Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Yellow Admiral by Patrick O'Brian

Source of book: I own this.

This book is number 18 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.

As readers of this series will know, the narrative is carried over from book to book, so you really need to read them in order. In this case, the break with the last book is fairly clean, so you aren’t left on a cliffhanger. At the end of this book, however, there is a huge cliffhanger. I spoil it here only because it involves real history. (And if real history is a spoiler for you, well, maybe you should have paid more attention in class.) At the end of The Yellow Admiral, Jack and Stephen are on their way back to South America for a little extracurricular cloak and dagger stuff, when the word comes that Napoleon has escaped from Elba. So they are clearly going to be diverted from their current adventure. It will be interesting to see how that turns out.

So, back to this book. Having completed their adventures with the slavers in the last book, Jack finds himself awkwardly on land again. In addition to his usual issues of being a nuisance in Parliament and his tight finances (in part because of delay in compensation for the capture of the slaving ship), he is also in a feud with an adjacent landowner over enclosing the commons. Stephen, at least, finds that his fear that he had lost his fortune is in error - he remains the wealthy man he was.

Jack’s new fear, however, is a legitimate one. With the war apparently winding down, there will be too many captains and too few combat positions. Thus, instead of promoting to admiral in the usual sense, he would be promoted but without a ship or duties. He would be - in essence - retired with half pay. Since Jack’s very life is the sea, this would be a hard thing indeed.

While all this is going on, however, Stephen gets a new task from Sir Joseph Blaine - he is to do some spy work in France. Thus, Jack is given a ship as part of a blockade, and sets Stephen ashore quietly.

I won’t spoil the rest of it. As usual, there are a few things worth mentioning. For example, this discussion of democracy:

“Jack,” said Stephen, “I have been contemplating on your words about the nature of the majority, your strangely violent, radical, and even - forgive me - democratic words, which, with their treasonable implication of ‘one man, one vote’, might be interpreted as an attack on the sacred rights of property; and I should like to know how you reconcile them with your support of a Tory ministry in the House.”
“Oh, as for that,” said Jack, “I have no difficulty at all. It is entirely a matter of scale and circumstance. Everyone knows that on a large scale democracy is pernicious nonsense - a country or even a large county cannot be run by a self-seeking parcel of tub-thumping politicians working on popular emotion, rousing the mob...while as for a man-of-war, it is either an autocracy or nothing, nothing at all - mere nonsense. You saw what happened to the poor French navy at the beginning of the Revolutionary War…”

This is kind of amusing, given the state of English government, and their ongoing hostilities with those crazy Americans. Jack is right, in one sense. Democracy has its drawbacks, and the vulnerability to demagogues is certainly one. But, as Churchill would later point out, democracy may be the worst form of government...except for all the others.

In context, the question is whether small villagers who rely on the commons should have much say in whether it is enclosed (which made it more valuable, but also mostly benefited the large landholders.) It is a rather ongoing question, which has mostly been resolved in our own time by handing increasing wealth and power to the ultrawealthy.

I have frequently commented on the music in these books. Jack and Stephen play violin and cello respectively, and their music makes it into the books regularly. In this one, by happy chance, a piece I recently played appeared: the Mozart Oboe Quartet. (For a wedding, a young oboist joined three members of my quartet for a movement of this piece. Lots of fun. See below for a clip.)

Alas, the sea takes the oboist, and the moment passes forever.

This book is a bit light on the action, spending a lot more time with the land-bound characters. It is rather nice to have a bit more of Diana, and also Clarissa. Jack seems to be mellowing and maturing, with a much more nuanced understanding of things than he started out with. I do, however, hope the next book has a bit more of either the sea or of Stephen’s escapades.

The best part of the book definitely remains the relationship and interplay between Stephen and Jack - one of the epic friendships of literature.


A bit of Mozart. Even a light work like this is full of great melodies and good humor.

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