An important function of film adaptations is calling the attention of potential readers to works they would have missed otherwise. I am one of the many readers who became familiarized with the world of the Aubrey-Maturin series by English writer Patrick O’Brian thanks to Peter Weir’s excellent film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003). Supposing I saw the film in 2004 this means that it has taken me 12 long years to finally come round and start reading the novel series. Why? The obvious reason: there are 20 volumes (1969-2004). And I was busy in the meantime going through a similar number of volumes by Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin in his series on rebellious Detective Inspector John Rebus. This led, incidentally, to an article, “Aging in F(r)iendship: ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty and John Rebus” (Clues: A Journal of Detection, 29:2, 2011, 73-82, https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116052), which might now be obsolete depending on events in Even Dogs in the Wild, which I have not read yet. Since O’Brian died in 2000 there is no danger, sorry to be so callous, of yet another Aubrey-Maturin novel unless, that is, someone decides to continue the series, left unfinished at the author’s death.
Sooner or later English Literature specialists come across O’Brian’s name as this is often coupled with that of Jane Austen. Even though two centuries separate both authors, O’Brian’s saga is placed in the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), which are also the background of much of Austen’s fiction. As every specialist knows, there is now an ongoing academic operation to claim that despite the scant references to historical and political events, Austen’s novels are perfectly grounded in the public national reality of her time meaning that they are much more than just domestic fiction. I am personally quite irritated by this stance since it suggests that domestic fiction needs to be muscled up to be really ‘serious’ literature and, to be honest, I find the whole operation quite sexist. Austen is perfect at what she does and I see no need to distort it by pretending it is something else, whether political or feminist fiction. O’Brian does not have at all the kind of reputation that Austen enjoys, suffering from the opposite condition: his novels are too often seen as ‘just’ genre fiction, whether this is adventure or historical fiction and, even worse, as just pap aimed at unsophisticated male readers. Both opinions are quite wrong as a) O’Brian’s work is the product of impressive philological research on the language of the early 19th century, which makes them, at least in my view, literary enough, b) check GoodReads and you will see that I’m far from being the only woman addicted to them.
Did I say addicted? Yes. I’m writing this post to try to explain to myself what on Earth I am doing devouring fiction dominated by naval battles of which I only understand a tiny part, as O’Brian’s nautical vocabulary is colossal. Before I forget, let me say that the Aubrey-Maturin series deals primarily with the friendship between English Navy captain Jack Aubrey and his ship surgeon Stephen Maturin, an illegitimate child born to an Irish father and a Catalan mother who grows up to be a physician, keen naturalist and sly spy. If I recall correctly, the compound Irish-Catalan is never mentioned in the film, in which Paul Bettany plays an English-accented, much prettier version of Maturin. So, yes, here’s one reason for my being hooked: Maturin is a fierce independentist in his two national identities and Catalan is one of his mother tongues. O’Brian was a resident of Colliure in Southern France (or Northern Catalonia) which is why he’s very well informed about our tongue. Yet, the ones who are not paying attention are Catalans themselves, as I have found no article, academic or otherwise, analyzing ‘Esteva’ Maturin. He is, after all, the most prominent Catalan character at an international level so far.
However, I know that this is not the main reason behind my addiction. Let me backtrack. I have read so far three volumes and I’m into the fourth one. When I started Master and Commander (1969) I was so dismayed by the vocabulary that I decided to keep my cell phone at hand to check on the bits and pieces of each ship. I must have looked pretty desperate because this led my husband, concerned that I would spoil my eyesight, to buying me a tablet… I did the corresponding MLA search, found a few articles on O’Brian and Austen (an issue to which I’ll return), and on the novels’ genre but nothing on the Aubrey-Maturin friendship, nor a book covering the whole series. Asking around, I found out that there is indeed a dissertation written by none other that a dear colleague at URV, John Style: Patrick O’Brian, Questions of Genre (1998). I contacted John at once but, oh my!, he has no computer files of his thesis. A print copy is now waiting on my desk for me to read. There is here some kind of lesson about our undervaluing our own research…
So, anyway, I read Post Captain (1972) and that was it. HMS Surprise (1973) followed and seeing that I’m running the risk of losing track of any other fiction I should be reading, I told myself that I would alternate O’Brian with other books. The result was that I found myself rushing through Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice to return to Jack and Stephen. I’m now sailing towards the Pacific Ocean in The Mauritius Command (1977).
Leckie’s space opera made me see that there is somehow little difference between the spaceships of the future and the tall ships of the past, which might be an advantage for me as a reader of the Aubrey-Maturin series. I’m used to coping with all kinds of weird neologisms in SF which is possibly why I’m quite patient with O’Brian’s nautical lingo (more or less). Austen might also be a factor as, particularly in Post Captain, O’Brian does a wonderful job of showing the men’s side in her time. In this novel Jack is the new neighbour in want of a wife soon beset by a widow with five marriageable daughters, a harpy who puts Mrs Bennett’s feeble efforts to shame. In O’Brian’s intensely masculine world men are very imperfect and, as captain, Jack struggles to discipline his unruly men taking it for granted that turning them into decent fellows must be his priority (he loves a ‘happy ship’). He himself and Stephen are far from being Darcys in public and go to odd lengths in private that would scare away many women. I’m sure, though, that Austen would have enjoyed the humour: O’Brian puzzles Mrs Williams tremendously by having Jack employ his own seamen to run his house –she can’t understand why there are no women there. Nor what role Stephen plays.
So here we go: the main attraction of the novels is the intimacy between the two friends. This is a word which O’Brian uses himself whenever he needs to explain how Jack and Stephen are friends and on what implicit rules their intimate bond relies. A female friend who disliked Weir’s film told me she was annoyed they didn’t clearly say that Jack and Stephen are gay. Well, they are not. As I have argued in my most recent publication (“The Loving Soldier: Vindicating Men’s Friendship in Ernest Raymond’s Tell England: A Study in a Generation (1922) and Wilfrid Ewart’s The Way of Revelation (1921)”, https://www.brill.com/products/book/writings-persuasion-and-dissonance-great-war) paradoxically the unmasking by Gay and Queer Studies of male affection as repressed desire has negatively affected the representation of male friendship. I have no doubt that O’Brian was a homophobe as ‘sodomites’ are mocked in the novels but I simply do not think that we reach a deeper understanding of friendship by claiming that Jack and Stephen secretly desire each other. They do not. One can insist that Jack’s paramour Sophie and Stephen’s femme fatale Diana are inserted in the text precisely to dispel any hints of homosexuality. Again: this is missing the point, which is that (asexual) friendship (probably) is a far more important bond in the lives of many people than overrated love, not to mention extremely overrated sex. I wrote the article amazed by how the male characters in both novels express downright love for each other and although I still jump every time Stephen calls Jack ‘joy’, ‘heart’, ‘soul’ and I don’t know what else, and Jack reciprocates in his own away, I’m getting used to the idea that not all human affection needs sex as an outlet.
This, in the end, is the reason why men and women love the Aubrey-Maturin series: as happened in WWI, which provided men with an excuse to express affection beyond the usual homophobic restrictions of ordinary life, the Napoleonic War sea battles provide male readers with an excuse to enjoy this extraordinary intimacy between these two disinhibited men. As for women, everyone knows we’ll go to any lengths for a drop of intimacy –including having to read about extremely violent but also extremely boring naval engagements. Also, after Austen, I enjoy reading about men who are less than perfect, not at all good-looking, even coarse and, yet, good company to each other… and to the reader. Jack and Stpehen are both extraordinary and incredibly real, and I think this is why I must praise O’Brian.
Um… 16 novels to enjoy…
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