Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian. Not recommended.
Master and Commander is the first in a series of Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin novels, this one set in the early 1800s. After meeting Dr. Maturin at a concert by annoying him, Aubrey learns he has been promoted to master and commander (with honorary title of captain) of His Majesty’s sloop Sophie. How Aubrey earned this promotion is unclear, as his womanising ways seems to have irritated his commandant and everyone else, although women seem to have played a role in obtaining it.
There are several problems with Master and Commander. The first is O’Brian’s fixation on his knowledge of sailing and sailing terminology. At one point, he spends pages having a crew member explaining the rigging in painstaking — and painful — detail to Dr. Maturin. There is little purpose to this, as most laymen will find it difficult and tedious to follow, and a knowledgeable person will want to skip it altogether. It adds nothing but volume to the book and proof that O’Brian did his research.
O’Brian provides no historical context for the story. England is at war with France and Spain, but even Bonaparte is rarely mentioned. The characters reference naval actions like the battle of the Nile, but these incidents have meaning only to the characters since the reader is never privy to the context or greater strategy.
While Aubrey, Dr. Maturin, James Dillon, and the master are interesting characters, most of the rest of the crew is intentionally faceless. The men in key positions, like the bosun, are rarely referred to by name. Even Marshall is known primarily as “the master,” making the attempt to give him a personality by alluding to him as an apprehensive pederast futile.
There is neither much story nor much action here. It takes the first quarter of the novel for Sophie to leave port for the first time under Aubrey’s command. The novel’s big battle, during which Sophiemiraculously defeats a bigger, better-manned ship, is so hurried and poorly recounted that there is no tension or suspense about how the encounter will play out or end. The victory evokes no sense of exhilaration in the reader, so the ensuing letdown (no promotions, no cruise) loses its emotional impact.
Even the most intriguing aspect of the novel, the relationships between Aubrey and Dillon, Dillon and Dr. Maturin, and Aubrey and Dr. Maturin, are poorly drawn, partially because the point of view is inconsistent. As a clinician and researcher, Dr. Maturin is the relatively objective observer and link between Aubrey and Dillon. He knows Dillon’s secrets (as well as his own) and the thoughtless bias behind Aubrey’s anti-Papist rants, but is reduced to expressing his thoughts and feelings of affection, frustration and disgust mainly to his journal, as though he were documenting an illness.
Master and Commander has tremendous potential, but O’Brian doesn’t have the literary skills or ability to craft a great read. His prose is ordinary at best, and history, drama, suspense, plot, and even characterisation are given short shrift. For more compelling naval adventures set during the same period, read the Horatio Hornblower series, which is much better conceived and written and which is far more evocative.
Note: The colours of the movie tie-in edition cover are pastel blue and yellow — a very odd choice, given the subject matter and target audience.
20 March 2005
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf