The Surgeon’s Mate by Patrick O’Brian

The Surgeon’s Mate is the seventh novel in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin series. Every time I review one of these books I say that I’m not going to leave such a long gap before picking up the next one, but then I get distracted and before I know it two or three years have passed by! It was September 2017 when I read the previous book, The Fortune of War, so I was worried at first that I might struggle to get back into the story and was relieved to find that it wasn’t a problem. As soon as I started to read, the events of book six came back to me quite vividly.

If you have not yet met Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend, Dr Stephen Maturin, I would strongly recommend that you start at the beginning with Master and Commander. It will make it so much easier to follow the various storylines, which do continue from one book to the next, and to understand the complex relationships between the characters, particularly the one between Stephen and Diana Villiers.

This seventh novel opens with Jack, Stephen and Diana arriving in Halifax aboard the HMS Shannon following the Royal Navy’s victory over the American ship USS Chesapeake (a real event in the War of 1812). From Canada, they make their way home across the Atlantic to await further instructions. It’s not long before details of their next mission emerge: with his half-Catalan/half-Irish background, Stephen is required to travel to Grimsholm, a heavily fortified island in the Baltic, to persuade the Catalan army there to side with Britain against Napoleon. After seeing the pregnant Diana safely settled in Paris, Stephen accepts the job – on the condition that Jack Aubrey will command the ship on the voyage.

Jack is pleased to have a ship to command once again – and grateful to have an excuse to escape from the various entanglements of his life in England. Not only is he being cheated financially by a man he thought he could trust, he has also received a letter containing some unpleasant news from a woman he met in Halifax. The Baltic mission provides a welcome distraction, then, and at first things seem to be going well. Unfortunately, things then begin to go badly, and after a series of mishaps our heroes find themselves taken prisoner yet again!

I didn’t love this book quite as much as the previous two in the series; in fact, I felt that a lot of time was spent tying up some of the loose ends from those two and perhaps laying the foundations for the next one. There was still a lot to like, though; I enjoyed the sections set in Halifax and later in Paris and the details of Stephen’s work, both as a doctor and natural philosopher and as a spy, are always interesting. There are some funny moments too, although maybe not as many as in some of the earlier books; I loved Jack’s account of how he once played Ophelia in a sailors’ production of Hamlet:

‘Why, there was only one midshipman in the flagship pretty enough for a girl, but his voice was broke and he could not keep in tune neither; so for the part where she has to sing, I put on the dress and piped up with my back to the audience. But neither of us was going to be drowned and buried in real earth, Admiral or no Admiral, so that part fell to a youngster who could not defend himself; and that made three of us, do you see.’

I still struggle with the nautical jargon and the lengthy descriptions of sea battles, but seven books into the series I now know that I don’t really need to follow the battles too closely as long as I can get the basic gist of what has happened and what the outcome is. However, with this particular novel I found the nautical parts more confusing than usual, for some reason. Maybe I’m just out of practice and need to move quickly on to book eight!

This is book 11/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

The Fortune of War by Patrick O’Brian

This is book number six in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series. I enjoyed the previous one so much I thought it would be a difficult act to follow, but I actually found this one just as good – and maybe even better. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin, I would recommend beginning with the first of the series, Master and Commander, and saving this review until you’ve caught up; otherwise, although I have tried to avoid too many spoilers in this post, you may come across something you would prefer not to know just yet.

The Fortune of War picks up the story shortly after Desolation Island ended. With his ship HMS Leopard declared unfit, Jack receives orders to return to England to take command of a forty-gun frigate, the Acasta. He and Stephen Maturin, accompanied by several other members of the crew, begin the long journey home as passengers on the courier ship La Flèche. Early in the voyage, however, they learn that war has broken out between Britain and America – the War of 1812 – and following a series of disasters, they are taken prisoner and find themselves brought to Boston, which is now enemy territory. At first, despite being wounded in the arm, Jack is not too worried; he’s sure there will be an exchange of prisoners soon and then they can be on their way again. The Americans, though, are convinced that there had been a spy on board the Leopard and are not about to let their suspects escape so easily!

I really enjoyed this book, after an initial panic where I found I couldn’t remember what happened at the end of Desolation Island. I think I need to stop leaving such long gaps between books! Luckily, though, Jack gives a recap to the Admiral in the first chapter and this serves as a reminder for the reader too. Once I settled back into the flow of the story, I loved it, particularly the parts of the novel set in Boston where Stephen’s spying activities come to the forefront. This leads to exciting scenes which are different from anything we’ve read in the series so far.

Stephen also has his long-awaited reunion with Diana Villiers, the woman he loves and who broke his heart at the end of HMS Surprise – but Diana has changed and it seems that his own feelings for her have changed too. Despite his disillusionment I found Diana much easier to like in this book than I did in the earlier ones, although with so much still unresolved by the end, I was left wondering whether they will find any happiness in the next book or whether their relationship will continue down its tempestuous path.

I have stopped worrying about the nautical terminology in these novels. I appreciate the authenticity O’Brian brings to the naval scenes, the level of his research and of course, his writing ability, but I know I’m never going to be able to follow everything that is happening; as long as I can understand the outcome of each battle or manoeuvre I’m happy! I think this must be the first book in the series where Jack has not actually had a ship of his own to command, but he and Stephen still manage to get caught up in two naval actions, both of which are closely based on real events from the War of 1812.

The next book in the series is The Surgeon’s Mate and based on the quality of the last two books I’m really looking forward to it.

Desolation Island by Patrick O’Brian

The fifth book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series and probably my favourite so far! For once I found that I was able to follow everything that was happening – the nautical parts are finally becoming easier to understand and, now that I’m five books in, the characters are starting to feel like old friends. If you’re not familiar yet with the adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin, you may like to read my review of the first in the series – Master and Commander; otherwise, I have made the rest of this post as spoiler-free as possible, but can’t help referring to certain characters and elements of the previous four books.

Like most, if not all, of the books in the series so far, this one begins on land. Jack Aubrey is in a much better position financially than he was in at the beginning of the previous novel, The Mauritius Command, and is able to provide a comfortable home for his wife Sophie and their expanding family (the twins now have a baby brother called George). It seems that trouble could be on the horizon, however, as less scrupulous men prepare to take advantage of Jack’s open, trusting nature, and much as Sophie loves her husband, she knows he needs to get back to sea again as quickly as possible. An opportunity soon arises when Jack is asked to take command of HMS Leopard on a voyage to Australia to assist the notorious Captain Bligh (of mutiny on the Bounty fame) who is having difficulties in his new position as Governor of New South Wales.

Stephen Maturin is joining Jack on the Leopard as ship’s surgeon, but there is another reason for his presence on the voyage which has not been revealed to Jack. The ship is carrying a cargo of convicts to Australia and among them is a beautiful female prisoner, Mrs Wogan, who is suspected of being an American spy. Stephen has been asked to keep an eye on her throughout the journey to see if he can catch her in the act of espionage. This mission is of particular interest to Stephen because Mrs Wogan is a friend of Diana Villiers, the woman he loves, who has fled to America after also being accused of spying.

I’ve enjoyed all of the previous four books in the series (some more than others) but I struggled at times with the last one, The Mauritius Command, because of the large proportion of the book devoted to naval battles. I didn’t have that problem with Desolation Island. Although there is a sea chase and a brief battle – involving the Dutch ship Waakzaamheid – this forms a relatively small part of the story. Instead, there is more focus on the daily lives of the people aboard the ship and the challenges and dangers they face on a long voyage. The crew consider the Leopard (or “the horrible old Leopard” as they call it) to be an unlucky ship and it does seem to be living up to its reputation with rumours of a ghost aboard, a sickness which breaks out amongst the prisoners and a close encounter with an iceberg!

Another reason I preferred this novel to the previous one is that more time was spent on the personal relationships between the characters. I didn’t feel that we saw much of Jack and Stephen together in The Mauritius Command, but in this book they have more opportunities to talk and to indulge their shared love of music. With some of the misfortunes that befall the Leopard towards the end of the book, Jack needs all the loyal friends he can get! With Jack kept in the dark about the true reasons for Mrs Wogan’s presence on the ship, Stephen is unable to confide in him as much as he would like to and is left to wrestle privately with his feelings regarding Mrs Wogan and her connections with Diana. With most of the novel spent at sea, he doesn’t have as many chances to observe the flora and fauna as usual, but once they reach the shores of Desolation Island, he is able to study albatrosses, seals and penguins.

There’s so much left unresolved at the end of this book that I’m sure it won’t be long before I’m tempted to pick up the next one, The Fortune of War. With Jack’s mission incomplete and the War of 1812 about to begin, I’m looking forward to seeing how the story continues!

The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian

The Mauritius Command This is the fourth of Patrick O’Brian’s novels following the adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin. I have always been (and I’m sure I always will be) a landlubber, so I’m actually quite proud of myself for managing to get so far into a series which is set largely at sea! Unfortunately, the nautical details and terminology are not getting any easier for me to understand and that made this fourth novel, in particular, slightly challenging at times – but I did still enjoy this one, if not quite as much as I enjoyed the first three books.

In the intervening period between the end of the previous novel, HMS Surprise, and the beginning of The Mauritius Command, Jack Aubrey has married Sophie Williams and she has given birth to twin girls. Despite these happy events, however, Jack is feeling restless and miserable. Currently ashore with no ship to command, he is having to live on half-pay, and as his mother-in-law has lost all her money, including Sophie’s dowry, the whole family are crowded together in a small, damp cottage on the Hampshire coast.

Jack’s spirits are lifted when his friend, Stephen Maturin – ship’s surgeon, naturalist and occasional spy – arrives bearing the news that Jack is required to lead a naval campaign against the French with the aim of taking control of the islands of Mauritius and La Réunion. Setting sail aboard the HMS Boadicea, a thirty-eight-gun frigate, Jack is temporarily promoted to commodore and given command of a squadron. As if his mission wasn’t already going to be difficult enough, he also faces problems in the form of his own captains: Lord Clonfert, a handsome, dashing young man who is determined to outdo everybody else, and Captain Corbett, who believes in strict discipline and whose crew are always on the verge of mutiny.

Until now, we have only seen Jack Aubrey as captain of one individual ship; here he is in command of several, something which brings new challenges and requires a new set of skills. Whereas in the past he has been able to concentrate on getting to know his own crew and his own ship, now he is responsible for coordinating the movements of more than one vessel and working with other officers of various ranks.

‘Why, don’t you see,’ cried Jack, his mind fixed upon this question of command, ‘it has always been the command of a single ship. You are bred up to it—it comes natural. But high command is something you come to suddenly, with no experience. There are captains under you; and handling the captains of a squadron, each one of them God the Father of his own quarterdeck, is a very different matter from handling a ship’s company under your own eye. You can rarely choose them and you can rarely get rid of them…’

The plot of The Mauritius Command is based on a real naval campaign in the Indian Ocean (the Mauritius Campaign of 1809-11, part of the Napoleonic Wars) and I think this is possibly why I didn’t get on as well with this book as I did with the previous ones. Sticking so closely to historical events meant less time was spent on fictional storylines and on developing the friendship between Aubrey and Maturin; apart from the opening chapters, there is almost no land-based action either and a large portion of the novel is devoted to naval battles which, well-written and accurate as they may be, I find it hard to get excited about. This is just my personal opinion, of course, and I’m sure readers with different tastes will love this book for the very reasons that I didn’t!

Although we are given a glimpse at the beginning of the book of Jack’s married life with Sophie (and have our first chance to meet the twins) I was sorry not to see anything of Diana Villiers in this novel and I’m hoping she will make an appearance in the next one. So far I have found each book in the series to have its own different strengths and weaknesses; maybe book five (Desolation Island) will be more to my taste than this one.

HMS Surprise by Patrick O’Brian

HMS Surprise Do you love novels set at sea?

Do you know your topsail from your mainsail?

Do you find descriptions of sea battles exciting and easy to understand?

I would answer NO to all three of those questions, so you may be wondering why I am continuing to read Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series. The answer is that while, yes, most of the action takes place at sea and there are certainly a lot of nautical terms and quite a few sea battles, the series has so much more to offer than that. So let me ask three more questions.

Do you love novels with strong, complex, nuanced characters?

Do you like to be swept away to fascinating and exotic locations?

When you read historical fiction, do you like the setting to feel accurate and the language authentic?

Now you see why I’m happy to struggle through the naval terminology and the occasional engagement between enemy ships; HMS Surprise has all of the qualities I’ve just mentioned above and more. There’s adventure (including a dramatic rescue scene, a duel and a storm), a long voyage during which we visit Brazil, India and Madeira, romantic rivalries, witty dialogue and humour – where else would you find a line like “Jack, you have debauched my sloth!” – and descriptions of life aboard a navy frigate that are so interesting and detailed even a landlubber like me can appreciate them.

This is the third book in the series and although it is my favourite so far, I would recommend reading both Master and Commander and Post Captain first. I think it’s important to start at the beginning so that you can watch the friendship develop between Royal Navy captain Jack Aubrey and physician, naturalist and spy Stephen Maturin and so you know the background to their relationships with other characters, particularly the two women in their lives, Sophie Williams and Diana Villiers. I’m definitely finding the books more and more enjoyable now that I’m familiar with the characters and with Patrick O’Brian’s writing style.

I realise I haven’t said very much about the plot of this particular instalment, but I’m not sure that it’s really necessary. It’s probably enough to know that Jack, whose marriage plans have been put on hold as he’s in debt again, has been given the job of escorting a British ambassador to the East Indies, while Stephen, who is accompanying him, has learned that the woman he loves is in India and is determined to see her – even if it means he risks having his heart broken. To go into any further detail would mean giving too much of the story away (I always find it difficult to know how much to say about books that are part of a series) so I’ll leave it there.

The Mauritius Command will be next for me and this time I’ll try not to leave such a long gap between books. I was shocked when I discovered that it was August 2013 when I read Post Captain! Meanwhile I’m reading Temeraire by Naomi Novik, which I’ve seen described as Patrick O’Brian with dragons and which I’m counting as my first book for the Forgotten Histories Reading Challenge.

Post Captain by Patrick O’Brian

Post Captain This is the second book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series following the adventures of Royal Navy Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend, ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin.

Post Captain continues the story begun in Master and Commander. As the novel opens, the French Revolutionary Wars have come to a sudden end with the Peace of Amiens and Aubrey and Maturin have returned to England where Jack has rented a country estate – which happens to be near the home of Mrs Williams, a lady with several daughters of marriageable age. For the first hundred or so pages of the book, we follow Jack and Stephen as they live the lives of country gentleman, attending social engagements and becoming involved in complex romantic relationships with the eldest Williams daughter, Sophia, and her widowed cousin, Diana Villiers.

This period of peace soon comes to an end, though. Jack and Stephen are forced to flee to France when Jack finds himself in financial difficulties and while they are there, war breaks out again. The rest of the book centres around their return to naval action, Jack’s efforts to avoid being arrested for debt, and the conflict between Jack and Stephen caused by their involvement with Sophie and Diana.

After I posted my thoughts on the previous book, Master and Commander, and mentioned my general dislike of nautical books, I was told that this one might be more to my taste as it had more land-based action. And I did enjoy this book a lot more than the previous one. I still struggled at times with the sea battles and naval terminology, but I think I can cope with not being able to follow all the details of what is happening as long as I can understand the final outcome. As for the land-based chapters, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything more Austenesque that wasn’t actually written by Jane Austen! The Austen comparison, by the way, is not just because of the plot but also the writing style and language.

The fact that fewer pages are devoted to descriptions of naval action means there’s lots of time to develop the two main characters and explore various aspects of their personalities and their relationships. I also enjoyed meeting Sophie and Diana and I look forward to getting to know them better. Obviously when Aubrey and Maturin are at sea it’s a very male-dominated environment, so I was pleased to see that O’Brian also writes such convincing female characters.

With the friendship between Jack and Stephen being threatened by their romantic entanglements, there’s a lot of tension in this book but there are plenty of funny moments too, including a scene with a dancing bear on the road to Spain. I also loved Stephen’s attempts at beekeeping while at sea…

“There! A glass hive. Is it not ingenious, charming? I have always wanted to keep bees.”

“But how in God’s name do you expect to keep bees on a man-of-war?” cried Jack. “Where in God’s name do you expect them to find flowers, at sea? How will they eat?”

“You can see their every motion,” said Stephen, close against the glass, entranced. “Oh, as for their feeding, never fret your anxious mind; they will feed with us upon a saucer of sugar, at stated intervals. If the ingenious Monsieur Huber can keep bees, and he blind, the poor man, surely we can manage in a great spacious xebec?”

Having enjoyed this book so much, I now feel much more enthusiastic about reading the rest of the series than I did after the first book. I’m looking forward to H.M.S Surprise!

Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

Master and Commander I do not usually like books set at sea. However hard I try, I just can’t seem to keep track of the nautical terms and as soon as I see words like ‘mainsail’, ‘fo’c’sle’ or ‘bosun’ my brain just seems to switch off. As a fan of historical fiction, I have been unable to avoid this entirely – after all, until the 20th century the only way to cross the sea was by ship and many historical fiction novels do involve a sea voyage or two – but the thought of reading a book where seafaring forms a major part of the plot is always quite daunting for me. For this reason I’ve resisted reading the Aubrey/Maturin series for a long time, despite it being described as one of the best historical series ever written, but a couple of weeks ago I decided it was time I gave Master and Commander a try.

The story begins in Port Mahon, Minorca, with Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin meeting for the first time at a concert in the Governor’s House. After an initial disagreement that almost results in a duel, Aubrey and Maturin discover a shared passion for music and a friendship begins to develop. Jack Aubrey has just been given his first command of the sloop, HMS Sophie, and after discovering that Stephen is a physician, he invites his new friend to join him as ship’s surgeon. With Britain at war with France (it’s the year 1800), life at sea is both dangerous and exciting and as the Sophie cruises the Mediterranean she becomes engaged in a series of sea battles and encounters with enemy ships.

I loved Patrick O’Brian’s writing style from the beginning, but as soon as the Sophie set sail all my fears about naval novels were realised. I did try – there’s a useful diagram at the front of the book and of course there’s always the option of looking up unfamiliar words and finding pictures of ships online (if, like me, you don’t know the difference between a brig and a frigate and have always thought a settee was something you sat on) – but in the end I decided not to worry about it and luckily, there were still plenty of things for a landlubber like me to enjoy, not least the wonderful characters. Too often characters in historical fiction are depicted as having modern sensibilities and come across as twentieth century people dropped into a historical background – that was thankfully not the case with this book; they felt realistic and believable. O’Brian’s prose and dialogue is completely appropriate for the time period and the same is true of the behaviour and thought processes of the characters.

I liked both of the main characters and the contrast between their very different personalities and am looking forward to getting to know them better over the course of the series. At the moment Stephen Maturin is my favourite; I also appreciated the fact that he doesn’t have much more knowledge of seafaring matters than I do and has to have even the most basic naval facts explained to him by other members of the crew. It was good to know that someone else shared my bewilderment of the nautical world and I loved the way even at moments of high drama at sea, he was more excited about spotting a rare bird or fish.

Master and Commander doesn’t have a lot of plot, being of a more episodic nature, but I finished the book with a better understanding of what conditions were like onboard a ship in the Napoleonic era and what daily life involved for a sailor in the Royal Navy. It seems that not being able to follow all of the terminology or the more intricate points of the various naval manoeuvres was not the problem I was afraid it would be. I didn’t instantly fall in love with this series, but I still enjoyed my first introduction to Aubrey and Maturin and I’m sure I’ll be reading the next one very soon!