Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Master And Commander

Their first encounter was on a warm evening in 1800 in the music-room of the Governor's House at Port Mahon, Minorca in the Balearic Islands off the coast of Spain where both had gone to hear a performance of Locatelli's C major quartet.

That first meeting between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin did not go well.  Maturin chastised Aubrey for beating time with his hand upon his knee leaving Jack with "the strongest inclination to snatch up his little gilt chair and beat the white-faced man down with it; but he gave way with a tolerable show of civility".

Shortly thereafter circumstances draw them together and it is the start of, as Humphrey Bogart said to Claude Rains, "a beautiful friendship".

It is also the start of the twenty volume Aubrey-Maturin series written by the English novelist Patrick O'Brian (1914-2000), a series referred to by a New York Times reviewer as "the best historical novels ever written".  In this instance I am very happy to find myself in agreement with the Times.

O'Brian was a modestly successful (and very secretive) writer who finally found broader success with the publication of the first novel in the series, Master And Commander, in 1970 with the last volume being published around the time of his death.  I first heard of the books in the late 1980s, around the time they began to be published in the United States, and was immediately drawn into their world.

The novels are set in the world of the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars but they are much more than an account of battles.  They tell one long, coherent story and can be viewed as early 19th century "novels of manners" set mostly at sea (though a couple of the books are set entirely on land without any naval engagements).  

Most historical fiction, even the best, contains some element of a modern-day worldview or consciousness in its writing.  O'Brian's novels are written as though he is living in 1805.  Perhaps it helped that from 1949 until his death, he and his wife lived in a small, isolated Catalan village in southern France.  There is not a breath of modernity or 20th century irony in these books.  They are truly of their time. Because of this the reader is enveloped in O'Brian's world and develops a deep affection for the characters and the HMS Surprise.

Jack Aubrey, the ambitious captain we meet in the first book has the sensibility of his time while Stephen Maturin, the Irish-Catalan surgeon and naturalist (and spy for the British Admiralty) is a character who could simply not exist in today's world. 

Full of arcana about 19th century sailing and warships, food and nature the books spawned a cottage industry of ancillary publications.  There are books explaining its lexicon (A Sea Of Words), a cookbook based on its recipes, studies of the British navy (Jack Aubrey Commands) and biographies on the characters upon which Aubrey is based.

The series also inspired one of the finest film adaptations of a historical novel, Master And Commander, released in 2003 and starring Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey, which was nominated for ten Academy Awards.  Despite being named for the first book in the series, it is actually a combination of parts of the stories from three of the novels.  This YouTube video by a fan of the series captures the spirit of the film.
In Peter Weir, the film had a director who matched the sensibilities of the novel.  Like O'Brian he builds an entirely self-contained 19th century world.  Weir is an Australian director who started in the late 1970s making "new wave" Aussie films such as Picnic At Hanging Rock and Gallipoli (with Mel Gibson).  In 1983 he made The Year Of Living Dangerously with Gibson and Sigourney Weaver which is set in 1965 Indonesia during the run up to the revolt that overthrew President Sukarno (definitely worth seeing).  In the U.S. his first big hit was Witness with Harrison Ford

Russell Crowe is perfect as Jack Aubrey.  I bet that if you took a poll of O'Brian fans before the casting of the film, Crowe would have been the overwhelming pick for Aubrey.  He looks and acts as we all imagined Aubrey.  Aubrey is a natural leader and Crowe makes you understand whyPaul Bettany on the other hand is not a physical match for Maturin.  Maturin is described as small and dark (Bettany is tall and fair) and as an Irish-Catalan does not speak with an upper class English accent (which Bettany does).  However, Bettany captures well the spirit of Maturin, including his coldly rational outlook on much of life combined with a passionate streak of contrariness and instinctive resistance to authority and his interplay with Crowe is as intimate as in the books as you can see in this clip:
Weir recreates life on a British warship with all its cramped quarters, class distinctions, discipline and superstitions and even the smaller roles are well-cast.  David Threlfall, as Preserved Killick, Aubrey's steward is as cranky as in the books and James D'Arcy as young Lt. Tom Pullings is as if he jumped out of one of the novels.

The other actor of note is young Max Pirkis who plays Midshipman William Blakeney.  The British navy often had boys between nine and twelve years old serving on its ships and Blakeney and his compatriots are major characters.  From today's perspective it is shocking to see how they are deployed at such a young age but the movie just plays it as a natural thing and we see how they mature in these conditions.

Whether it is day to day life on ship, the intimacy of the officers' dinner, battles with their French nemesis, the Archeron, plunging through stormy, wintry seas or a quieter sojourn in the Galapagos, the film conveys a sense of realism about its time rarely found in such movies and it bears repeated viewing.


  1. This was such an instant classic. Nothing but sea, cannons, grime, stern looks, and drinking songs.

  2. Hi there, there is a collection of book links happening right now at Carole's Chatter. This time we are collecting links to posts about your favourite historical fiction. Here is the link Your Favourite Historical Fiction Please do pop by and link in – maybe this nice one? Have a lovely day.

  3. Mark, thanks for linking this historical fiction post in. Have a good one

    PS I am now following your blog. It would make my day if you followed Carole's Chatter – or are you already?

  4. Nice blog...New E-mail Subscriber.

    This sounds very good...thanks for the great post about it.

    Stopping by from Carole's Your Favorite Historical Fiction Post. I am in that list as #4.

    Silver's Reviews
    My Blog

  5. I love the entire Aubrey-Maturin series! Nicely-done post.