Posted by: Blue Lou Logan | November 29, 2011

Aubrey-Maturin in Brief 1: Master and Commander

Here, my friends, is the first installment of “Aubrey-Maturin in Brief.”  This is yet another in Lou’s series of “I Write About It So I Can Think About It, Then I’ll Share It” posts.  In short, as I started rereading O’Brian’s books from the beginning, I kept notes as I went.  These notes, by no original design, led to a chapter-by-chapter condensation of the plot.  For those of you who have not read O’Brian, these may serve to get you interested, although out of completeness I will warn that there ARE SPOILERS.  For those of who who have read O’Brian, I hope you may find these either a nice trip through pleasant memories or a tool for keeping track of the Captain and the Doctor.

The first book, like in any first in a series, originally stood alone but can now be seen as an introduction.  First and foremost, we are introduced to the protagonists, who I will brazenly describe as the Kirk and Spock of the British Navy.  Maturin himself describes Jack Aubrey as a “pirate:”  lusty, impetuous, driven.  Dr. Stephen Maturin is both passionate and scientific, a man of knowledge and of mystery.  These two are both complementary and polar.  Aubrey represents war and discipline, while Maturin represents both humanitarianism and naturalismism.  The relationship is that of two sparring compatriots that always end up back on good terms.  In essence, they personify Britain itself at the time:  Politics and combat, the tension between progress and tradition, will still be ironed out by gentlemanly code.

We are also introduced, very carefully and methodically, to the British Navy and life at sea.  This is done in four ways.  The first is via Aubrey, with whom we are thrown straight into Naval life as he assumes his first (titular) command.  The second is via Maturin, whose ignorance of the ways of the sailor and of nautical terminology serves as both a means for the author to educate the reader and an ongoing source of humor.  This relates to the third means, as Maturin is as frequently taught by Aubrey as he is by a recurring set of characters such as Pullings and Mowett, both of whom among others are introduced in this book.  The fourth and most dramatic means is by O’Brian’s detailed descriptions of Naval tactics and combat.  There are many actions in this first book, leading to the climactic battle with the Cacafuego.  O’Brian ends the book very wisely by putting it all into larger context with the Battle of Algeciras Bay, a battle involving some 18 ships near Gibraltar.

Master and Commander, however, can stand on its own and is more than just a first chapter in the Aubrey-Maturin epic.  There are two marvelous subplots that both serve both an introductory function and make this a distinct book in the series.  The first is Aubrey’s increasingly public affair with the wife of the Commandant of Port Mahon.  The second is the tense relationship between Maturin and Lieutenant Dillon, who knew each other as part of the Irish Rebellion  of 1798 but now both serve the Empire.  But enough premable.  This is the book that will hook you on O’Brian (or not).  It happened like this…

“Third-Rate Entering Port Mahon,” from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich

(1) 1800, The Napoleonic Wars, the British port of Mahon on Minorca.  Jack Aubrey, a Lieutenant in the Navy, attends a concert at the Governor’s House.  There he encounters Stephen Maturin, who nudges him for keeping time to the music, a gesture Aubrey considers an offense.  When the music is over, they issue a full challenge to each other.  Fortunately, Aubrey, who has been without an assignment for some time, receives orders to become master and commander of the brig HMS Sophie.  His spirits raised by receiving his epaulette, he meets Maturin under more peaceful terms, and their love of music forms the beginning of a strong bond.  Aubrey then meets with Captain Harte, commandant of Mahon, with whom he has a bitter relationship, especially since Aubrey is having an affair with Harte’s wife, Molly.  Unable to get any assistance for his new ship directly from Capt. Harte, Aubrey turns to Mrs. Harte, who uses her influence to Aubrey’s benefit.  Aubrey begins to gather his officers and assumes command of the Sophie.

Lieutenant’s frock from the Regence era

(2) As Aubrey and Maturin dine, Maturin reveals his interest in natural history and his knowledge as a physician.  Lacking a ship’s doctor, Aubrey invites Maturin to join him on the Sophie.  Aubrey assumes daily duties aboard his new ship, getting to know his ship and its crew, including First Lieutenant Dillon, Sailing Master Marshall, Master’s Mates Pullings and Mowett, and Midshipmen Ricketts and Babbington.  Aubrey gets more guns for his ship and takes her out for the first time, finding that the weight of the guns is too much for the vessel to bear.  Maturin thinks he has been abandoned, until he is found by Mowett.  Returning to port, Aubrey seeks modifications to his ship, and Maturin comes aboard.

(3) The Sophie sails as escort to a convoy.  As Aubrey becomes more familiar with his ship and crew, Maturin learns about ships for the first time, with the assistance of Mowett.  At an officers’ dinner, Dillon tells of prior action.  Maturin and Dillon recognize each other as former allies in the Irish Rebellion but do not openly discuss the connection.

“An Algerine Ship Off A Barbary Port,” again from the National Maritime Museum

(4) Maturin sees naval discipline for the first time, to his dismay.  Aubrey tries the Sophie’s guns and is greatly disappointed by his crew’s performance.  While Sophie’s gun crews practice, an Algerine vessel attacks and takes a Norwegian cat in the convoy.  Sophie engages the Algerine, but the enemy escapes.  They return to the cat, where they retake the vessel; the Norwegian crew appears to be lost until they are discovered hiding, and so the cat is denied as a prize.  In this first action under Aubrey’s command, Maturin does his duties as ship’s surgeon and impresses all by successfully saving a man from a severe head wound.  Aubrey successfully brings his convoy into Cagliari and visits Admiral Lord Keith and “Queenie,” a childhood friend married to Keith.  He happily receives orders to cruise to Cape Nao, which means he now can take prizes.

(5) Sophie begins her cruise in gale conditions.  They come across a felucca but avoid her because she is a plague ship—which disappoints Maturin, who wants to board and assist.  Aubrey impresses his crew with his seamanship when he takes a French polacre, the L’Aimable Louise, by first losing her in the heavy seas but then coming around behind her by navigation at night.  Sophie then takes the Citoyen Durand, which luckily has a cargo of powder to supply Aubrey’s gunnery practice.  Maturin and Dillon, meanwhile, acknowledge their Irish background and come to an agreement and a tentative relationship.

A French polacre-xebec

(6) Sophie returns to Mahon, where the crew enjoys the rewards of their prizes.  Aubrey and Maturin attend a party at the Hartes, and Maturin saves his friend from complete embarrassment.  Painfully, the men return to ship and sea.  Aubrey begins educating the Midshipmen and deals with the case of Mr. Cheslin, the “Jonah.”

Cap de la Nau, Spain
(7) Affairs are going well aboard the Sophie.  They sail as far as Cape Nao.  The crew’s gunnery skills are improving.  They encounter five French ships and take a snow as a prize, and then they conduct a land attack at Cape Almoraira, where they cut out a settee full of hidden quicksilver.  Maturin shows them a spot he knows to get water and goes ashore himself, walking inland into enemy territory.  Sophie is prevented from making its rendezvous with Maturin when she is called out to the San Fiorenzo, where they are given not only a load of prisoners but also orders to find an American privateer, the John B. Christopher, which may be carrying Irish rebels.  Dillon, torn between present duty and past allegiances, discretely disobeys orders and tries to avoid the privateer.  Even after finding it, Dillon goes aboard and, after seeing his old comrades, lies and reports that they are not on the ship.

(8) The Sophie is no longer a content place.  When they pick up Maturin, he gives news of a powerful new enemy ship in the area, a xebec-frigate called the Cacafuego.  Dillon’s behavior, meanwhile, creates tension with Aubrey.  Under disguise as a Danish merchantman, Sophie encounters the massive Cacafuego, but Aubrey, knowing he is outgunned, does not engage.  Dillon sees this as cowardice.  Filled with melancholy, the crew spends some time in port back in Mahon.  After another party at the Hartes, Aubrey is given orders to sail for Alexandria.

(9) Sophie sails the width of the Mediterranean.  They encounter the French frigate Dédaigneuse, and Aubrey allows the little Sophie to escape the large frigate by using a raft with lamps to mimic his ship at night.  Back at Mahon again, it’s disappointment all around:  Dillon itches for serious action, while Aubrey is denied seeing Molly Harte, who is away at Ciudadela.

Capture of the El Gamo, the historical event upon which the capture of the Cacafuego is based

(10) Resuming their cruise, the crew of the Sophie keeps its reputation for prize taking but yearns for real battle.  It comes soon enough.  After taking a tartan off the coast, gunboats come out from Barcelona.  They do no real harm to Sophie.  Aubrey and his crew take a Spanish privateer, the Felipe V, as the gunboats continue to pester them.  Lingering on the edge of potential battle, Aubrey and Maturin play music in the Captain’s cabin, and later Maturin and Dillon sing an Irish tune, “The Wild Geese.”  Now the gunboats lure Sophie into what is clearly a trap, which is revealed to be the Cacafuego.  Running under the ruse of an American flag, Sophie comes in close.  Her small size proves to be her advantage:  The Cacafeugo is so big that it cannot help but shoot over the Sophie at close range.  The Cacafuego is taken, but Dillon is killed in the action.

(11) Back in Mahon, the victory is celebrated by all but Capt. Harte, as his wife’s affair with Aubrey becomes clearer and better known.  Sophie is sent to Malta to be refitted, has her first officer replaced, and is denied further cruising by Harte.  Aubrey’s chances of being made Post-Captain appear to be none, while the insulted crew becomes defiant, drunk, and ill disciplined.  Sophie sails with a packet, and the ships encounter French merchantmen at Cabo Roig.  Though not under cruising orders and thus not able to take prizes, Aubrey sends fire barrels in to make mischief.  One of the merchantmen turns out to be full of olive oil, which after catching fire explodes in a huge plume of flame.  This attracts the attention of a French squadron.  The French take the packet as Sophie flees, dumping stores and guns to make speed.  Yet Sophie is forced to strike.

The Battle of Algeciras

(12) Captive aboard the French ship Desaix, Aubrey and Maturin are entertained civilly by Capt. Christy de la Pallière.  They are powerless to assist, however, as they witness the opening of the Battle of Algeciras.  The Desaix is battered by the British, and the Sophies are put ashore and then sent to Gibraltar in exchange for French prisoners.  Aubrey, Maturin, and others watch the great battle and English victory from afar.  Finally, Aubrey is court-martialed for the loss of the Sophie but is acquitted and given every encouragement by the court to fight for his country…

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