Still Doing Their Duty Patrick 0’Brian’s dashing heroes from Nelson’s victory over Napoleon return to the sea for more derring-do.

By Patrick 0’Brian.
262 pp. New York:
W. W. Norton & Company. $24.
By Amanda Foreman.

AMBITION can make a man, but a surfeit will kill him. It is a short passage from the reasonable to the excessive. Capt. Jack Aubrey, once master of the Napoleonic seas, has been left stranded by the peace of 1815. Like the sea snake that fatally bites itself on land, Aubrey deprived of battle is in danger of consuming himself.

“Blue at the Mizzen,” the 20th volume of Patrick 0′ Brian’s saga of heroism and friendship on the high seas, is a welcome return to form. After a spell in the doldrums 0’Brian has presented his readers with a shining jewel. “Blue at the Mizzen” is an intricate, multifaceted work, one of those rare novels that actually bear up under close scrutiny.

It opens ominously, with Jack’s ship, the Surprise, moored at Gibraltar. A large portion of the crew has taken advantage of the peace to drink themselves silly in the local taverns. Aubrey himself is sufficiently at loose ends to conduct an indiscreet affair with his superior’s wife. Such behavior could hardly be more calculated to wreck his career. Without political support Aubrey will forever remain a captain or, worse, he could be promoted to Admiral but deprived of command. Such men are known as yellow admirals and considered naval flotsam. Aubrey lives with increasing dread that he is marked for such a fate.

Back in London, the future King of England, the Duke of Clarence, asks Aubrey to train his illegitimate son in the ways of the navy. Good fortune begets good fortune, and the Surprise is sent to aid the Chileans in their struggle for independence against Spain. What follows is the usual derring-do on the high seas. But this time O’Brian has situated the most intense drama in the recesses of Aubrey’s heart. The question is not whether Aubrey can defeat the enemy but whether he can survive the debilitating onslaught of his private fears.

Just short of a decade ago, O’Brian was rediscovered in America (by then the series was up to 12) and quickly became a cult. In the space of months he went from obscurity to lionization. 0’Brian’s extraordinary learning and gift for classical prose excited critics and readers alike. Here was a writer who deliberately challenged you to keep pace. It became hip to know the series, and even hipper if you were female. (There is absolutely nothing feminine about an O’Brian novel, and that includes the women characters.)

The story arc is simple: two improbable friends, a navy captain and a ship’s surgeon, share many adventures both amorous and warlike during the Napoleonic wars. The expansive Jack Aubrey comes from solid English stock. His family refused a baronetcy under James I, but have remained loyal to church and king ever since. He is uncomplicated, loyal and generous; a ferocious captain at sea and an irredeemable naïf on land. Stephen Maturin, on the other hand, is a half-Irish, half-Catalan spy whose principled stand against Napoleonic tyranny led him to join the English secret service. Maturin is slight, reptilian-eyed, tormented by his addiction to coca leaves. He is secretive, ruthless and yet a true scholar and an outstanding botanist and ornithologist. What unites them is a profound love of music and a common, if unarticulated, belief in the values that embody the 18th-century ideal of the gentleman.

From the first, readers noticed the extraordinary complexity and skill that went into the Aubrey-Maturin series. Every novel is typified by literary and classical allusions, linguistic jokes, historical references and, most important, O’Brian’s ability to weave 18th-century cadences into his writing without sacrificing modern usage. There are also homages to Jane Austen throughout, but they are subtle and pleasing. In “Master and Commander”, the earliest of the books, a young and less portly Jack Aubrey captures a French frigate even though he is in command of a mere sloop. This heroism sees him promoted from commander to post-captain; it did the same for Captain Wentworth in “Persuasion”.

Yet the heart of the series is not the 18th-century arcana but the moving story of two friends whose loyalty to each other is the ballast in their tumultuous careers. When not in the heat of battle they struggle against the perfidy of man and the unpredictability of nature. Bankruptcy, betrayal, human weakness, unrequited love, imprisonment, disease, shipwrecks and storms beset them over the course of some 15 years.

The first 12 novels move consistently forward, detailing Aubrey’s checkered fortunes against navy officialdom and Maturin’s obsessive pursuit of the beautiful but dangerously high-strung Diana Villiers. Occasionally the two strands meet, as in the fourth novel, “The Mauritius Command”,when Aubrey briefly competes with Maturin over Diana. (This painful episode resolves itself by Aubrey admitting defeat and happily settling for her less willful cousin, Sophie). By “The Letter of Marque”, however, the narrative thrust loses impetus: Aubrey has at last proved himself to the Admiralty, and Maturin and Diana have worked out a complicated domestic truce. The adventures continue but the characters seem to go into stasis. In novel after novel, Maturin’s marriage is unsettled at best and a tragic mismatch at worst. Aubrey continues to make a hash of his domestic affairs. Worse, his clumsiness on land extends to the bedroom, and his wife, Sophie, is as frigid as she is jealous. However, four novels later, in “The Yellow Admiral”, a resolution of sorts seemed to have been achieved. Maturin and Diana and their daughter, Brigid, are living together as a family. Meanwhile Sophie has discovered, but not necessarily from Aubrey, that sex can be pleasurable.

Reviewers began to wonder if O’Brian would ever end the saga, and if so, how. Perhaps to confound them, he did a shocking thing in his last novel, “The Hundred Days”, killing off Diana in a carriage accident on Page 3. This was a clear sign that Aubrey and Maturin were destined for yet more adventures. Or was it? 0′ Brian has always said that endings should be Proustian, suspended in time. In “The Nutmeg of Consolation”, a character asks, “Are endings really so very important?” O’Brian is now 85 and “Blue at the Mizzen” could indeed be the finale. In a sense the heroes have clearly reached their destinations, and there is a psychological completeness to the novel even though the plot is inconclusive. Halfway through their adventures, while visiting Sierra Leone, Maturin experiences an emotional rebirth. The catalyst is his old friend and fellow ornithologist, Christine Wood. Although the relationship is not consummated, O’Brian hints that Maturin has at last found his soul mate. As for Aubrey, his fate is obvious to anyone who knows the meaning of the title, which is every O’Brian fan. Such prior knowledge makes the end less important than the journey itself, as O’Brian no doubt intended. There is nothing in this century that rivals Patrick O’Brian’s achievement in his chosen genre.

His novels embrace with loving clarity the full richness of the 18th-century world. They embody the cruelty of battle, the comedy of men`s lives, the uncertain fears that plague their hearts; and yet, not far away, is the vision of an ideal existence.

Copyright© 1999 New York Times