My brother was somewhat surprised that I had not read any novels by Patrick O’Brian, the Anglo-Irish novelist whose stirring tales of the British Navy in the Napoleonic Wars made him a literary celebrity at the age of 85, when he died on 2nd January, 2000.
He is most famous for writing a series, chronicling the fictitious adventures of Jack Aubrey, and Stephen Maturin, the main characters in ‘Master and Commander’, the first of 20 complete volumes. Jack is the Commander and Maturin is the ship’s doctor.
To date, more than 2 million copies of the Aubrey-Maturin novels have been sold; some place O’Brian with Melville and Conrad.
Having first been introduced to his genius through seeing the film ‘Master and Commander’, directed by Peter Weir, I was smitten. True to O’Brian’s attention to historical detail, the film tells the swashbuckling story of confrontation at sea between ‘Lucky’, Jack Aubrey’s English ship and a superior French man–of–war; Jack’s vessel only escapes by good fortune, courtesy of the fog, but her ruthless and loyal commander is determined to inflict revenge, thereby bringing honour for himself and Country.
What the film does not do, is manifest the literary skill of a great author and wordsmith.
For the sailor of a small yacht in our times, O’Brian’s novels can convey a sense of history and wonderment at the fortitude, determination, and resourcefulness of seamen who defended and fought for their countries in a bygone era. Their struggles were often determined by the vagaries of wind and sea, and soundness of their vessels, just as our ventures at sea are today.