I used “Master and Commander” in the title of this post because that’s what people will mostly recognise, but I should have said “Patrick O’Brian” or “the Aubrey/Maturin books”. But it doesn’t matter what title I use, because this is really a tribute to the value of the British system of public libraries, which is seriously threatened by the latest spending cuts.
I’ve written before about how, in the early 2000s, I listened to a lot of audiobooks during my long daily commutes to Nottingham and elsewhere. As I’ve tended to work a long commuting distance from home, I’ve often joined a library close to where I work because it’s easier to call there at lunchtime or after work.
So I joined the Wollaton Library in Nottingham. Wollaton is a village on the Western edge of Nottingham, with a spectacular hall and park (the hall briefly became famous when it was used as the location for Wayne Manor in the most recent Batman movie, The Dark Night Rises).
The only problem with Wollaton Library is that it’s rather small, so I quickly went through my first choices of audiboooks (I can’t remember if I was still on cassettes then, or if my car had moved on to CD). So I had to pick something I didn’t know and settled on a historical novel about the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, The Thirteen Gun Salute, by Patrick O’Brian. I’d never heard of him, or the series, but the cover blurb sounded interesting, and what did I have to lose – I could bring it back the next day if I didn’t like it.
This, it turned out, was the thirteenth of a series of 20 novels, but it didn’t matter that I hadn’t read the previous twelve – the characters, plot and language completely engaged me and set me on the quest to read (or listen to) the full set of 20, in order – it took a while, but I got there.
What grabbed me as much as anything was the characters of Captain Jack Aubrey and ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin. Both are full of depth and contradictions – Aubrey in particular is clumsy and socially awkward on land, but an agile and masterful commander at sea, hero-worshipping Nelson and fond of telling, and retelling, the story of the time Nelson spoke to him.
Through the books I learned a lot about the nature of life on board naval vessels of the time, and discovered the origins of several expressions – “make a clean sweep”, for example, comes from the practice of knocking down all the interior wooden walls of the ship when preparing for battle (they were designed for this purpose) so that the lower decks become end-to-end gundecks.
I was worried when it was announced that a film was going to be made, but Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World was a fine film, and Russell Crowe did a good job of embodying Jack Aubrey, even if he was too old for the part (Aubrey is in his late twenties at the start of the series). Peter Weir’s film used the plots from two of the novels, and (presumably to avoid confusion in some markets) changed the enemy ships from American to French – the novel The Far Side of the World is set during the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States. And it kept the essence of Aubrey in particular – including his Nelson story and painful puns.
The first novel, Master and Commander, is still one of my favourite books, and the way in which O’Brian introduces the characters of Aubrey and Maturin over the first few pages is beautiful and elegant – even if you don’t want to settle in for the full 20 books, do try to read those first half-dozen pages – follow this link, and use the “Look Inside” feature to read the first chapter or, better still, buy the book.
O’Brian pulled a neat trick partway through the series. The big problem with sailing ships of the period is that they took a very long time to get from one place to another – weeks to sail across the Atlantic. If a novel required the action to shift from Britain to, say, Peru, there were months of time spent just getting there. And that meant that the novels were getting through the timespan of the Napoleonic Wars far too quickly – O’Brian was going to run out of war.
So he added a note at the start of one of the novels (I forget which) to explain that he was essentially ditching the historic timeline and inserting a few additional, undefined years just to allow himself enough space to complete all the stories he wanted to tell. And I was perfectly happy with that – if we wanted a detailed historical account of the Napoleonic War at sea we’d be reading a different book. We wanted to spend time with Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, and to share in their adventures and battles, and the timeline could go hang.
One of the joys of a library system is that you can take a chance on a book with no risk – if you don’t like it, don’t read it and take it back, but you gave it a chance and some of those chances will be gold. Without our local lending libraries I would probably never have discovered the Aubrey/Maturin novels. It would be tragic if others weren’t able to make fortuitous discoveries like this in the future.