Posted by: Blue Lou Logan | February 19, 2012

Aubrey-Maturin in Brief 6: The Fortune of War


The Fortune of War:  Aubrey and Maturin in America.  We are NOT the good guys.  (SPOILER ALERT now.)  Back in Desolation Island, the Cheseapake-Leopard Affair of 1807 had already created tension between the U.S. and Britain and created trouble for Aubrey and crew even as far away as the southern oceans.  Not long into The Fortune of War, the War of 1812 begins.  As usual, O’Brian puts our fictional heroes into real historical situations, starting with the defeat of the Java by the United States’ most famous tall ship, USS Constitution.  For most the book, Aubrey and Maturin are prisoners of war in Boston.  At the same time, the U.S. Navy is shaming the supposedly invincible British with a string of victories at sea.  It is not just the poor “fortune” of the protagonists, however, that puts the U.S. in a bad light.  O’Brian creates an unflattering portrait of our early national character.  Americans are slavers.  There is a fabulous moment when a Huron tells the Irish Maturin, “We are, after all, both defeated.”  Northerners are money grubbers, Southerners are crude, and everyone is spitting tobacco.  Most importantly, Americans are power-hungry, ready to stab you in the back…most ungentlemanly.

There is, in fact, a lot of sneaking and stabbing.  The sixth book is more of a spy novel than a military novel.  Although it begins and ends with grand ship battles, most of the plot unfolds in the streets and halls of Boston.  Both Aubrey and Maturin are cornered, the former trapped in, all of all places, an asylum, and the later on the run from French agents and a villainous American who is also the man who stole way Maturin’s beloved Diana Villiers.  O’Brian does a pretty respectable job walking the path of Fleming and Ludlum.  If this was a Bond, it would be On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, in which the spy does not have the upper hand, and the love is potentially fatal.  Which also happens to be my favorite Bond.

After half a a dozen Aubrey-Maturin books, I am really impressed on how O’Brian can stay true to genre but create whole new settings for each book.  The Fortune of War is a direct continuation of the story arc started in Desolation Island.  It is also follows the unfolding of history.  Best of all, it deepens the characters of the Captain and the Doctor.  Bravo…again.

17th century map of the Spice Islands

(1) HMS Leopard, after its near destruction in the south Indian Ocean, limps into Pulo Batang in the Malay Archipelago.   Capt. Jack Aubrey recounts the adventure to Drury, the Port Admiral.  Horrible old Leopard is doomed to transport duty.  Aubrey and his friend Dr. Stephen Maturin are given orders to sail home aboard the La Fléche, due from Bombay.  Aubrey stands up for his officers and midshipmen, insisting they be sent back to Britain as well.  Maturin meets with Wallis, the Admiral’s political advisor, and learns that his friend Sir Joseph is, thankfully, back in charge of British intelligence.  Furthermore, the poisoned dispatches Maturin had planted with the American spy, Louisa Wogan, have in fact reached their destinations and made tremendous confusion in the French services.  Maturin must make haste back to Catalonia and renew his activities.  Meanwhile, the English disruption of American trade and their abduction of American seamen have driven the two countries to almost inevitable war.  Aubrey learns that once home he is to be given command of the heavy, 40-gun Acasta.  As the Leopards wait for La Fléche, they engage in a game of cricket with the local men.  Maturin’s experience in Irish hurling makes for an interesting contest.

(2) The La Fléche arrives, commanded by Capt. Yorke.  The beautiful vessel hurriedly becomes an “Ark” for all of Maturin’s specimens from the Leopard‘s long voyage.  Although more concerned with making his collection safe below, Maturin joins Aubrey for dinner with Capt. Yorke, who turns out to be a well-read man, and they discuss love and war.  Aubrey gets a letter from Sophie, who was told of the Leopard‘s plight by no less than Diana Villiers.  Although Yorke is more pleasant than capable, and his First Lieutenant, Warner, is too strict a Navy man for Aubrey’s taste, the voyage is swift and enjoyable.  Maturin, assisted by the the ship’s surgeon McLean, whose Scots accent is so thick that they communicate better in Latin, catalogs and analyzes his specimens.  Yorke even joins Aubrey and Maturin for music.  After the ordeal of the Leopard, the trip is pleasantly uneventful.  When they touch at the Cape, however, they find that war with the U.S. is official.  Now the sailors can talk of nothing else.  Maturin wonders about the fate of Villiers, who is now in an enemy country.  Then luck runs out.  The wind dies, and, suddenly, the ship is on fire.  Everyone hurriedly abandons ship just before the La Fléche explodes.

Java and Constitution” by Montague Dawson

(3) Aubrey, Maturin, and eleven sailors are crammed in an eighteen-foot cutter on the open ocean.  Aubrey and Maturin have taken only the most minimal belongings; the Doctor’s collection is gone.  Among the men, panic turns to fear and then to tempered anxiety.  Perhaps Lucky Jack can see them to safety.  The water and food run low.  They spot a sail, but in spite of their best efforts they go unnoticed as the sun goes down.  A sudden downpour of rain–and squid!–give them some meager relief.  Then they spot two ships.  One, luckily, is the the HMS Java under Capt. Lambert, and the other is a Portuguese ship they have just taken.  The haggard survivors gorge on food.  The Java is a well-supplied ship, but the crew is glum:  The Americans have already defeated three vessels of the Royal Navy.  Java heads towards San Salvador to pick up another captured prize, an American merchantman called the William.  As they reach their destination, a ship is seen, at first thought to be a Portuguese razee but soon recognized to be a frigate.  The crew prepare for action, Aubrey with a gunnery assignment.  The frigate is none other than the USS Constitution.  They beat to quarters and wait.  Constitution fires first, little more than test shots.  Soon there are hot exchanges.  Both vessels take hard damage, until Java can barely fire at all.  Java misses stays and is brutally raked.  Too damaged to survive, the Java makes to board.  They are raked again.  Aubrey is hit by a marksman’s ball.  In spite of the situation, the crew remains eager.  Finally, the Constitution achieves perfect position but waits.  With Lambert down, First Lieutenant Chads orders the colors struck.

USS Constitution” by John Stobart

(4) The Java is burned, and the captives, many wounded, are taken aboard the Constitution.  Maturin assists the ship’s surgeon, Evans.  The Yankees are jolly, the Brits sad.  They are taken to San Salvador and the American Commodore Bainbridge.  Maturin’s diary is almost confiscated.  Aboard the Constitution are two mysterious French passengers, one named Pontet-Canet, who seems familiar to Maturin.  As the ship heads north, Maturin and Evans play chess and debate government.  Evans, a Federalist, opposes Southern Republicans but more importantly opposes “Madison’s War.”  Aubrey’s wounds are dire–it is feared that his arm might be lost–while his connection to the Leopard makes him a pariah among the Constitution‘s crew.  The ship returns to Boston in spite of the British blockade of the town.  Aubrey is stricken with pneumonia, but fortunately Evans has a relation, a physician named Choate, who can take Aubrey in.  As they pull into Boston Harbor, Evans points out the merchant fleet of George Herapath, the father of the Michael Herapath who had been aboard the Leopard.  Aubrey is taken to Choate’s Asclepia, which is in fact a mad house.  Under the doctor’s kind care, Aubrey recovers, but he plays mad when American officials, led by a Mr. Brenton, come to interrogate him.  News arrives that another Royal warship has been defeated.  The malice of the U.S. government against the British makes Aubrey’s exchange increasingly unlikely.  Hope is fading.

“Old State House Boston, 1801” by James Brown Marston

(5) Louisa Wogan visits Maturin at Asclepia.  They are spies on opposing sides yet friends.  They talk of Villiers and her benefactor, the rich and connected Harry Johnson.  They go to the squalid house of Wogan and the younger Herapath and are invited to the elder Herapath’s.  Aubrey, meanwhile, studies the American fleet from the window of his room.  At the dinner, Mr. Herapath reveals that he remains a British Loyalist and also that his son aspires to become a physician.  He is also no friend of Johnson.  Mr. Herapath’s position as an ally is secured when he and Maturin visit Aubrey.  Maturin sees Wogan alone, and she tells him that the poisoned papers have not only done damage to Johnson but also are being pinned on Aubrey.  Her affection for Maturin blinding her to the fact that it was he that set events in motion, she intends to to present Maturin to Johnson as a new recruit to American intelligence.  Maturin passes Franchon’s Hotel, thick with Frenchmen, where he spots Pontet-Canet.  He then learns that the French agent Dubreuil, one of the targets of Maturin’s misinformation, is in the country.  Aware that his espionage has put both him and his friend in serious danger, Maturin tells Aubrey to lay low and be careful.

(6) Maturin returns to Franchon’s, where Johnson and Villiers have just arrived.  Gentlemanly conversation at first is merely about birds.  At last Maturin sees Villiers again.  She seems to him clingy, lacking something of old.  Back at Asclepia, Aubrey and Mr. Herapath watch the American ships.  After Herapath leaves, Brenton again attempts to question Aubrey, but Brenton’s impudent style riles Aubrey until Brenton is kicked out and Maturin gains the allegiance of Choate’s porter, a Huron with no love of the American government.  Maturin assists Choate with a delicate surgery and gains a supply of his precious laudanum.  Aubrey observes the Shannon, the sole British ship left to keep the Americans in harbor.  Maturin again goes to see Johnson and Villiers, but arriving early he hears them arguing.  It become apparent during an awkward dinner that Johnson is in a love triangle with Villiers and Wogan.  Maturin begins to suspect that Villier’s spirit has been broken until he is finally alone with her, and she tells her old friend that Johnson is a horrible, philandering slaver who is a danger to them both.  Maturin proposes marriage as a means to her escape.  Johnson comes in, saying that he knows of Maturin’s connections to both Irish and Catalan independence.  Then both Pontet-Canet and Dubreuil enter.  Maturin’s situation is even more dire than he suspected.

(7) Maturin is nervous.  He wonders what Aubrey has revealed to Mr. Herapath, and whether Johnson or Dubreuil is the bigger risk.  He is somewhat calmed when at length Aubrey tells of his friendship with Philip Broke, now Captain of the Shannon that is blockading Boston.  Yet a French agent has searched Maturin’s room at the Asclepia.  Maturin tells Aubrey to have Mr. Herapath secretly bring them weapons.  Pontet-Canet tries to nab Maturin in the street, but he is saved by British officers.  Maturin plays the outraged citizen to Johnson, but Johnson says he will only protect Maturin if he joins his side.  Mr. Herapath discretely delivers pistols to Aubrey and Maturin.  Maturin knows that he’s been cornered; the only solution is to make some noise, the last thing any spy wants.  He goes in search of Andrews, the British agent for prisoners of war.  He is overtaken by Pontet-Canet and his men, escaping by hijacking their own coach and then climbing a rope into Franchon’s and the refuge of Villier’s bed!  As Villiers bravely sets off in search of Andrews, the wounded Maturin hides in Johnson’s rooms and takes the opportunity to snoop around.  He finds a letter from Villiers, hidden by Johnson, expressing her long-held desire to be with Maturin.  Pontet-Canet enters to do his own spying, and Maturin slits his throat with a catling.  Dubreuil comes next, and Maturin shoots him point blank.  Villiers returns with Michael Herapath.  Two corpses in the room, desperate and trapped, Maturin sends Herapath with a note to Aubrey.  The only thing left to do is to escape Boston at all costs.

Old Boston Harbor

(8) When Michael Herapath reaches Aubrey, Aubrey takes off his sling and dresses to save his friend.  Aubrey goes to Mr. Herapath’s and lays plain the situation.  Mr. Herapath offers a secret place aboard his ship the Arcturus, and he and Aubrey devise a plan to rescue Maturin and Villiers.  Mr. Herapath, however, is overexcited.  Michael Herapath enters the hotel calmly, finding Maturin and Villiers ready; Maturin takes the papers he has discovered, while Villiers grabs a valuable necklace given to her by Johnson.  Their exit from the hotel goes unnoticed by the drunken French, but Mt. Herapath has bolted with the coach.  They walk to the Arcturus and find their hiding place.  Now they must get out of the harbor.  They go aboard a cut-down fishing scow and sneak past the Chesapeake at dawn.  Passing Lovell’s Island, they make for the Shannon.  The ship is shabby, but it is familiar, comfortable…and safe.  Villiers suffers from seasickness that came on as soon as they hit water.  Maturin regains his normal sensibility.  Over dinner with Capt. Broke, Aubrey reconnects with his old friend as Maturin gives into exhaustion.  Touring the ship, the war again becomes the central concern.  A fight with the Chesapeake is inevitable, but when Aubrey sees the able gunnery of the crew he is more than impressed.  Villiers regains her senses well enough to acknowledge she is free.

“The Brilliant Achievement of the Shannon” by W. Elmes

(9) At last they are at sea again, with an excellent Captain and an excellent crew.  They stand in to check on the Chesapeake.  Villiers’ condition improves.  Maturin inquires whether Broke, as Captain, can officiate his marriage to Villiers.  Broke’s attention, however, is on the Chesapeake, and he sends a letter to the American Captain Lawrence challenging him to a fight.  With the formality of a duel, the Shannon prepares for battle.  The letter never reaches the Chesapeake, which comes out of its own accord.  The Shannon heads to open water, the Chesapeake closing.  It is a grave reality.  After instructing his men to fight to kill, Broke orders to heave to and beat to quarters.  True to Nelson’s famous words, the Chesapeake comes straight at them.  The shots begin.  Although the ships are mutually battered, the Shannon‘s guns are faster and truer.  The Chesapeake rams its opponent.  The action is vicious as the British storm the American ship.  Many are already dead, including officers.  The ships begin to drift apart.  Broke suffers a horrible head wound.  There is trouble bringing the pennant down, but at last the Chesapeake‘s colors are struck.  Aubrey congratulates his friend for giving the Navy a much-needed victory against the Americans…in an engagement that lasted only fifteen minutes.

“Boarding and Taking of the American Ship Chesapeake” by M. Douborg
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