Posted by: Blue Lou Logan | December 18, 2011

Aubrey-Maturin in Brief 3: H.M.S. Surprise


Welcome back to another SPOILER-laced installment of Aubrey-Maturin In Brief.  Pauline has already taken the pennant, having given her interpretation of Book 3 in celebration of O’Brian‘s birthday.  OK:  game on.  I am with Pauline in considering H.M.S. Surprise my favorite, thus far, of the series.  Why?  This novel takes our heroes on an excursion way, way beyond the Mediterranean and the English Channel, from the “vampires” of South America to the tigers of India and the breadth of the British Empire, with all its faults.  The first book introduced the world, the second put it in social context, but this one is adventure…and romanticism. 

Romanticism was an ideal, a reaction to the industrial rationality that threatened to conquer the early nineteenth century that Aubrey and Maturin lived in.  (An aside:  Remember how pale ale and then Bavarian lager pushed aside all competition and whitewashed beer?  That’s the aggressive rationality I’m talking about.)   It was an ideal not without its ironic complexities, and these are personified in our complementary yet opposing duo and the women they pursue.  Both Aubrey and Maturin are romantic loners but in different ways and for different reasons.  Jack is a loner against his will, defined by a nationalistic (or at least professional) sense of duty, a piratical flair, and the love of the freedom of the sea that always sets the sailor apart.  He has grown to command a fleet, if by accident; his defense of the China fleet is based on the real Battle of Pulo Aura and Admiral Linois and is also a buildup to Book 4, The Mauritius Command.  His desire, however, is to settle down to what he sees as the traditional bliss of marriage and the very English domestic image of Sophie.  Maturin, somehow surviving every scrape, from torture to white squall to bullet wound, loves the largeness the world–natural wonders from South America to the Subcontinent and the cultural complexity of Bombay.  Yet he is a loner by nature, torn between the rationality of his beloved science and his deep pathos and longing.  His female ideal is the fiery and perhaps fallen Diana.  His fate in love is not, shall way say, fortunate.

The tone of H.M.S. Surprise is so very romantic.  Every instance of action and heroism is colored with melancholy.  We have seen the world and returned home with feelings of hope but also anxiety, innocence gone but dreams maintained.  It is a novel of grand geographical and emotional sweep.  Another aside:  Romanticism defined, and defines still, an approach to music, and, given the importance of music to our protagonists, the imaginary score to the hypothetical movie starts to take shape in my brain.  Maybe this is The Empire Strikes Back; damn, that was a bad pun.  Let’s just set set sail for the long journey, the exotic shores, and the convolutions of the heart…
Sir Joseph Banks, historical inspiration to Sir Joseph Blaine
(1) The Admiralty debates the prize money that may be rewarded to the captains of the recent engagement of the Spanish treasure fleet.  Sir Joseph Blaine, ally to Stephen Maturin, argues in favor of a full reward, but between the inexperienced new First Lord and the ever vengeful Harte, Sir Joseph’s entreaties fall on deaf ears.  While the gold is granted to the Crown, a slip reveals Maturin’s role as an intelligence officer.  Maturin, meanwhile, is at Mapes with Sophie; she is considering Jack Aubrey, and Maturin is considering—and tracking—Diana, who is now in India with Canning of the East India Company.  Inevitably, Mrs. Williams interrupts, holding Aubrey’s debt against her daughter’s marriage to the Captain.  Maturin goes to a meeting of the Entomological Society, but his appearance distracts the guilty Sir Joseph. They meet at a secret location, and Sir Joseph reveals to Maturin not only that the captains’ prize money has been withheld but also that Maturin is the victim of an indiscretion.  Nevertheless, Maturin goes ahead with a planned mission and a rendezvous with Aubrey at Minorca, which is now in Spanish hands.
(2) Aubrey, still aboard the Lively, suffers the tedium of the blockade of Toulon, feeling misplaced with a staid crew and very alone.  At last he receives orders to leave the blockade and sets a course for Calvette.  Complacency reigns as the Lively sails through the Mediterannean, Aubrey aware that his command of the ship is coming to an end.  While Aubrey’s engagement to Sophie is announced in The Times, he pursues the French frigate Diomède, only to instead find and burn the supply ship Dromadaire, take a gunboat, and witness the deadly efficiency of Lively’s Asian crew.  Fortunately, the prize gives Aubrey a French signal book.  He heads for Cala Blau on Minorca to pick up Maturin.  Yet, when he gets there, a Minorcan resistance leader named Maragall tells him that Maturin has been captured and tortured.

Warehouses in the Port of Mahon

(3) Maragall tells Aubrey that Maturin is being held at what was once Harte’s house in Port Mahon.  Aubrey devises a plan to run into Port Mahon using his recently captured French gunboat.  His captured signal book completes his ruse, and he passes under the harbor guns.  Picking up Maragall from the bay’s pratique boat, Aubrey and his volunteers proceed into the town.  With the distant sound of torture drawing them on, they enter the house and rescue Maturin, who is dazed and very weak.
(4) Back at The Grapes in London, Maturin recovers under the dubious care of the landlady and old mate Bonden.  Aubrey, unaware that he has been deprived his prize money and still in serious debt, is suddenly nabbed by the bailiffs and hauled off to a sponging-house.  Sir Joseph visits Maturin and promises to get Aubrey out of trouble before announcing his own retirement.  At Mapes, Aubrey’s predicament gives Mrs. Williams further reason to protest Sophie’s marriage.  Maturin travels to Bath to recuperate as Sophie attends.  In a final gesture, Sir Joseph issues orders for Maturin and Aubrey to accompany an envoy, Mr. Stanhope, to Kampong, Indonesia...which means Aubrey has a new command, the Surprise.  Maturin scrambles to prepare, and Aubrey ecstatically receives the news at The Grapes and pulls in his friend Pullings as crew.  In the early morning in a howling wind, Aubrey meets Maturin and Sophie in a coach in Bath and spends a few tender moments with his beloved.

St. Paul’s Rocks

(5) The Surprise, just north of the Equator.  Having left England and passed Madeira and the Canaries, the ship finds itself in the insufferable heat and slow progress of the doldrums.  Maturin continues to recover.  The envoy, ill even as he boarded the ship, finds sea travel extraordinarily trying on his health.  New associates:  Midshipman Callow, First Lieutenant Hervey, Second Lieutenant Nicolls, Bosun Rattray, Purser Bowes, Sailing Master Harrowby.  All is not at well.  Hervey is an ineffectual officer with no sailing skills and no sense of authority.  Worst of all, the crew is showing signs of scurvy.  “Sail ho!” is called, but it is only the desolate St. Paul’s Rocks.  Nicolls takes Maturin to the see the boobies and terns of the islands.  The sad, sick Nicolls confesses to the Doctor.  As Maturin happily collects specimens, there is a sudden deluge.  Maturin survives.  Nicolls is gone.

The modern H.M.S. Surprise.  (Had to get there eventually.)

(6) Babbington and Bonden rescue Maturin.  The squalls have left Surprise in bad shape.  Amazingly, the scorching rocks have allowed Maturin to further recover his health.  The outbreak of scurvy worsens, and Maturin requests landfall in Brazil for fruit.  With the loss of Nicolls, Babbington is made acting Lieutenant but, along with the other Midshipmen, he confesses to eating the rats Maturin had been using for an experiment.  The Surprise reaches Cape St. Roque and does repairs.  Maturin goes ashore for more naturalist endeavors and returns with a sloth, which Aubrey debauches with booze.  The stop, however, has made Surprise alive and healthy.  They head to Rio, where Aubrey learns by letter that his debt has been partially relieved, and Maturin gets more time ashore.  They also learn that Linois, who had captured Aubrey and Maturin aboard the Sophie, is now in command of a squadron threatening the Indian Ocean.  Surprise now reconfigured to Aubrey’s design, they head down the trades into the cold.  South and south they go, into heavy seas and a good blow.  Aubrey is thoroughly enjoying the challenge, but there is real danger, starting with the fragile health of Stanhope and the risk of pneumonia for the crew.  The seas grow taller.  The foretopsail finally can’t take the strain, and, now acting as a sea anchor, nearly brings the ship to complete disaster.  The storm finally eases.  The battered Surprise passes Madagascar and enters the warm, smooth, void Indian Ocean.  As Maturin educates Bonden, he also looks forward to India and Diana with a mixture of desire and dread.  They cross the Arabian Sea with barely any stores left, finally sighting Malabar Hill.

Official welcome by the Travancore royalty, by Ravi Varma

(7)  Bombay.  Aubrey focuses entirely on his ship, working his crew hard until Surprise is completely stripped and rebuilt.  Maturin, on the other hand, explores the city with tireless delight.  He befriends a poor girl named Dil, who acts as his guide, wishing only for a silver bangle as a reward.  Maturin finds Bombay equally holy and filthy.  He also finds that Canning is as respected as Diana is maligned.  Letters come from Sophie, who reports that her sisters have married, her mother is the same as ever, and Aubrey’s father, a General, has descended on them all.  Maturin attends a grand sea festival with Dil, when suddenly he is face to face with Diana in the parade.  After giving Dil her desired bracelets, he visits Diana in Canning’s grand palace.  They visit the caves of Elephanta and have a miserable picnic with Stanhope.  Diana confesses her sad, captive reality.  Maturin proposes marriage, but Diana makes him wait for her answer.  Enter Canning, and Maturin makes a speedy departure.  Bonden tells him that Aubrey is in a fit, with immediate orders for Maturin to return to the ship to set sail.  Maturin finds Dil dead in the street, her bangles taken.  He arranges for her funeral pyre.
The real Admiral Linois

(8) Surprise gets underway.  Aubrey puts the new First Lieutenant, Stourton, in his place.  Observing Maturin’s low state, he endeavors to save his friend from himself, while dreaming of domestic bliss with Sophie.  On a calm Sunday, Aubrey brings Maturin high up to the masthead of the Surprise, where he spent so much time as a Midshipman.  Sail is spotted, which after some tense moments turns out to be the Company ship Seringapatam, captained by an old friend, Theobald.  From him Aubrey learns at the same time that the China fleet has sailed Linois has headed to the Isle of France…meaning that there is no action to be had.  Surprise heads south about Ceylon towards the Java Sea.  The isolation and routine of a ship at sea return.  Stanhope prepares for his duties in his new home, but his health takes a drastic downturn.  Maturin insists they make land to save Stanhope’s life, and on Pullings’ advice they head to Pulo Batak on the coast of Sumatra.  There, on a tiny beach surrounded by jungle, Stanhope dies and is buried.  Surprise, with no mission to complete, turns around for home.  Midshipman Church spots the floating wealth of the China fleet.  Surprise’s officers are treated to a sumptuous meal and female companionship aboard the flagship Lushington, but even here Maturin cannot avoid gossip about Diana.  Heading off, yet another sail is spotted…and this time it is Linois.  They run but check their speed enough to inspect their opponent.  Aubrey has to choose between duty and the temptation of glory, but it becomes clear that Linois is far more interested in the fleet than a single frigate.  They sail straight at them, intending to run the gap between Linois’ Sémillante and Belle Poule.  Aubrey bluffs, signaling to an imaginary fleet, beats to quarters, and closes with the corvette Berceau.  They batter their opponent until they strike.  Surprise escapes mostly unscathed but pretends to be badly damaged.  Night falls.  In the morning they reach the China fleet, but a French brig is already there, reporting back to Linois; Aubrey’s ruse has failed.  Aubrey and the captains of the fleet meet under their commodore, Muffit.  Aubrey quickly takes control:  The only option is to fight.  Under the assumption that Linois’ weakness is that they have been at sea too long, Aubrey’s strategy is to have the Indiamen swarm each vessel to inflict damage when they have no means to repair.  Forming a decent line of battle, the merchant captains prove their skill; Aubrey’s bluff is that the fleet is stronger than they appear.  Linois gathers his squadron and tries to gain position.  As Aubrey’s line executes a precise wear, the ruse is maintained, and Linois balks.  Night delays battle again, but the morning finds the French with the weather gauge.  His fleet cheery and optimistic, Aubrey forces the French into action.  Linois’ ships crowd sail, intending to break the line.  Surprise breaks formation and heads for Linois’ own 74-gun Marengo.  The Marengo opens fire, and, with the Sémillante joining, damage and disorder rule on the Surprise.  Finally, the Indiamen’s van enters the fray.  The Marengo at first suffers more casualties than damage, but, after laying broadside to broadside with Surprise, it is clear from the gaping hole in Marengo’s quarterdeck that Aubrey has accomplished his goal.  The French flee.  The British are heavily damaged but victorious.

Old Calcutta

(10) Calcutta:  The Surprise is celebrated lavishly.  Aubrey is given affectionate admiration from Canning and, first at an official dinner and then aboard his messy ship, he gives him a full account of the engagement.  Although Linois’ squadron has only been wounded, the fleet has been saved, and, on behalf of the Company, Canning offers Aubrey “freight money”—a percentage of a treasure cargo hauled to England.  Feeling uplifted by his potential wealth, he writes ahead and tells his friend Dundas to bring Sophie to Madeira.  Maturin, meanwhile, tours by elephant and reaches Diana.  When Maturin asks again about marriage, Diana breaks down.  Enter Canning.  Maturin calls him on the truth, and Canning hits him.  The challenge is delivered.  Aubrey tries to intervene, but the duel is inevitable.  Both men are hit.  Canning’s bullet lodges in Maturin’s chest.  Maturin’s bullet kills.
(11) Aubrey reluctantly delivers a letter from Maturin to Diana, in which he offers total reliance.  The bullet has barely missed and rests right next to Maturin’s heart.  On the Surprise, the surgeon operates on himself, with Aubrey’s help.  With Canning dead, Diana becomes an undesirable.  After visiting Maturin, she leaves Calcutta aboard the Lushington.  The Surprise heads homeward, Maturin delirious and unintentionally truthful.  Seemingly ironclad, he recovers yet again.  At a remote island, Maturin discovers a new species of tortoise, which he names Testudo aubreii after his particular friend.  After the Company’s refitting, Surprise has pure sailing, a merry ship even back through the cold.  Past St. Helena, past the Lachesis, with no mail.  Aubrey and Maturin rush home hopefully but anxiously.  Past Tenerife.  They reach Madeira, but there is no Sophie, only a letter from Diana that she has gone to Virginia engaged to a merchant named Johnstone.  As always, Maturin and Aubrey share music.  Then there’s a sail.  The Euryalus passes the Surprise off to the Ethalion, and there is Dundas…and Sophie.
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