Master and Commander

I have long been addicted to Patrick O’Brian’s novels which featured Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin in tales of sea battles with French warships in the early nineteenth century.  There was an article in The Sunday Telegraph on November 3rd by Lewis Jones entitled “The Dark Story Behind ‘Master and Commander’, the first of O’Brian’s twenty novels.  I probably read all twenty, which were addictive to an ex-Navy officer like me, because of the incredibly realistic accounts of life aboard British warships during the Napoleonic era.  But more than that, Aubrey is a roast-beef British, dashing, but sometimes thoughtless character, accurately played by Russell Crowe in the film, and Maturin is an Irish-Catalan naturalist, doctor, and spy.  They are shipmates, friends, musicians, and adventurers in the series.  O’Brian had an amazing talent for concocting what looked like sure wins for Aubrey, which suddenly became disastrous, but from which Aubrey extracted a brilliant win over his French adversary.

The Telegraph article mentions some interesting facts about O’Brian, the author.  He was born in 1914 in Buckinghamshire; during the war, he worked in British intelligence with his second wife, Mary Tolstoy, who had been married to a Russian, Count Tolstoy.  After the war, he moved to the Catalan part of France where he spent decades writing, half a dozen novels, a biography of Picasso, numerous short stories and translations.  He had friendly reviews, but he wrote in obscurity and he was always broke.  In 1967, when O’Brian was at a low ebb, he received a letter from the American publisher, J B Lippencott, noting the C S Forester had died the previous year and that he, O’Brian, would be well qualified to fill the void left by Forester’s Hornblower series.  In 1969, Master and Commander was published.  By the 1990’s O’Brian was rich and famous, was appointed a CBE and the world wanted to know about him.  As an intensely private person, this irritated him considerably.   He was the eighth of nine children born to an English ‘pox doctor’ (venereologist) of German descent and an English woman of Irish descent.  He was ‘briefly’ educated at grammar schools.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of O’Brian’s biography is the speculation about how he acquired his naval knowledge.  In a 1994 essay, O’Brian himself said, “my particular friend Edward, who shared a tutor with me, had a cousin who possessed an ocean-going yacht, a converted square-rigged merchantman, that he used to crew with undergraduates and fair-sized boys, together with some real seamen, and sail far off into the Atlantic. The young are wonderfully resilient, and although I never became much of a topman, after a while I could hand, reef and steer without disgrace, which allowed more ambitious sailoring later on.”

But, in 1995, the venture capitalist, Thomas Perkins, offered O’Brian a two-week cruise aboard his then sailing yacht, a 154 ft ketch.  He later said, “his knowledge of the practical aspects of sailing seemed, amazingly, almost nil” and “…he seemed to have no feeling for the wind and the course, and frequently I had to intervene to prevent a full standing gybe. I began to suspect that his autobiographical references to his months at sea as a youth were fanciful.”

In any event his tales of seamanship and combat at sea are remarkably realistic and entertaining.  Patrick O’Brian died in 2000.

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