Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Commodore by Patrick O'Brian

Source of book: I own this.

This book is number 17 in the Aubrey/Maturin series of novels about the British Navy during and after the Napoleonic Wars. I have read all of the previous books, and reviewed the last few for my blog. Because I do not duplicate all of the background information in each post, it is probably best to read them in order. And by all means, read the books in the correct order, as a particular adventure will often be stretched across several books.

            The Nutmeg of Consolation
            The Truelove
            The Wine Dark Sea

This book picks up at the end of the fairly disastrous South American campaign in the last book. The Surprise returns to England, where both Stephen and Jack have family issues to deal with. 

Stephen’s wife, Diana, has given birth a few years back - Stephen hasn’t yet met his daughter Brigid. However, Diana, apparently overstressed by parenthood, has run off to goodness knows where, leaving Brigid in the care of Clarissa Oakes (a fascinating character from The Truelove). Brigid also appears to be autistic, unable to speak.

Jack, meanwhile, finds he has offended his wife Sophie by using some of the fabric intended for her to make a wedding dress for Ms. Oakes. (As I said, a really fascinating story…) So all is not well at the Aubry home, and Jack is predictably eager to be off on his next adventure.

If that wasn’t bad enough, one of Stephen’s enemies in Parliament has decided to make trouble for him. Technically, Clarissa is a criminal, having been transported to Australia, where she managed to stow away on the Surprise. Likewise, Stephen’s loyal assistant, Padeen, was transported a few books back for an incident involving Stephen’s laudanum. Basically, they both need an official pardon before they can legally be in England. This would be forthcoming in light of the circumstances (and Stephen’s influence), but for this enemy.

Fortunately for all concerned, a new mission is at hand. They will spend some time off the coast of Africa suppressing the slave trade while they wait for news that a French fleet has left for Ireland. They are to intercept this fleet and prevent it from inciting rebellion there.

So much for the basic setup of the plot. I won’t reveal the rest.

However, there are some great lines and passages worth mentioning.

Preserved Killick is one of the great characters in the series. Jack’s steward, he is described in this book as a “lean, cantankerous, and out of work ratcatcher.” And of course, plenty more of “Which I was already doing, ain’t I?”

Also interesting on the psychological side in this book was Jack’s response to female sexuality - both in theory and in practice. Anyone who is familiar with this series knows that Jack - particularly the younger Jack - slept around a good deal. He has an illegitimate son he fathered with an African woman, and spent a portion of the first book in bed with the wife of a fellow captain - an act which came back to bite him big time.

In a conversation with Stephen, Jack discusses a fellow captain who just came home to find his wife pregnant by another man. Jack notes that the captain “has never set up for chastity any more than I have,” and Jack reminded him of that. Of course, the captain responded with the double standard: “Oh, it is different for women.” At this point, Jack actually asserts that fair is fair.

And it is. But the problem is that Jack’s emotions do not follow his logic, and later in the book, when he believes (probably incorrectly) that Sophie is cheating on him, he cannot just let it go as “fair is fair.” Ah, such a difficult thing in practice when men are used to the entitlement to sow their oats when and how they like, but woe to the woman who does likewise.

The issue of slavery is front and center for the middle part of the book. O’Brian does not gloss over the horrors of the trade, and there are some very difficult scenes to read. (For what it is worth, I am concurrently reading Homegoing by Yaa Gayasi, which centers around the slave trade and its consequences over the ensuing centuries. Stay tuned for a review on that one.)

At one point, a particular sailor who has been stymied in his advancement is promoted by Jack, who, having a black son, understands that the “African great-grandmother” is the reason this competent seaman has been unable to become a lieutenant despite passing the test.

Another harrowing chapter in this book is the one where Stephen nearly dies of Yellow Fever. Poor Stephen has had a bad run of late, suffering greatly for his love of nature and attempts to collect specimens. Of course, back then, they didn’t know mosquitoes spread the disease, so prevention was difficult at best.

However, Stephen does manage to obtain a Potto, which is a cousin of the Loris. O’Brian manages to sneak some fauna into most of his books, and this is a particularly cute one. 

It isn’t just questions of sex that disquiet Jack in this book. There is also that of the captains he commands. For this mission, Jack is a Commodore and has several ships under his command. However, he mistrusts two of the captains greatly. One of them is a disciplinarian, intent on having the ship look good. But his seamanship is sloppy, his crew ill trained, and their gunnery is unspeakably bad. Another ship has a different problem. The captain is openly homosexual, and has a series of young men in and out of his cabin - men he then favors in front of the other sailors. Jack’s objection to this isn’t the sexuality per se: he likens it to keeping a hooker on board - it destroys morale and discipline, particularly since the captain is involved. He will not be respected if he doesn’t show respect to all his crew. So Jack is uneasy, because he does not have confidence in his captains. The one may face mutiny, and the other may not fight well at all.

Predictably, this leads to serious tension, particularly when the crews of each of the two ships get into it under the influence of adult beverages. One lieutenant insults another, and as noted in Commandment One (see below), if offense is given and no apology is forthcoming, then a duel is inevitable. Sadly, the young men forgot the 11th Commandment - shoot in the air - and they end up killing each other.

(And yes, that was definitely a good enough excuse to link “Ten Duel Commandments.”)

There is a great line before the climactic scene, where Stephen and Jack, each worried for their own reasons, exchange sympathy.

Stephen looked up, and after a moment said, “To a tormented mind there is nothing, I believe, more irritating that comfort. Apart from anything else it often implies superior wisdom in the comforter. But I am very sorry for your trouble, my dear.”
“Thank you, Stephen. Had you told me that there was always a tomorrow, I think I should have thrust your calendar down your throat.”

That’s just outstanding. And true.

One final humorous bit. Jack and Stephen are string players. (The large Jack on violin, the scrawny Stephen on cello.) Many evenings on board are wiled away with duets - and the pieces mentioned are often fun. In this book, Jack asks Stephen (again…) to borrow his rosin.

“I wonder - I have my own reasons for wondering - that a man of your I might almost say wealth, and of your standing, a member of Parliament, high on the post-captain’s list, and well at court, cannot or rather will not afford himself a piece of rosin.”

“You are to consider that I am a family man, Stephen, with a boy to educate and daughters to provide a dowry for, and clothes - half-boots twice and sometimes three times a year. Tippets. When you come to worry about Brigid’s fortune, and Brigid’s tippets, you too may economise on rosin.”

As the guy who always has extra strings, rosin, and a pencil, I sympathise with Stephen. At least my colleagues are great about paying me back.

Anyway, this book was another solid entry in a truly epic series. Unfortunately, I am nearing its end. If you haven’t discovered O’Brian, I do indeed recommend these books. But definitely read them in order.

No comments:

Post a Comment