Posted by: Blue Lou Logan | December 18, 2012

Aubrey-Maturin in Brief…A Review & 10: The Far Side of the World


Ladies, gentlemen, and those below and between, we have reached the half way point of Patrick O’Brian‘s Aubrey-Maturin series.  We have also reached the book that most directly inspired and gave the title to the film that made Stephen and Jack visible to far more than a broad but nevertheless niche audience.  Before we get to the book itself, let’s review where the winds and currents have taken us so far.  SPOILERS beware…

 1.  Master & Commander:  The Introduction.  In the year 1800, Lt. Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin meet in Port Mahon, Minorca.  Aubrey is given his first command, HMS Sophie, and with his friend Maturin cruises the Mediterranean, taking many prizes and gaining his reputation as “Lucky Jack.”  The action climaxes with a dramatic battle with the xebec-frigate Cacafuego and ends with the witnessing of the Battle of Algeciras.

2.  Post Captain:  In Love and War.  Aubrey and Maturin, during a brief peace, discover that life ashore can be at least as complicated as life at sea as they become entangled in romance, social politics, and, in Aubrey’s case, debt.  The situation is not much better when the war resumes, as Aubrey suffers the command of the dubious HMS Polychrest and nearly comes to a duel with Maturin over their mutual interest in the same woman.  In the end, Aubrey is made Post Captain and professes his love for Sophie Williams, and he and Maturin are as close as friends as ever.  Maturin, meanwhile, reveals his dangerous role in British intelligence and pines for the tempestuous and unattainable Diana Villiers.

3. HMS Surprise:  Romance in the Broad Empire.  After Aubrey is pulled from the tedium of the Toulon blockade aboard the Lively, and in turn after Aubrey rescues Maturin from torture in now-Spanish-controlled Port Mahon, our duo sets sail on Lucky Jack’s favorite ship on a mission for Indonesia.  Surviving near disaster in the far south seas, they reach Bombay, where Maturin continues to pursue Villiers while she is under the keeping of the rich merchant Canning. The diplomatic mission fails, but Aubrey succeeds in defending the China Fleet from the squadron of French Admiral Linois.  In Calcutta, Aubrey is celebrated and gains enough freight money to be out of debt and marry Sophie.  Maturin is forced to duel Canning; he kills him but still loses Villiers.

4.  The Mauritius Command:  The Burden of a Grand Campaign.  With the secret help of Maturin, Aubrey is saved from domestic life and given command not only of the ship Boadicea but also of a whole squadron to take Mauritius and the surrounding islands from the French.  Aubrey finds it just as difficult to keep his captains in check and bear the mantle of Admiral as it is to outmaneuver the French Admiral Hamelin.  With the help of Maturin’s negotiations and propaganda, bad odds are slowly improved.  The enterprise is nearly ruined with the horrible defeat at Grand Port.  Yet Aubrey defeats Hamelin, and tho’ he does not gain all the credit Mauritius is taken.

5.  Desolation Island:  A Harrowing Adventure.  Aubrey and Maturin again escape domestic entanglements with a new mission:  Aubrey is to take the Leopard to Australia with a load of convicts, while Maturin is to coerce information from one of the prisoners, a beautiful American spy named Louisa Wogan.  It is a difficult voyage.  They barely survive a gale in the Bay of Biscay.  Wogan is in love with a stowaway named Herapath.  Much of the crew is killed by gaol-fever.  They play cat and mouse with the Dutch 74 Waakzaamheid until the Dutchman is suddenly swamped in the cruel Roaring Forties.  Then the Leopard runs into an iceberg and limps to the Kerguelen Islands.  In this cold, unforgiving place, the arrival of a Nantucket whaler allows Aubrey to save his ship at the same time that Maturin succeeds in planting poisoned intelligence.

6.  The Fortune of War:  Aubrey and Maturin in America.  The doomed Leopard barely makes Malaysia, and, as Aubrey and Maturin sail back towards England, the War of 1812 against the United States breaks out.  After their ship explodes, they find HMS Java, which is soon defeated by USS Constitution.  Aubrey and Maturin are taken as prisoners to Boston.  As Aubrey recovers from dire wounds at a mad house, Maturin falls into a dangerous spy game that involves the French, Wogan, Herapath and his father, and Harry Johnson, the American “protector” of none other than Diana Villiers.  After several scrapes, Maturin gets himself, Aubrey, and Villiers to HMS Shannon, which gives the British a much-needed victory when she successfully duels USS Chesapeake.

7.  The Surgeon’s Mate:  Which Maturin Finally Wins Diana Villiers.  Maturin tries unsuccessfully to convince Villiers into marriage during the celebration of the Shannon in Halifax.  Aubrey, Maturin, and Villiers head home and narrowly escape a pair of American privateers.  Skirting the perpetual personal problems of their own country, Villiers goes to France, and Aubrey and Maturin sail to the Baltic for a delicate diplomatic mission aboard HMS Ariel.  They succeed but afterwards are wrecked on the rocks near Ushant and are imprisoned in France.  Weeks later, after Maturin makes a dangerous deal with a French agent, Aubrey and Maturin escape and are reunited with Villiers.  As they sail from Calais, Maturin and Villers are finally married.

8.  The Ionian Mission:  Back at the War.  Aubrey takes command of HMS Worcester and falls into the perpetual repetition of the blockade of Toulon.  A short, unsuccessful mission to Barka fails to improve the mood.  Maturin fares not much better:  A clandestine rendezvous at the mouth of the Aigouille River ends in chaos.  The Worcester breaks during an inconclusive chase with the French fleet.  Yet this allows Aubrey to regain his dear Surprise, and he and Maturin set off to the Ionian Islands to negotiate among the Turkish Beys to take the strategically important town of Marga.  Between Maturin’s mechinations and Aubrey’s fierce battle with two Turkish ships, success is at last achieved.

 9.  Treason’s Harbor:  Trust No One.  In Valletta on the island of Malta, Aubrey and Maturin suffer interweaving woes:  Aubrey sees Surprise sit unrepaired, Maturin sees intelligence chaos in the city, and both of their lives are complicated by Laura Fielding, the wife of a captured British officer who has been coerced into spying for the French.  The new Commander in Chief gives the two a secret mission to Mubara, but, after braving the hot sands of Sinai and a treacherous voyage down the Red Sea, Aubrey and Maturin find that they have been betrayed, and both a diplomatic coup and a chest of treasure are denied.  Back in Valletta, Maturin uses Fielding as a means to counterintelligence just before joining Aubrey, with a now able Surprise, to escort the Adriatic convoy, during which they find that Fielding’s husband is alive…and jealous.  Aubrey and Maturin receive another mission, this time to Zambra, but it’s failure again as the French are once more alerted and destroy the British 64-gun Pollux, and the Surprise runs for Gibraltar.

In pseudo-chronological time, perhaps fifteen years have gone by.  Aubrey has obtained his captaincy; married; realized he’s better off at sea, tho’ better on a single warship than commanding a fleet of squabbling commanders; gained, lost, and regained his favorite ship; and ventured to locales from the Mediterranean to India to nearly Antarctica.  Maturin, in addition to following his friend everywhere, has seen (and been denied) many natural wonders, battled his own inner demons, won the difficult heart of his soul mate, saved many a wounded seaman, spied and been spied upon, and survived innumerable scrapes with death.

The Far Side of the World is, perhaps, Aubrey and Maturin’s most far-flung adventure.  Some of the things you know from the movie are here:  Hollom the “Jonah,” the rounding of Cape Horn, the Galapagos.  Yet I must hasten to remind you that the movie picked and chose from the whole O’Brian series, and even the plot lines that came directly from the book bear in many cases only scant resemblance to their literary source.  Trust me, the film is great, on its own or as a ‘Best of O’Brian.’  But put away the IMDB, clear your mind, and let this fabulous voyage unfold without expectation…

“Nelson at Gibraltar” by Gordon Frickers

(1) In Gibraltar, Capt. Jack Aubrey nervously waits to report the failed mission to Zambra to the Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Sir Francis Ives.  The Surprise is doomed to be condemned, and the once cheerful ship has become a dismal place, her crew to be scattered and her captain with no clear certainty of a command.  On the streets, Aubrey encounters Mr. Hollom, an unlucky perpetual midshipman who had served under him aboard the Lively, and against his better judgment Aubrey takes pity on Hollom and orders him aboard the Surprise.  Aubrey dines with the Fieldings; having been rumored to have had an affair with Mrs. Fielding, Aubrey fears the evening, but he finds that the air has already been cleared.  Dr. Stephen Maturin, meanwhile, receives a letter from the head of British naval intelligence, Sir Joseph Blaine, congratulating him on his coup against French spies in Valletta and hinting at American operations in the Pacific.  Aubrey finally reports to Ives and is pleasantly surprised when he is congratulated for the destruction of the French two-decker Mars.  Even more happily, Aubrey and the Surprise are saved from doom and ordered to intercept the American frigate Norfolk, which is on its way to the Pacific to harass British whalers.  As usual, there is not a moment to be lost.

(2) Aubrey and the crew prepare for a six-month voyage as fast as decency, social obligation, and the port authorities will allow.  Old Pullings volunteers to join, serving as dual First Lieutenant with friend Mowett.  Maturin gains the welcome company of fellow naturalist Mr. Martin, but his surgeon’s mate, Higgins, seems adept at little more than pulling teeth.  The sailing master, Michael Allen, is experienced in the whaling waters they are headed to.  Horner, the gunner, and Lamb, the carpenter, both bring their wives.  The biggest problem is getting a full crew, and their only option is to grab troublemakers from another ship, the Defender, and mad men from the mental ward!

USS Essex” by E. Tuffnell

(3) In a hellfire hurry, the Surprise heads out, Aubrey intending to stand off and on at Cape St. Roque, the eastern tip of South America, until the Norfolk passes.  While Aubrey works his crew into shape, the crew themselves are afraid of all the bad omens aboard:  women, a cat, a parson and, worst of all, the “Jonah,” Hollom.  Over the first captain’s dinner, Allen recounts the voyage of the Rattler and describes Cape Horn and whaling.  They pick up the trade wind, and a steady routine begins, yet there is nothing to pull together the crew.  Nagel, one the discontented Defenders, does not pay his obedience to Hollom and is flogged.  Horner reveals his sexual impotence to Maturin.

A map of the location of the Sargasso Sea

(4) At the edge of the Sargasso Sea, they encounter three Indiamen and learn of the widest calms and variables in memory.  Aubrey opts not to stop at the Cape Verde Islands, planning to keep the water supply by collecting rain.  The doldrums do, indeed, come early.  While Aubrey worries about the lack of progress, the ship buzzes with excited secrecy:  Hollom is having an affair with Mrs. Horner.  A charming zephyr suddenly appears, supplying wind and drinking water and allowing Aubrey to push Surprise as only he knows how.  192 miles later, Aubrey slows for St. Paul’s Rocks and a chance to give the ship a respectable paint job.  Surprise crosses the Line and raises Cape St. Roque.  The merchantmen in the shipping lanes have no news of Norfolk, and so they wait.  The weather is hot, and the gathered rainwater is undrinkable.  St. Elmo’s fire flickers around the ship just before she’s struck by lightening; the bowsprit is destroyed.  Aubrey is forced to head to land, a setback for the mission but a source of great excitement for Maturin and Martin.

“Sorely Tried, HMS Beagle Off Cape Horn” by John Chancellor

(5) As the Surprise is repaired at Penedo, Maturin explores, chatting with a traveler from Peru, trying coca leaf, and walking in the forest with Martin.  Pullings reports news that the Norfolk has passed, and repair efforts accelerate.  Surprise is run into the bank as they try to set out, and, with the tide dropping thirty feet, the ship is stuck.  Emptying much of the ship to shore, they now must wait not just for the tide but also for the next phase of the moon to get free.  Sixteen days are lost, and the Norfolk is likely 2,000 miles ahead.  At last they leave Brazil far astern.  Aubrey achieves his image of a crack ship–one of skill and performance.  Mrs. Horner gets pregnant, and not by her husband.  More bad news from a passing ship:  The Norfolk has an even greater lead than expected.  South they go, towards the Horn, into a cold sea with penguins and whales.  Mrs. Horner procures a risky abortion.  A mysterious ship is spotted:  the packet Danaë, which Maturin had been given instructions to watch for.  Inspired by the decision that Pullings will be given the Danaë as a prize if taken, the crew gives a vigorous chase and capture her without a shot.  They have in fact retaken the packet from the Americans and learn that Norfolk has captured two whalers in the South Atlantic.  Maturin and Aubrey search for and find a hidden compartment full of papers and bank notes but most importantly a letter indicating that the Norfolk intends to make for the Galapagos Islands.  As the Danaë parts company, Maturin must care for an ailing Mrs. Horner and trepan a skull fracture on crewman Plaice.  In two days and three nights of gale, Surprise heads for Cape St. John at the Horn, hoping to avoid the dangerous shore of Staten Island.   They safely reach the far side but are caught in the shrieking southwest winds, badly losing way.  Maturin suffers a horrible fall below decks.  The maintopsail goes, the men are battered by the weather, and the first signs of scurvy appear.  They at last reach kinder waters, and Mrs. Horner begins to recover.  Surprise bears for the island of Juan Fernandez.

“Juan Fernandez Islands” by Lebreton

(6) At Juan Fernandez, Maturin and Martin explore, the Surprise repairs, the invalids recover, and the Marines practice.  A sail is spotted from the lookout, and they hurry to get back at sea.  Mr. Horner, his wife, and Hollom, however, are still ashore.  The gunner comes aboard but says that Hollom and Mrs. Horner have decided to stay on the island; Aubrey leaves the deserter behind.  The word around Surprise is that Mr. Horner killed them both, but he continues to do his duty.  The ship turns out to be Spanish merchantman Estrella Polar, who reports that the Norfolk watered at Valparaiso and has taken more whalers.  Disappointed by the news, the crew of the Surprise cheerlessly make a course for the Galapagos.  Horner lets go to rage, and, shortly after accusing Higgins of doing his wife’s abortion, Higgins is found missing, presumed tossed overboard.  A strange howling surrounds the ship…Higgin’s ghost?  Horner hangs himself.  Then sail is spotted again, and the crew focuses on catching her.  The ship is the Acapulco, recently taken by the Norfolk, and after surrendering with no argument supplies the Surprise not only with a prize but also supplies…and the information that Norfolk intends to go to the Marquesas and establish a colony.

HMS Beagle in the Galapagos Islands” by John Chancellor

(7) Surprise threads the currents and tides among the black shores of the Galapagos, searching for the Norfolk, while Maturin and Martin observe the islands’ biological bounty from afar.  A whale boat is spotted, manned by the escapees of the Intrepid Fox, which had been captured, looted, and burned by the Americans.  With the Norfolk eighteen days ahead, Aubrey leaves the Galapagos for the Marquesas, to the bitter disappointment of his friend Maturin.  Day after day they head westwards, directly along the equator, Surprise settling into its self-sufficing existence.  On a peaceful night, Maturin is trying to net phosphorescent organisms, when suddenly he is gone into the water.  Aubrey jumps in after him, and, in spite of his Aubrey’s shouts, the ship leaves them alone and adrift.  Just as the chances of rescue grow dim, they spot a double-hulled canoe–a pahi–and are pulled from the water by two girls in an outrigger.  They find themselves on a craft manned entirely by women who clearly do not like men.  A ceremonial dance appears to be the end of the duo until Maturin cries, “Taboo!”  The women change mood, change course, and leave Aubrey and Maturin on a tiny coral isle.

“Tahitian pahi” by Herb Kawainui Kane

(8) Aubrey calculates their chances and is not encouraged.  Then, atop a palm tree, Aubrey spots both the pahi and the Surprise.  He makes a signal and tries to stay optimistic.  The Surprise‘s launch comes to save Aubrey and Maturin, and they are affectionately welcomed back aboard the ship.

“The Marquesas Headland” by Galen Mercer

(9) Aubrey and Maturin are happy to be alive as the ritual of Sunday passes.  A pork barrel floating by tells that the Norfolk is not far ahead.  A heavy cross-swell and dark horizon are the first signs of a bad storm.  Maturin once again is tossed below; this time, however, his head injury may be fatal.  Wild winds and steep seas toss the struggling ship, while trepanning may be the only way to save Maturin.  Land is sighted.  Aubrey cracks on.  Approaching the island, a signal is spotted and then men yelling and gesturing:  The Norfolk is found wrecked at the entrance to the lagoon.  After carefully anchoring, Aubrey goes ashore, expecting the surrender of the Norfolk‘s captain.  Instead he learns that peace has, at least purportedly, been declared.  As the Norfolk‘s surgeon, Butcher, looks to Maturin, Aubrey meets the bedraggled American Captain Palmer.  A silent face off between the crews begins.  Butcher is ready to operate on Maturin, when a loose bit of snuff wakes Maturin from his coma.  Palmer tells Aubrey of the disastrous typhoon that left them on Old Sodbury’s Island but protests when Aubrey declares him and his men prisoners of war.  The situation is made even more tense with the reminder of Aubrey’s former command of the Leopard and the discovery that some of Palmer’s men are deserters and mutineers from HMS Hermione.  Another storm rises with long thunder, broad lightning, and a screaming wind.  The next morning, Aubrey looks to sea:  The Surprise is gone.

(10) The storm lasts three days, everyone huddled in tents on the beach.  Aubrey thinks something is amiss and perhaps that the Americans are lying about the peace.  A dismal, wet week goes by, the British and the Americans facing off over a high stream, the food running low, and sharks making fishing difficult.  Martin and Butcher, naturalists together, are the only solid link between the two camps.  As the rain lets up, the stream goes down and trouble rises, scuffles turning into more violent hostility.  Reckoning that the Surprise may not return any time soon, Aubrey orders the launch to be discreetly lengthened so that he may get his men off the island.  Atop the island in search of edible roots with Maturin, Aubrey spots a distant whaler sailing.  The Surprises work nonstop and arm for potential open conflict with the Norfolks.  Horribly ill, Palmer tries to claim the island for the U.S.  The Norfolks attack just as the launch is pushed towards the water, but Maturin sees that the approaching ship is no whaler at all:  The dear Surprise has returned.

“Marquesas Sunrise” by David Harrison Wright

Responses

  1. oooohhhh, I love that you are making an Aubrey-Maturin log! i was SO addicted to these books, and when I was on the last one, I delayed finishing it because I could not bear it to end… I’m glad I don’t remember everything as you have summarized it. I suppose I shall have to go back and reread.

    • Aubrey-Maturin in brief is on hold while I do these Mystic Seaport readings and papers…but they’ll be back.

      • I just came across your blog. Quite the happy accident. Interesting stuff.
        I am a long time fan of the Aubrey/Maturin series. I encourage you to go beyond the descriptive summary and do a spot of analysis of the books. The insight you display elsewhere makes me curious about your thoughts on what you are reading.
        In any event, bon voyage and beware the Debauched Sloth.


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