1812 and all that: Aubrey and Maturin

Masterandcommander I haven’t seen the film, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, but like the author, Patrick O’Brian. So it was a pleasure to pick up the book, The Fortune of War, where Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend, doctor and secret agent Stephen Maturin, are caught in the War of 1812.

I haven’t come to the actual fighting yet; I am still in the early part where Aubrey leaves behind his old ship, the Leopard, in the East Indies and sails with the doctor and his men for England to take command of a new ship. But the Royal Navy ship taking them home catches fire and sinks after rounding the Cape. Aubrey and his men row across the vast ocean until they are picked up by another British naval vessel. On board, they hear talk of war between Britain and America.

The Americans have already won a naval engagement, Aubrey hears and — like the other Royal Navy officers — cannot believe how that could happen while Maturin worries how the hostilities might affect Britain, already at war against Napoleon. Maturin, with his Spanish-Irish connections, hates Napoleon the tyrant and conqueror of Spain and wants Britain to beat back the French instead of being drawn into a war with America.

I have read the book up to that point and do not know what is to come. I haven’t read The Far Side of The World where the War of 1812 continues. I have to read the adventures in a piecemeal, haphazard fashion, having to borrow the books from the library. So I have read the first book, Master and Commander, the second, Post Captain, and some of the later books, such as The Letter of Marque, The Commodore and The Yellow Admiral, but have yet to read some of the intervening adventures.

O’Brian is a wonderful writer who can make the past come alive. He not only tries to get the language and the details right; his characters are also masterly drawn.

Aubrey is a bluff sailor while Maturin has a complex personality, but we see the other side of the sailor, too — the loving husband and father far from home. When he craves action or booty, he is only trying to advance his career or enrich himself to provide for his family. The sailor far from home is really a family man at heart. I can empathise with him and his lovely wife who love each other deeply despite their prolonged separations. It makes me think of myself and my wife and my son — she is in Calcutta (Kolkata), he has gone to college in the US, while I am in Singapore. But enough about myself.

O’Brian can be funny too. He describes Aubrey, a fine captain and navigator but no bookman himself, educating his midshipmen — young lads who had to be taught by their captains at the time. Aubrey quizzes the boys on the Bible. Who is Abraham, he asks. A bosun, says one; a corn chandler, says another, remembering something about Abraham and his "seed"; the third boy says, "Oh, he was an ordinary wicked Jew."  As Eliot might say, "After such knowledge what forgiveness?"  Aubrey canes the boy.

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