Thursday, March 29, 2012

Post Captain by Patrick O'Brian: A review

The blurb from The New York Times which graces the front cover of this book says, "The best historical novels ever written." Well, I haven't read all the historical novels ever written, so, far be it from me to judge, but so far, I've read two of the books in the series and, yes, I rate them very highly. This one even more than the first, Master and Commander

The first book established the relationship between Captain "Lucky Jack" Aubrey of the Royal Navy and his ship's doctor (Not "surgeon" as I once called him. Terrible faux pas.) Stephen Maturin. Aubrey is the enthusiastic somewhat overgrown child, not really as mature as his rank might suggest. Maturin is the more complicated character, a man of many parts who plays many roles. 

Post Captain finds the two ashore at the beginning of the book, ensconced in a cottage on the Downs and keeping company with some young ladies of the area - one Sophia Williams and the widow Diana Villiers. Aubrey has been overly generous, as is his nature, in his spending, depending upon receiving some prize money from his most recent successful campaign on the Sophie. When his agent absconds with the money, Jack is left high and dry and insolvent with the bailiffs pursuing him. 

Times are desperate. Aubrey needs a ship and fast. He is not a favorite with the Admiralty and all they offer him is an insalubrious sloop called the Polychrest. Beggars can't be choosers and he accepts the appointment and sets sail, where at least the bailiffs can't reach him. 

Meanwhile, Bonaparte seems about to declare war momentarily, possibly bringing Spain along with him, and Stephen Maturin is pursuing his second occupation of spy. He travels back and forth to Spain - he has a castle in Catalan - to assess the situation there and report back. His friend Aubrey never suspects a thing and once loudly denies any attempt at espionage to one who suggests that Stephen might be guilty of it. Aubrey is in so many ways an innocent. 

Their voyage on the Polychrest is fraught with peril, because it really is an unreliable ship with a sometimes mutinous crew, but, in the end, it is covered in glory when it captures a French vessel. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the Polychrest sinks in the effort. Subsequently, Jack is finally made Post Captain and is offered the temporary command of a crack frigate, the Lively. Soon Aubrey and Maturin are once again at sea and all is right - or mostly right - with their world as they pursue French and Spanish ships. 

Once again, I find that I easily glide right over much of the nautical terminology and descriptions of battles that are so dear to the heart of many O'Brian fans. I'm more interested in the human relationships and the development of character and there is plenty of that to be found here. Thus, I think these books have interest for at least two kinds of readers: Those fascinated by naval history and those who revel in fascinating characters. It is much to O'Brian's credit that he was able to appeal to such a wide readership.

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