater appreciation of freedom, rebelliousness, even anarchy, and yet possesses a fierce sense of right and wrong. Together they embody the values of freedom and democracy that allowed Britain to lead the world.
A significant source of the Aubrey-Maturin series’s appeal is O’Brian’s brilliant depiction of heroic characters who could be sadly unheroic. Aubrey is terrible with money; his bankruptcy lands him in the stocks. He has a poor relationship with his father. Despite his years in the navy, Maturin is eye-rollingly awkward—“lubbery”—when at sea.
O’Brian died in 2000, leaving a 21st novel partially completed. Many fans, this one included, moaned for a series finale that would have revealed how the lives of these characters played out. But the author seems unlikely ever to have provided that satisfaction.
“The conventional ending, with virtue rewarded and loose ends tied up,” says Maturin in “The Nutmeg of Consolation,” the 14th book in the series, “is often sadly chilling; and its platitude and falsity tend to infect what has gone before, however excellent. Many books would be far better without their last chapter: or at least with no more than a brief, cool, unemotional statement of the outcome.” As always, O’Brian knew best—with their stories unfinished, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin live on.