Richard's Reviews > Post Captain

Post Captain by Patrick O'Brian
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Jul 28, 11

Read in February, 2000

Patrick O'Brian proved he was not a one-hit wonder after he followed his first critically-acclaimed novel "Master and Commander" with this book; he would continue to prove his point eighteen more times in later years. As with the first book, "Post Captain" provides the reader with details concerning character developments, historical context and seafaring terminology that will provide the basis for understanding the whole canon of Aubrey-Maturin-related literature. This is not to say you have to face boredom by being schooled through these books; O'Brian's unfolding descriptions of the main characters' personalities draws the reader into wanting to always know more and to follow their travels to their destinies.

The first book ended with the capture of Commander Jack Aubrey and his crew after being defeated against overwhelming odds while sailing their brig, the "Sophie" against the French in the Battle of Algeceras (this battle, like most in the O'Brian novels, is described by interjecting the book's fictional characters into actual historical events, and sometimes interacting the novel's character's with real-life people). "Post Captain" starts with Aubrey's release from custody during the Peace of Amiens and his return to England. Reviewer's note: Great Britain and co-belligerant nations fought the French Revolutionary armies commanded by Napoleon Bonaparte in two wars, starting in 1792. The Second Coalition saw Britain allied with Russia, Austria, Portugal, the Ottoman Empire and Naples against France. Notable during this war was Napoleon's attempted conquest of Egypt and the Middle East. By March 1802 (coinciding with the start of "Post Captain"), Britain was the only remaining member of the coalition fighting France. The Peace of Amiens ended fighting until May, 1803, when the series of wars known as the Napoleonic Wars would occur between Britain and France, and their frequently shifting allies, off and on until 1815).

What makes "Post Captain" interesting is the amount of plot occurring on land. This book has been called an homage to Jane Austin, because Jack's life becomes involved in complicated romantic entanglements in early 1800's England. O'Brian has Jack Aubrey settled into the life of a country squire, living in a household in the countryside near the Williams family home. Social climbing Mrs. Williams has several daughters; Sophia Williams becomes Jack's sweetheart. Their courtship leads to his desire to marry Sophia, but he must wait until a British prize court determines how much he will be paid for his share in the capture of enemy shipping (some British sea captains became wealthy in this era based on the prevailing practice of awarding a naval ship's crew, from captain on down, a proportional share of the value of the prize they delivered after capturing an enemy vessel). Complicating matters is the presence in the Williams home of Diana Villiers, the ravashing, worldly, high-maintenance cousin of Sophia. Jack can't resist Diana's charms, and he starts an affair with her.

Severe problems occur for Jack when the prize court rules against him, and his prize-agent absconds with the rest of his money. Losing money during this time could easily lead a penniless veteran to being thrown into debtors' prison, regardless of his heroic reputation as a war hero. Accordingly, Jack flees the country ahead of the sheriff. While living in France in 1803, war broke out again and Jack is faced with being captured by the French authorities. One of the most bizarre episodes of the whole O'Brian book series occurs when Stephen Maturin smuggles Jack out of the country in a bear costume.

Jack just barely escapes debtors' prison again by obtaining command of a British ship, the "Polychrest"; being on the high seas takes him out of the reach of the long arm of the law. Jack's mastery of sailing is demonstrated in his skillful handling of this odd-looking, poor-sailing experiment in shipbuilding. His friend Stephen is back with him as ships' surgeon, but Jack had no time to vet the rest of the already-existing crew. He finds he is on a ship whose crew has suffered under harsh discipline. His troubles are compounded by his inability to find new prizes to capture, and his self-destructive habit of lingering in port when he should be sailing, in order to carouse with Diana. Stephen finds out Diana is also courting another man, but his concern for his friend Jack's reputation becomes misinterpreted as meddling and the two main characters become embroiled in a promise to a duel when they are back on land.

Many serious problems need to be solved by Jack, or others on his behalf, before this book becomes relegated to be the last installment in the series. He has to be rid of his responsibility to the unstable "Polychrest", by promotion to another class of ship or destruction of the ship in battle; in the meantime he must forceably put down a mutiny of the crew, who finally rebel in reaction to maltreatment they received from Lt. Parker prior to Jack's tenure; he must realize the rashness of his decision to lash out against his new best friend, Stephen, by way of the earlier challenge to a duel; he must take stock of his personal priorities to convince Sophia that he wants to be her husband, starting with renouncement of his wenching habits; he must advance in rank from Commander to Post Captain, the most important event in a naval officer's career (the granting of status to an officer by changing the wearing a single epaulette, on the left shoulder to a single epaulette, on the right shoulder, much more than a fashion statement; it signifies the officer's name has been "posted" and thus eligible to his first command of a rated fighting ship); and he must obtain command of a ship that he can take into battle with the enemy, both to advance his career and to win personal fortune which will win his betrothed mother's permission for marriage.

Without giving away too much, this last need will be met through the intervention of Stephen, who turns out to have some high-ranking allies at the Admiralty, revealing his up-to-now hidden identity as a spy for Britain, to Jack. This additional facet of Stephen's persona will provide many exciting
adventures in later novels.
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