Posted by: Blue Lou Logan | November 30, 2011

Aubrey-Maturin in Brief 2: Post Captain

Second installment:  Post Captain.  This is often considered O’Brian’s tribute to Jane Austen.  It is there:  the romance, the class politics.  The lusty Aubrey combats his own swashbuckling ways for the utterly dedicated Sophie, while the mother disapproves on socioeconomic bases.  Maturin falls for Diana, someone as intellectual, tempestuous, and essentially unattainable as himself.  This is played against a backdrop of fox hunts, balls, and (yes) Naval action.


For Aubrey, this is a tale in which for the most part everything goes wrong. His career is thrown into jeopardy by peace. He and Maturin are in France when Napoleon declares war again; he barely escapes with his life. He finds his prize money has been bamboozled, and he is on the run from the law. He is given command of ship with a deservedly bad reputation and has to endure further abuse from Harte, his jealous oppressor from the first book. He even finds himself at almost deadly odds with Maturin.

For me, the most interesting aspect is that this is really Maturin’s story.  Although the book is still largely in the third person, there are several insertions of Maturin’s own diary, showing his philosophy and doubt.  His laudanum-fueled contemplation of love and life–via Aubrey, via Diana, via Sophie, and via himself–form the mood and the core of the book.  As his role as an intelligence officer of the Crown also is revealed, Maturin emerges as a dark and complicated character, a loner at war with himself for whom science–and his friendship with Aubrey–are an escape from his personal demons.  

I always read books as potential movies (yes, I’m weird).  The first book, Master and Commander, is Star Wars:  a self-contained plot that is also the introduction to a grand universe.   Post Captain would be an interesting novel to adapt into a film, something perhaps with the foreboding mood of Barry Lyndon, picturesque and less concerned with action than the struggle with one’s own feelings.  This is not, however, The Empire Strikes Back.  It does not end as a cliffhanger.  It is also still an O’Brian novel.  There’s plenty nautical, and it ends with a big battle.  Yet the adventure here, whether love’s labors or the consequences of war, is internal…

“The Start of the Hunt” by Heywood Hardy

(1) 1802.  Aubrey and Maturin are passengers aboard the frigate Charwell.  They are overtaken by a French ship, but as they are about to engage them in battle they learn that peace has been declared.  This is not good news for a naval man.  Aubrey and Maturin agree to rent a country residence together, Melbury Lodge.  In the Downs, they take up their new lifestyle and join a fox hunt.  Maturin meets a woman, Diana Villiers…and Aubrey falls off his horse.  At nearby Mapes Court, a Mrs. Williams lives with her two daughters, Sophia and Cecilia, and Diana.  The women learn about Maturin and Aubrey when Admiral Haddock visits.

(2) Aubrey and Maturin attend a dinner party at Mapes.  Mrs. Williams observes Aubrey’s interest in her daughter Sophia, but in fact Aubrey is interested in both Sophia and Diana.  The women visit Melbury, and Sophia’s piano playing strikes both of the music lovers.  Diana is cynical about the men.  Sophia, however, has fallen for Aubrey.  Maturin, meanwhile, bonds intellectually with Diana as they ride together and then at the Admiral’s ball.

Nineteenth century “tipstaff”

(3) Aubrey and Maturin travel to London.  Maturin quietly visits the Admiralty in his capacity as a spy and advisor.  Aubrey learns that his prize agent has swindled him, and he is eleven thousand pounds in debt…and a wanted man.  He visits Sophia but doesn’t tell the truth.  The Williams family leaves for Bath as Aubrey and Maturin’s affairs begin to fall apart.  Aubrey gets no assistance from the Admiralty.  He even receives a letter implying that Sophia has married, although it is revealed directly by Sophia to a be false rumor.  Maturin sees Diana one last time before an assignment; his laudanum addiction worsens.  Men come to take Aubrey, and Maturin and Aubrey swiftly flee for France.

“Dancing Bear” by William Henry Bunbury

(4) In Toulon, where the French are keeping their fleet in battle-ready shape, Aubrey and Maturin are entertained by Capt. Christy-Pallière, the same Captain who had kept them captive on the Desaix.  Their friend tells them just in the nick of time that Napoleon has declared war again and is seizing all British citizens.  Maturin and Aubrey barely escape.  Maturin disguises Aubrey as a bear, and pretending to be traveling entertainers they go south and through the Pyrenees.  Aubrey is exhausted, desperate, and on a few occasions nearly exposed.  At last they reach Spain and the safety of Maturin’s primitive estate near Lerida.

(5) It takes months of Maturin’s care for Aubrey to recover.  Once Aubrey is healthy, they make their way to Gibraltar and board the East-Indiaman Lord Nelson to return to England.  On the ship, they find their old mate Pullings.   They are attacked by the French privateer Bellone, and after heavy fighting and loss they are taken.  Two British vessels, a cutter and then the brig Seagull, unsuccessfully come to their rescue.  Then a full British squadron finds them, and they are freed.

Plan of the HMS Dart, historical inspiration for the Polychrest

(6) Aubrey begs Lord Keith at the Admiralty for any assignment that will get him safely at sea.  With Aubrey trying hard to avoid identification, he and Maturin go to an event hosted by Queenie, the Lady Keith and Aubrey’s old friend.  Aubrey meets a Mr. Canning, who offers him a privateering commission.  Aubrey tells Mrs. Williams and Cecilia of Maturin’s estate—Maturin is not as without means as he seems.  When Aubrey encounters Diana, he is completely smitten.  He is contemplating Sophia, however, as he walks home.  A thief tries to take Aubrey, but Aubrey takes him instead.  At the cottage with Maturin, the man, Scriven, is revealed to be a “literary man” and is given by Aubrey to Maturin as a servant.  Back in London, the Admiralty gives Aubrey a dubious assignment:  command of the odd sloop-of-war HMS Polychrest.  Walking nearby, Sophia tells Maturin that she is still completely dedicated to Aubrey.  Scriven gets Aubrey safely to the legal “liberty” of London’s Savoy district, where they are staying at an inn called The Grapes.

“Portsmouth Point” by Thomas Rowlandson

(7) Portsmouth:  Aubrey is busily outfitting the Polychrest, a strange vessel with sharp bow and stern that was designed for a secret weapon project now abandoned.  Pullings has been made a full Lieutenant.  At Pullings’ celebration ashore, bailiffs come to take Aubrey, but the crew turn the fight and press them into service.  As the Polychrest gets under way, Aubrey meets his officers:  First Lieutenant Parker, Marine Lieutenant Macdonald, Purser Jones, Master Goodridge, Midshipman Parslow, and old friend Midshipman Babbington.  Polychrest soon proves its horrible sailing reputation:  She misses stays on her first attempt to tack, and she cannot keep up with her squadron.  Making matters worse, Aubrey is under command of his old nemesis, now Admiral Harte.  Maturin, who almost didn’t join Aubrey at all, interrupts the harsh discipline of Parker but is in the wrong for interfering with the chain of command.  He begs his friend for temporary leave and goes ashore.

Cape Gris Nez
(8) Maturin visits Mapes.  Sophia tells Maturin that she has been intended for a Mr. Bowles, although she is still in love with Aubrey, and Maturin admits to her his attachment to Diana.  When he visits Diana, however, he is rejected.  Maturin returns to the Polychrest.  Aubrey’s erstwhile steward, Killick, joins his Captain just in time for the ship to entertain Mr. Canning.  Maturin chats Gaelic with Marine Lt. Macdonald.  At Cape Gris Nez, Polychrest fails its first assignment of picking up a man coming off from France.  On the first night, they pass up the chance to take a shell but never get their signal.  On the second night, their man dies from wounds soon after the rendezvous.  Adm. Harte dooms Aubrey to escort duty.  Aubrey goes ashore and begins an affair with Diana, which Maturin is soon to figure out.

(9) Polychrest leaves its squadron…and is not missed.  Aubrey gets busy making what improvements he can to the performance of his ship and crew.  Macdonald and Maturin practice at sword and pistol; Maturin proves his skill at both.  Polychrest finds Maturin and Aubrey’s old captor, the Bellone, escorting two merchantmen.  They close with their foe, hammering her hard.  Bellone flees until she is driven onto the rocks near Gijón.  Adm. Harte is less than impressed, and Aubrey is forced to patrol the Channel.  Maturin is given leave again.

“A Duel” by Eugene-Louis Lami

(10) Tension—perhaps romantic—builds as Maturin rides with Diana.  Visiting the Williams, Maturin reveals to Sophia his jealousy with Aubrey, and she suggests Maturin propose directly to Diana.  Maturin goes on an assignment and then returns to the Polychrest.  Aubrey continues to see Diana.  Maturin tells his friend that this well-publicized fact and risk of arrest ashore are ill-advised, which Aubrey considers an affront.  Aubrey and Maturin are again at full challenge.  Uncomfortably, Maturin and Aubrey sail together, until old friend Capt. Dundas sends Maturin a secret communication and Maturin goes ashore.  Maturin visits Macdonald, wounded in the action with the Bellone, in the hospital and borrows his pistols for the duel with Aubrey.  Aubrey comes ashore and first intends to see Diana at New Place, but when he is told she is “out” he discovers she is, in fact, with Canning.  All is saved from disaster when Aubrey is given orders to see after a French corvette in Chaulieu.  Maturin returns to the Polychrest and is told by Ship’s Master Goodridge of the delicate strategy and navigation required of the mission.

French Corvette, 1801

(11) Unrest on the Polychrest has reached the point of mutiny.  When Maturin tells Aubrey of this possibility, Aubrey musters his crew for action and makes speed to Chaulieu.  They reach their destination in fog and delicately navigate the narrow channel until they are suddenly run aground.  The gunboats and coastal batteries open fire.  Aubrey launches boats to go directly at the corvette, Fanciulla, and cut her out.  The corvette is boarded and taken, Aubrey wounded in the hot action.  The Fanciulla pulls Polychrest off of the bar.  Transports are taken or destroyed.  Finally, the Polychrest sinks, and Aubrey, bleeding heavily, sails with his prize.

(12) The Fanciulla is taken to England, and Maturin takes Aubrey ashore under his care.  Again at risk of the tipstaves, Aubrey recovers in the relative safety of the Savoy.  He visits a local church and helps at the organ.  Already applauded in the press, he goes to the Admiralty and makes Post Captain.  He asks for the first available assignment and is given orders to take temporary command of the Lively, a crack frigate. Maturin joins, and all is back on friendly terms.  Aubrey finds his new ship clean and well-to-do, with an established, tight-knit, and efficient crew.  Maturin experiments with bees and deals with the ship’s alcoholic gibbon.

(13) Maturin also visits New Place but finds everyone gone.  Aubrey, refusing to go ashore, works on the Lively’s one weakness:  gunnery.  They practice by bombarding a French coastal battery.

“The Old Admiralty in London” by Carl Gustav Carus

(14) Maturin visits the Williams sisters and learns that Diana is in the “keeping” of Canning.  He convinces Sophie to go to Aubrey in Plymouth and join him for a voyage on the ship.  After a trip to Spain, he learns by letter that Jack and Sophie have “agreed never to marry anyone else” until Aubrey gets his affairs in order, an arrangement happy to all but Mrs. Williams.  Maturin then relays critical information to the Admiralty:  Spain is going to enter the war as soon as their treasure ships return.  Sir Joseph gets immediate approval for action, and Maturin ensures Aubrey has a place in the squadron.  At a concert, Maturin sees Diana with Canning and gets very depressed.  Returning to the Lively, Maturin finally reveals his position in British intelligence to Aubrey.  The fleet sails in stormy conditions.  They give pursuit at the sight of Spanish sails.  The Commodore calls for Maturin, but the negotiations fail.  Close engagement suddenly erupts.  The Lively takes first the Clara and then the Fama.  Aubrey invites the captain of the Fama to dinner, and all toast Sophie…

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