Master and commander

Master and commander / Patrick O’Brian. Originally published 1969.

I picked up Master and commander because of a growing interest in the Napoleonic era, and naval history in general (largely spurred by my job at the time). The fact that my spouse is an avid Jane Austen fan helped as well. Master and commander is the first book in the lengthy Aubrey-Maturin series, a roman-fleuve* following the adventures of two friends during the early Napoleonic era. The series is noteworthy for blending aspects of the classic naval adventure and the regency romance novels of manners. O’Brian’s insistance on pinpoint period accuracy, down to the very 19th century writing style, makes the series somewhat tricky to recommend, but do to the satirical tone, it manages to avoid the rampant racism and sexism found in many novels set in the same period (C.S. Forester’s novels are some of the most egregious offenders here).

Brief plot description

(spoiler-free)

Jack Aubrey, officer in the British Royal Navy, encounters naturalist/doctor Stephen Maturin when the former’s enthusiastic response to a musical performance discommodes the latter. The two end up becoming fast friends, and when Aubrey is offered a captaincy, he invites the impoverished Maturin to come along as ship’s surgeon.

So how is it?

I have mixed feelings about Master and commander. It’s a great book, but it’s not a light read by any means. O’Brian rarely translates foreign languages (or sailing terminology), so monolingual readers and those not willing to research the naval terminology of the time will probably not enjoy it much. On the other hand, if you have the patience, it’s a highly rewarding read that works on multiple levels. One can read it as a simple adventure story, but upon closer examination, there’s more than that going on. The characters are well rounded, but the characterisation also ennables a subtle satire of contemporary social roles. Aubrey is portrayed as an excellent officer, but ends up frequently taking on the role of miles gloriosus, and Maturin is a highly intelligent physician, but harbors exaggerated devotion to an ever-changing list of now long-discounted medical fads.

Later novels in the series depart from the naval setting that dominates this title. The sequel, Post-captain, is mostly set in the English countryside and features a cast of characters directly out of a Jane Austen novel. It’s great fun, but the complexity of it all, combined with O’Brian’s tendency to go to stylistic extremes (the naval action is described down to the smallest detail,  but many major plot developments are implied rather than stated directly) limits the potential audience.

Strengths:

Tells an engrossing story that works on multiple levels

Amazingly well researched historical fiction

Combines adventure and social satire and is equally strong at both

Never underestimates the reader’s intelligence – full of humor, but it never explains its jokes

Accomplishes the difficult feat of portraying racist characters without endorsing that racism, and even manages to subtly satirize racist attitudes

Weaknesses:

Written the style of a 19th century novel, which may be wearying for some readers

Intense jargon may require readers to do relatively in-depth outside research

Never underestimates the reader’s intelligence – at least a basic knowledge of Latin or French is required to fully appreciate everything that’s going on.

Recommendation:

I have recommended this book several times, with mixed success. It’s style requires a certain “type” of reader. People looking for an escapist adventure would be better off reading L.A. Meyer’s Bloody Jack series, which avoids the problematic racism and sexism of other authors in the genre but is far more accessible. A must-read for fans of 19th century literature who have run out of Austen, and for C.S. Forester fans who are looking for something to read beyond Hornblower (although O’Brian requires more of an intellectual investment than Forester).

Fans of the TV show Parks and recreation might be interested in trying this out as well. The series is the favorite of libertarian Parks & Rec. director Ron Swanson and he mentions it and is seen reading it in a number of scenes.

To patrons who aren’t interested in expending the effort required to read this series, I recommend the excellent Russel Crowe film version.

The results of my recommendations are as follows:

teenager, male: this recommendation was a total failure. I have no idea why I even thought this would be an appropriate recommendation, to be completely honest. This was partially spurred by the patron’s parent, who wanted their son to read historical fiction instead of fantasy novels. This was the first thing that came to mind (although I also recommended Cannery row – they ended up getting Of mice and men instead), but if I were to have this reaction again I would recommend Bloody Jack or the Montmorency series instead.

late 40s, male: This patron enjoyed the book but felt like the intellectual effort required didn’t warrant reading past the first novel

mid-20s, female: this individual was a PhD student in a literature program at a prestigious university, and greatly enjoyed the series.

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2 thoughts on “Master and commander

  1. Late ’40s female (at least, that’s what age I was when I got caught up in O’Brian’s novels) adores the series as well — and likes O’Brian enough to attempt a chapter by chapter precis and commentary for every novel of his that is available to me. So far, I’ve done The Golden Ocean, The Unknown Shore, and The Road to Samarcand. The film is what lured me to the novels, much like the Hornblower tv series lured me to Hornblower and the Sharpe’s Rifles tv series lured me the novels. Of all these, I love O’Brian the best — uncompromisingly excellent prose, detailed settings, and completely engaging characters. I appreciate an author that doesn’t underestimate the reader’s intelligence. Too many of them condescend.

    1. I came across it the other way around – I had always been told that the Master and Commander film wasn’t very good and so didn’t even seek it out until I had started to read the series.

      My post on the Hornblower books is going up on Wednesday, and later in July I have a post on Alexander Kent’s Bolitho novels as well, you might want to check that out if you haven’t read those.

      I’d agree that O’Brian is my favorite of the “naval adventure” authors, precisely because he’s never condescending. O’Brian has the advantage of presenting so much that the series appeals to readers who wouldn’t normally read the genre.

      The Sharpe novels are one of those series that I always intend to read but never get around to. I’m running out of things on my “to-read” list, so it’s definitely something I’ll be looking into soon.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

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