Sometime in the early 90s, the New York Times Book Review published a review of Patrick O’Brian’s The Wine-Dark Sea. The title caught my classically educated eye (the title is the most common translation of Homer’s “oinopa ponton”) and I learned that The Wine-Dark Sea was the sixteenth volume of a series of historical novels set in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, centered around Jack Aubrey (a naval captain) and his friend Stephen Maturin (physician, naturalist, and intelligence agent). I’m not made in such a way that allows me to start a series in the middle, so I turned to the first volume of the series: Master and Commander.
By the time I’d worked by way up to The Wine-Dark Sea, Patrick O’Brian had written four more volumes and died leaving fragments of another. I’ve now read the entire series–often known to initiates simply as The Canon–four times and am part of the way through a fifth. Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin have now become the sort of comfortable old friends with whom one can spend an afternoon or a weekend, picking up right where one last left off as if nothing had happened in between. I imagine that I’ll continue traveling with them for the rest of my reading life.
One of the reasons that I love Patrick O’Brian and Aubrey-Maturin novels in particular is because O’Brian creates a world entire that includes not only the Royal Navy and the Napoleonic Wars, but also politics, natural history, travel, music, and a deep understanding of human psychology–the sort that one gets only from a novelist who lives with his characters year after year. Taken together, Jack and Stephen and their shipmates traverse the world numerous times, fight in numerous battles at sea and on land, fall in love and get married, succeed at some things and fail at others, and go through life as they grow older and it gets more complicated–all while maintaining the closest of friendships.
Another reason that I love Patrick O’Brian is that his writing has such concrete detail, both in the broader historical sense (though he does play fast and loose with timelines now and again) and in the more local, immediate sense. Let me give you an example of the latter. Food and drink play an important role aboard ship, as one might imagine. O’Brian’s descriptions of bacon and coffee alone are enough to set my mouth watering–and I’ve found it nearly impossible at times to read them without a cup of coffee, a glass of port, or a bottle of wine. And, there’s the (perhaps apocryphal) story that O’Brian himself was taken for an experienced mariner by the captain of a sailing vessel purely on the strength of the technical descriptions of sailing and seamanship in the novels–all the while hardly knowing how to sail in the personal, practical sense.
But in the end, it’s the friendship of Jack and Stephen and their lives in the wooden world of one Royal Navy ship or another that keeps me coming back time and again. Not only is their friendship honest and intimate, but it’s a friendship of a sort that one does not often see between two men these days, either in fiction or in life.
Like any series in which the characters develop over time, I suggest that you begin reading at the beginning, and read right through to the end (and then start over again). Here’s the list of all twenty of the Aubrey-Maturin Novels, in order:
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)
The Truelove (1992) (Clarissa Oakes outside the US)
The Wine-Dark Sea (1993)
The Commodore (1995)
The Yellow Admiral (1996)
The Hundred Days (1998)
Blue at the Mizzen (1999)
The entire series is available in twenty volumes in paperback and hardcover, or in a five-volume boxed set from W.W. Norton and Co. And, the Folio Society has recently started issuing volumes of series in newly edited, finely bound editions that are a pleasure to read and handle in every way.
Not surprisingly, there’s a also good deal of secondary material that’s grown up around the Aubrey-Maturin novels, the best of which you can find on the Wikipedia page devoted to the series. There are two that I’d single out as particularly useful: Sea of Words by Dean King and The Patrick O’Brian Muster Book by A.G. Brown. Both explain a good deal of the historical, nautical, and cultural detail that one runs across in the midst of reading these novels.
And after you’ve read at least the first ten novels in the The Canon, watch Master and Commander: Far Side of the World, directed by Peter Weir and starring Russell Crowe (Aubrey) and Paul Bettany (Maturin)