Review: The Novels of Patrick O’Brian

| July 16, 2006

I sit to write this, having just moments ago finished Blue at the Mizzen, the 20th and final volume in Patrick O’Brian’s “Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin” series. This is my second time through all 20 novels — I enjoyed it even more than the first time. I am once again grateful that Patrick O’Brian lived long enough for Jack Aubrey to get his flag (be made admiral). But I am again so sorry that O’Brian didn’t live long enough to see Jack home to England one more time.

The Aubrey/Maturin books are, in my opinion, one of the great works of English literature. I love and admire them for the same reason I love and admire, say, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin: they speak to the essential human condition; they make us believe in events and people who never existed; and they make us rejoice, sorrow, and laugh with those people.

The brilliance of O’Brian’s work lies in having two major characters — Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin — who do not fully understand or approve of each other, who have little in common with each other (beyond a love for music), who at times don’t get along very well, and yet who develop a friendship unto death. The 20 novels are really a chronicle of that friendship, but they are set against some of the most believable, realistic, and fascinating historical writing ever set to paper, covering a period of roughly 16 years at the start of the 19th Century.

As with all great characters in literature, Aubrey and Maturin make us reflect upon our own selves, to see if we find their failings and strengths within ourselves, to ponder what we would do in their place. It is as ancient as seeing Achilles stewing in his tent on the beach because of Agamemnon’s pre-emptive grab of Brises, or Antigone risking death over her refusal to leave her brother Polyneices unburied; it is as recent as seeing Frodo look up and say, “I will take the Ring, though I do not know the way.”

Neither Aubrey nor Maturin are giving to grand pronouncements or gestures; indeed each can be blundering, inarticulate or uncommunicative at precisely the wrong time, and Aubrey is far too entertained by his own attempts at wit. And, like most of us, each is blind to his own worst faults. And yet, however imperfectly, they persevere, living up to Nelson’s signal at Trafalgar: “England expects that every man will do his duty.”

Being already set 200 years ago, these novels will age better than most of what passes for contemporary literature. But beyond that, the quiet yet pervasive quality of the writing, the settings, and the characters is such that I believe these novels will still be read centuries from now, long after most everything written in the 20th century has been forgotten.

Your mileage may vary.  ..bruce..

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About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

Comments (1)

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  1. Pixy Misa says:

    I actually stopped after 18 volumes, leaving the last two to savour at a later date.

    I think it’s later enough now. 😉