Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Mauritius Command by Patrick O'Brian: A review

This fourth entry in the Aubrey/Maturin naval historical series finds Jack Aubrey in the uncomfortable position of being stranded ashore. He has married his beloved Sophie and they have twin daughters, who absolutely flummox the captain. Also in the Maturin household is the mother-in-law and a young niece. So this man's man is stuck in a household of five women, not to mention the servants who are also women. He has never been so lost at sea or so miserable.

Into this domestic scene comes his friend Stephen Maturin with secret orders for Aubrey. He is to take command of a frigate under a commodore's pennant and will sail around the Cape of Good Hope and mount a campaign against the French-held islands of Mauritius and La Reunion in the Indian Ocean. This part of the book is based on an actual campaign that occurred during the Napoleonic War. Patrick O'Brian's note says that he kept close to contemporary accounts including Admiralty records in telling the story, although the characters are his own creations.

In conducting his campaign, Aubrey must contend with conflicts and jealousies among his captains, particularly the pleasure-loving Lord Clonfert and the sadistic Captain Corbett whose extreme punishments of his men lead them to the brink of mutiny. Aiding him in the campaign, as always, is Maturin, who continues to work the political part of the struggle, communicating with the locals and turning them to the English side. 

Maturin, too, continues his own studies of Nature and of exotic human culture at all their stops along the way. His delight in birds, particularly, is one of the things that endears the character to this birder/reader.

One of the great attractions of this series is the dry humor which pervades it, particularly in the conversations between Aubrey and Maturin. Here is a typical exchange, one of my favorites from this book.
(Jack is speaking.) "...This coffee has a damned odd taste."

(Stephen) "This I attribute to the excrement of rats. Rats have eaten our entire stock; and I take the present brew to be a mixture of the scrapings at the bottom of the sack."

"I thought it had a familiar tang," said Jack.
Although I have to admit that my eyes sometimes glaze over at the intricate descriptions of the naval battles, I always perk up again at the Aubrey/Maturin conversations. It is their relationship that really makes this series the wonderful reading experience it is for me. Good stuff.

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