Maybe I just have commitment issues. I tend to steer away from series in my reading. They go on and on, they loom over one’s reading like the house guest who never leaves. One and done is more my style.
But I did make that herculean commitment to marriage once upon a time and in the daze of those vows I somehow missed the one about “whither thou readest, I also will read“.
I should have known I was in trouble when the CE’s new imaginary friends began to people our daily conversations. “Jack has fallen on hard times – if they catch him he goes to debtor’s prison.” “Jack who?” I asked. “And is debtor’s prison a thing again?” Ignoring my question he rushed on…”And Stephen has adopted a gibbon. Her name is Cassandra.”
And then the dreaded phrase, spoken just a trifle too unctuously, so as to make it impossible to demur: “You really, really need to read these books.”
Boom. The gauntlet had been laid down. An unspoken rule in our marriage is that a few times a year one can hand a book to the other and speak those words. This is how I once opened the CE’s world to Willa Cather and Edith Wharton. It’s only fair, I suppose, that I must then sail the high seas with Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, protagonists of Patrick O’Brian’s celebrated nautical novel series.
Never heard of it? Oh yes you have. Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey and Paul Bettany as Stephen Maturin sailed into film history with this movie in 2003:
It was captivating, and so are the novels, even if you have absolutely no interest in 1) the nineteenth century, 2) the Napoleonic Wars, 3) the Royal Navy, 4) sea-faring arcana, 5) exotic animals and rare birds or 6) world travel.
I did struggle a bit with the original book, Master and Commander (published 1969, 457 pages). I don’t know a xebec from a felucca and the details of sail rigging are beyond me. But the opening pages set on the island of Minorca, and the unlikely friendship struck between the affable and determined Royal Navy captain Aubrey and Maturin, the ship’s surgeon and naturalist with many secrets, were undeniably intriguing. What with their banter and their spats and the spirited chamber music they played when Jack brought out his violin and Stephen his cello, the erudite author O’Brian reeled me in.
Book two is Post Captain, (published 1972, 529 pages) which features a love triangle, the aforementioned financial woes and the simian Cassandra, as well as a fiery sea battle. Jack wears a bear suit and Stephen’s shadowy double life becomes evident.
Third in the series is H.M.S. Surprise (published 1973, 406 pages). I finally got my sea legs with this book, sailing from France to Ibiza to Brazil to India (there is an entire online mapping project of the series for serious aficionados) and encountering hirundines (look it up – and get used to it; you’ll spend half your reading of these books looking things up!), sloths, fruit bats and tortoises.
Book four is The Mauritius Command (published 1977, 369 pages). With each book, the writing gets better and better, the plots more intricate, and the character development more sophisticated. Come for Master and Commander, but stay for the rest – you will soon have Jack and Stephen as your own imaginary friends! This voyage sails the Indian Ocean with dramatic naval action on Réunion Island.
Desolation Island (published 1978, 351 pages) is the fifth book in the series, and features an homage and an echo to Mutiny on the Bounty. And, should you think it’s just more masts and rigging, keep in mind that Stephen has acquired both a laudanum addiction, and a pair of hands from a corpse that he keeps in a jar. Jack faces subversion from the crew as they encounter the doldrums off the coast of West Africa and suffer a typhus epidemic on the ship. Dare I say that this one is a page-turner?
In all, there are twenty-one books in what has become known as the Aubrey-Maturin series. The CE, of course, has read them all and will badger me until I do, also. Next up is The Fortune of War (published 1979, 355 pages) and I can’t wait to set out on the sea again with my good friends Jack and Stephen.