Thursday, 3 February 2011

Books: Patrick O'Brian's Post Captain

The following extract is an obscure but great example of Patrick O'Brian's wonderful writing. The joy of reading O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series of novels is, for me, unsurpassed by any other collection of modern literature. The grasp of period detail is phenomenal, as is the reader's total immersion within the wooden world of Nelsonic navy life, with the sporadic adrenalin of sea battles just dazzling punctuation to the great man's faultless prose. Nor are the books just about life on the ocean wave, as Stephen Maturin's complex character as surgeon, spy and naturalist demonstrates. This passage is from Post Captain, set in 1802, with Dr. Ramis addressing his friend (and fellow spy) Stephen, physician to physician:
'You speak of loss of weight. But I find that you yourself are thin. Nay, cadaverous, if I may speak as one physician to another. You have a very ill breath; your hair, already meagre two years ago, is now extremely sparse; you belch frequently; your eyes are hollow and dim. This is not merely your ill-considered use of tobacco - a noxious substance that should be prohibited by government - and of laudanum. I should very much like to see your excrement.'

The great author himself.
Patrick O'Brian: 1914-2000.

Post Captain, the source of the above extract, is the second of the series. It has been described as "Austen-sur-Mer", because of the time its protagonists spend "on the beach" within Georgian society (frequently as fish out of water), which is a clear homage by O'Brian to Jane Austen. The novel is sometimes also referred to as the best of the entire series, coming after the equally compelling but very different Mediterranean seafaring adventure of Master and Commander.

My posting this is a signal that I'm probably about to embark on re-reading the twenty (and a bit) books of the Aubrey-Maturin series for the third time. If you're also a devotee, you can show your esteem for the books on Facebook by joining the popular fan page and group I've created on there.


  1. I just finished the series now I am lost

  2. Lovely choice of quote! :-) I'm a huge fan of the series too and I couldn't agree more with your assessment. I've been re-reading them obsessively for about a decade and a half and they still take my breath away. Found you via the facebook page, by the way.

  3. Post Captain is also the most approachable of the novels for landlubbers--less jargon until well into the book. A good recommendation for those reluctant to either dig into or ignore the sea vocabulary on the first go-round.

  4. I'm into my third reread, getting ready to start Desolation Island.

    Regarding Post Captain, the idea of Jack in a bear suit sneaking through France with Steven is hilarious.

  5. Oh I envy you if this is your first pass through the Aubreiad. I remember those days. I still take a cruise through the series every now and then, and always find something different.

    A glass of wine with you when you are done!

  6. I'm not certain I would agree that it is the most approachable. It's the thickest - which would put many off, and you reach a point where you just want to go 'oh get back out to sea!'

    I still can't fathom why Hollywood went with The Far Side though.

  7. I am on my fifth go-through, but this time I am listening rather than reading. Patrick Tull is the reader and his delivery is simply amazing; he clearly loved the books and the characters as much as the author did.

  8. I was sorry you didn't go one sentence further:

    "I should very much like to see your excrement."
    "And so you shall, my dear sir!" (If memory serves.)

  9. Thanks for all the kind comments. So glad people these books can give so many people so much joy! I also love the way they influence people's ideas and tastes. Starting the day with the smells of coffee and bacon is of course a basic must!