The year is 1800 and Jack Aubrey is master and commander of His Majesty’s Sloop Sophie. But he is neither the master of the sloop — that is Mr. Marshall — or a true post-commander in line for promotion to Admiral. Indeed, the Sophie is not actually a sloop – for she has two masts, not one – but is nevertheless called a sloop by the Royal Navy.
In the wind-powered world of the Napoleonic British Navy, seamen described their ships and surroundings in a dialect all their own. Patrick O’Brian in Master & Commander narrates in this vernacular. Though challenging to the uninitiated, the novel breathes with authenticity: to describe the sails and maneuvers of the Sophie with any other language would do a disservice the harsh beauty and nuance of the seaman’s life.
Thank goodness for Stephen Maturin, a physician who befriends Jack and agrees to come to sea as the ship’s surgeon. Maturin is uninitiated, just like us, and he asks questions. In the explanations from seasoned navy-men that follow, everyone learns something.
Master & Commander brims with descriptions of ships and skirmishes at sea. The action is plentiful but never climactic, for Master & Commander is a character novel. The relationship between the two friends, Aubrey and Maturin, sits at the center of the novel and everything else drives and effects that friendship. Aubrey and Maturin love music, value order and hard work, and converse candidly on a range of subjects. They respect and listen and learn from each other. But their differences bring intrigue and conflict into their relationship: Aubrey has a barely disguised obsession with taking enemy ships for the prize money; Maturin feels most at home in the Catalan countryside where he was raised. Most of all, Maturin, an Irishman, becomes the confidant of Aubrey’s lieutenant, Dillon, also an Irishman, placing him in the middle of taciturn conflict between the two officers.
Master & Commander is the first in a series of twenty novels about Aubrey and Maturin’s adventures together. It stands alone as a complete story, but, without doubt, O’Brian has established two complicated characters whose relationship will be interesting to follow from Gibraltar to Alexandria and back again and again. There are few novels about male friendship (nothing more, nothing less) and Master & Commander is one of the best. But you’ve got to be willing to shift through a lot of sailor’s jargon and naval battles to see the friendship emerge and grow and flourish. It just might not be worth it.
O’Brian’s novels have an almost cult following. Between a vividly rendered, historically accurate world, the casual use of Latin and Greek by Aubrey and Maturin, and the thrill of broadsides and duels and swordfights, the novel clearly appeals to several nerd constituencies. But weighing in at more than 450 pages, the novel is probably a bit bloated for the average reader’s patience. Though I thoroughly enjoyed this one excursion into the British Navy with Jack and Stephen, one was enough.
Up Next: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard
Why? I’m hoping Stoppard’s famous wit will make this a snappy read