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Making waves

Patrick O’Brian’s Napoleonic novels bring drama to the high seas. Robert Macfarlane is hooked

Robert Macfarlane | November/December 2015

Though I’ve read all 20 of Patrick O’Brian’s naval novels twice, I still can’t get the sequence right. Is it – in rising order – mizzen staysail, mizzen topmast staysail, and then mizzen topgallant staysail? Or does topmast come above topgallant? Is a spanker fore or aft? And what, pray, is a futtock shroud? O’Brian has taught me many things, but he has never mended my lubberly illiteracy about the wooden world of warships. I wouldn’t have made midshipman under the command of “Lucky” Jack Aubrey.

Aubrey is one of the two heroes of O’Brian’s epic series, set between 1800 and 1815, and written between 1969 and 1999. Jack is a pig-tailed, ox-stubborn Englishman, brilliant at leadership and fearless in combat. His dearest friend is Stephen Maturin, an Irish-Catalan naval surgeon with a passion for Irish independence that is overreached only by his hatred of Napoleonic tyranny. Maturin is also one of Britain’s most valued intelligence officers, whose “reptilian eye” sees deep into the plots of Bonaparte.

The friendship between Jack and Stephen is at the heart of the cycle. Each compensates for the other’s lacks. Stephen is always acute except where love is concerned; Jack always adept except with money. Jack is all at sea when ashore; Stephen all at sea when at sea. Their relationship is profoundly fond but decorous, bound by naval order and convention. What they cannot say in words they say in music, playing duets in Jack’s “great cabin” at the end of long days – Stephen on the cello and Jack on the fiddle.

Such moments of harmony are rare onboard. More often Jack’s ships are hullabaloos of hurly-burly: “the screeching, hallooing, piping and running about on the poop”, the creak of the capstans as the anchor is lifted, the curses of the bosuns, or the scream of wind in rigging when they are “close-reefed in wicked seas”.

A 19th-century warship was the most complex machine invented to that point, and to function it required the modern technologies of Fordist labour, statistical analysis and globalised quartermastery. O’Brian’s evocation of these systems is magnificent in its accuracy. “I know little of present-day…London or Paris,” he said once, “even less of post-modernity, post-structuralism, hard rock or rap” – but he knew the “age of sail”. He shows us sea-war as it was fought and felt by the men as well as by the officers. Life before the mast – stale air, floggings, skittering hold-rats – receives as much attention as Stephen’s political intrigues or Jack’s missions.

Unlike the mustered men, though, Stephen and Jack enjoy a peculiar invulnerability. Stephen is able to treat hands stricken with “yellow jack” without succumbing himself (a resiliency he attributes to his liking for cabbage), and Jack’s body is scarred by action, but never fatally. The climactic battle scenes of each novel are unforgettable in part for their mixture of elegance and chaos. Because wind and weather gage determine who will control the engagement, rival ships perform strangely beautiful dances, seeking to accumulate positional advantage – until they can snipe with their stern- and bow-chasers, or pound each other with their broadsides.

My favourite of the novels is “Desolation Island”, in which Jack’s Leopard is stalked through the Southern Ocean by a Dutch 74-gun ship called the Waakzaamheid. At last, in atrocious weather, Jack shoots away his enemy’s foremast and sinks her with all hands. In a passage of keen compassion, O’Brian records Jack’s sense of the futility of conflict: “The vision of the Waakzaamheid on her beam-ends, overwhelmed by that terrible sea, presented itself again and again to his inner eye. This was war; she had sought the battle…but it filled him with a kind of sorrow, a strange abiding grief.” Then in comes Stephen to console him: “‘Well, my dear,’ said Stephen...and they talked quietly for a while.”

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