Monday, January 9, 2012

The Aubrey/Maturin Series by Patrick O'Brian, or Inaugural TLM Reading Challenge Completed

First, come the apologies.  There are at least two reasons that my contributions to TLM have fallen off over the last year: (1) the final editing and publication of my novel, The Last Will and Testament of Lemuel Higgins, and (2) the ill-conceived reading challenge, made way back in February 2011, of the 21 novels that comprise the Aubrey/Maturin Series by Patrick O'Brian.  I call the reading challenge "ill-advised" not because it was unenjoyable or not wholly worthwhile, but because it so completely overtook my reading time and consciousness that it excluded nearly all else.  And yet, here we are, almost one year later, at the beginning of 2012, and I feel truly enriched by both experiences.  Now it's time to share. 

So, let's get to the good stuff.  After making my way through the entire series, I agree wholeheartedly with Richard Snow of the New York Times, who called the Aubrey/Maturin Series "the best historical novels ever written."  I feel like I lived for a time during the Napoleonic Wars, aboard the HMS Surprise, sharing hard tack and grog with midshipmen and members of the lower deck alike, taking prizes from France, Spain, and, occasionally, the United States, and shepherding British intelligence agent, Stephen Maturin, around the world to work against Napoleon's interests and, on more than one occasion, to foment revolution.

If you think that the Aubrey/Maturin Series is simply a follow-on to the eleven novels of the earlier successful Horatio Hornblower series by C.S. Forester, I am here to set you straight.  Though they share a particular period in world history and both revolve around officers in the British Navy, they are worlds apart as works of entertainment and literature.  For all the virtues of the earlier series in terms of historical context and the complexity of Hornblower's character, the earlier books pale in comparison to the characterization of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, which is masterfully accomplished by O'Brian.

The reader becomes so familiar with the quirks of each character's personality that he or she truly feels among lifelong friends by the end of the series.  I found myself laughing--not chuckling, but laughing long and out loud--at Jack Aubrey's stupid jokes and silly wordplay ("the lesser of two weevils") and genuinely concerned at Stephen Maturin's tendency toward opium addiction. O'Brian develops the characters so completely that the reader feels part of a group among which there are inside jokes and the mood among them is felt rather than understood through the spoken word.  And, perhaps there is no greater compliment to a series of novels than to say that I fell into a period of blue depression when the final words in the last unfinished novel, 21, were read.  This has happened to me before (Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited comes to mind), but it is a rare occurrence, and I take is as an indicator of enduring quality.  Does this happen to you?    

In any case, I hold it as one of the greatest novel to film tragedies of the modern era that the producers of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World chose to focus on the adventurous aspects of O'Brian's work rather than the more human aspects that are so clearly the focus of the novels.  I'm sure that I'm not the only one.  

Overall, the Aubrey/Maturin Series is a fantastic collection, and I am genuinely sorry that there will be no more as O'Brian died in the very act of composing his twenty-first novel, in January 2000.  If you've read one or more of the Aubrey/Maturin Series, please share your thoughts.  And if you haven't, the complete set is listed below.  Start with Desolation Island.  It, like the rest, has TLM's very highest recommendation.

Master and Commander (1970)

Post Captain (1972)

HMS Surprise (1973)

The Mauritius Command (1977)

Desolation Island (1978)

The Fortune of War (1979)

The Surgeon's Mate (1980)

The Ionian Mission (1981)

Treason's Harbour (1983)

The Far Side of the World (1984)

The Reverse of the Medal (1986)

The Letter of Marque (1988)

The Thirteen Gun Salute (1989)

The Nutmeg of Consolation (1991)

Clarissa Oakes/The Truelove (1992)

The Wine-Dark Sea (1993)

The Commodore (1995)

The Yellow Admiral (1996)

The Hundred Days (1998)

Blue at the Mizzen (1999)

The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey/21 (2004)


  1. Blimey you made it through them, keel-hauled maybe but came out afloat- congrats & had time for your own work as well.
    Welcome back

  2. Ok, so you have introduced me to a whole new series of books (never even heard of them). Judging by your keen insight into great books, I will have to check at least one of them out; but it seems a bit daunting to go for all of them. Congrats on completing the challenge and your book!

    1. I think I'll check them out, too! I've always meant to, but this post has convinced me. I'm always on the lookout for a long series that I can fall back into whenever I come to a gap in my reading. Maybe this is the one?

    2. @Cath - Thanks for the comment. I found that this is a great series to jump into and out of periodically. There's just the right amount of repetition so that every new book reminds you of what has passed before. Enjoy!

  3. As I've mentioned in the 2011 overview, the year will forever be known as the year I discovered Patrick O'Brian. And I only read the first two! I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

    I felt that bout of depression at the end of Lord of the Rings. I remember thinking at some point (in the Planes of Rohan, I beleive) "I'll miss these people when the book is over", and miss them I did.

  4. @Parrish - In terms of length and absence, it certainly felt like a trip to the far side of the world, but very worthwhile just the same. Thanks for the welcome back.

    @Leah - Thank you! The series is daunting, no doubt about that. Although I read Desolation Island first, I found it easier thereafter to work my way into the story by audiobook. If you are at all into audiobooks, this series is almost tailor-made for them. I'd take the Simon Vance reading over any other if you're going to do it.

    @Alex - Thanks for the comment. That's exactly how I feel about O'Brian now - as if I had shared a great friendship. Keep going - the friendship only grows deeper, I think.

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  6. I stumbled upon the Aubrey/Matruin series in audiobook form at my local library. I'm a voracious reader, but recurring 6-hour drives to see my long-distance girlfriend have made me an audiobook fan too. The difficultly of finding audiobooks that can hold my attention while driving makes a long series of this quality a real find. I listened to all of them (listening a little every day, even when not on a long road trip, but keeping a parallel printed book going too), and solved the problem of end-of-series blues by starting over again at the beginning! And they are at least as wonderful the second time around.

    The series has been narrated by a number of readers. Patrick Tull came highly recommended, and I found his interpretation to be magnificent; it inspired me to keep listening instead of switching to reading, as would ordinarily have been my preference. I have also heard some of Simon Vance, who is not bad (although quite a distant second to Tull), and Richard Brown, who I found to be appallingly unlistenable.

    BTW, the edition you link to on Amazon has been getting blasted for typos on nearly every page. Is this the edition you read?

  7. Oops, I violated the first rule of the Web (Noob, don't post)!

    I'm new to your excellent blog, and saw your first Aubrey/Maturin post, and of course this one, but missed the one in which you mentioned that you were listening to the audiobooks, and that you preferred Simon Vance. Meanwhile, I'm going on about the audiobooks as if I had discovered fire, and dissing your favorite reader. Doh!

    As to my preference for Tull, though... which it's not because he is more dramatic, but that I love his voices and characterizations, the creature.

    1. Not at all! Thanks so much for the comments. I did really get into the Simon Vance versions, but I did hear/read good things about Patrick Tull. I checked him out for one early book, but couldn't make the switch. I suspect the preference might have been reversed if I had started with Tull.

  8. So happy to stumble across a group of people who have also read the entire Aubrey/Maturin collection. I read them back in 2004/2005. When I finished the last one, my bookclub threw a nautical party in my honour.
    I have now convined my husband to work his way through them too :-)

    1. Thanks for the comment! I never thought that I would ever re-read an entire series, but I think Aubrey/Maturin might just be that good. When I finished, I felt like I had lost a friend. I've since tried the Richard Sharpe series from Bernard Cornwell, but was left disappointed. Lately, I picked up The Unknown Shore by Patrick O'Brian, which is a sort of prequel to the Aubrey/Maturin series, though neither Aubrey nor Maturin actually appear in the book. It's wonderful to get a taste of O'Brian once again!

  9. Well said. A perfect series for men. I love Jane Austen, but this is like Austen for the masculine mind.
    Simon Vance is amazing. I almost can't stand to hear anyone else try to do perform Jack (in particular).

    Incredible series and you have nailed it with centering on the characterization and friendship. Give you joy!

  10. Re-read them! Without having to focus on plot, you'll get much more from the descriptions, dialogues, and asides that will have you googling old medical and nautical terms, instead of turning the page to find out what happens next...

  11. What a joy this series is! While it shares much DNA with Captain Hornblower, this series is written for grownups, with real character development amidst the blood and thunder and farce. O'Brian clearly had lots of fun creating and building these characters, and his obvious love for them is infectious.

    I read them through in sequence after a tipoff to their existence by a close friend whose family had something of a naval tradition, and was initially daunted by the overwhelming technical detail provided on sailing and square rigged ships (not a particular passion of mine!). However, I soon realised that this series revels in detail - food, medicine, psychology, fashion, social etiquette, class, weather, flora, fauna, politics, military strategy and well, just about anything O'Brian's gaze lands on.

    It's done with great wit and clarity, and is a celebration of language that can be enjoyed even if none of the vast range of subject matters appeal. It is populated with a range of recurring characters that are little more than backdrop to Jack and Stephen, but who are lovingly and often hilariously observed.

    While Jack Aubrey remains something of a caricature throughout the series, his naval commissions and associated voyages provide the narrative backbone of the series, while his extraordinary derring-do at sea and his profound lubberliness on land kept me vastly entertained.

    Stephen Maturin, in all his complexity, is the author's voice. His journey is an attempt to unravel the mysteries of the universe, and his own humanity, as a true post enlightenment man. His voice is intelligent, self-questioning, provides intellectual rigor and delivers the driest of dry wit, usually at Jack's or his own expense. The neurotic Dr Maturin has a habit of self examination that slips over the border to depression from time to time, with the flames fanned by self-prescribed drug dependence. I think O’Brian’s particular achievement with Maturin is to cast him as a radical in every sense but one who is still deeply steeped in his time and culture.

    I already loved the series after the first reading but am now deep in the process of rediscovering them through Patrick Tull's brilliant rendering in audiobook form. We know that a great performance of Shakespeare makes it far more real and comprehensible than merely reading one of his plays, and Tull’s reading brings out subtlety, nuance and humour that I had missed before. I now look forward to my drive to and from work in a way I never have before, and it’s by sheer force of will that I drag myself from the car at either end. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for these novels – the journey’s the thing, not the destination?

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