Ellie Sorota's Reviews > Post Captain

Post Captain by Patrick O'Brian
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Oct 19, 11

bookshelves: read-fiction
Read in October, 2011

The Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian has become my go-to vacation must-have. With 15 books in the series, I am officially committed to at least 13 more pleasant summer trips to an ocean, where for a week I may plant myself in front of the shoreline and read about life at sea. I must honestly say that I don't understand the half of what's in these books, and from what I've noticed, neither do most fans of this series. The books are laden with nautical terminology, naval slang and historical innuendos that I miss right and left. (Though there are several handbooks available for this series, none of them are resoundingly recommended by O'Brian's fanbase. All contain spoilers, and many are filled with more cover-art type photos than sketches of rigging and useful maps.) Despite my ignorance, O'Brian's writing is so enjoyable that I happily spend pages trailing some type of mast to some sort of place in some kind of fashion, etc.

Several features of these stories make them so enjoyable. First and foremost is the male perspective. The historical novel world is so full of 19th century and pioneer women falling over one another that it is quite refreshing to find some men among the bunch. Added to that is the obvious male environment of a ship at sea, which means internal monologues last only a page at a time, if that (and usually in the form of a letter, for why else would a man sit and sort out his feelings?). This book begins with the Peace of Amiens between the British and French, leaving Aubrey and Maturin stranded on land, with not a single ship to capture. The women of the town giggle at a house full of men and wonder at how they will feed themselves without a woman in the house, let alone mend their stockings. These, however, are seamen, and the women are quite astonished to find Aubrey's house whitewashed, scrubbed from top to bottom, necessary rigging constructed for hauling things to the second floor (no stairs required), socks and pants always mended, fresh laundry hanging to dry and mutton on the stove within their first few days in town.

The pleasure of the male perspective continues as the main characters meet women while stranded on land, and while the women pine away at the possibilities, the men seem to be quite content feeling passionately committed whilst doing absolutely nothing to secure marriage. True, there are extenuating circumstances that prevent actual marriages from taking place, but it is almost to the men's preferences that these barriers exist. The possibility of marriage seems to them much more fulfilling that it's actual contract, for anything on land is secondary to securing a life at sea. Luckily for the men, Napoleon makes short work of the peace treaty, and the men are soon at sea again (even the women are seen in nautical terms, Jack describing his love interest as "a 32 lber" p.461).

One of the other pleasurable aspects of this series is the play between Aubrey, a true man's man, and Maturin, a surgeon and naturalist. While one lauds a great seaman for his many conquests in South America, the other insults him for paying so "slight attention to the nature of the world round which he sailed so thoughtlessly. Apart from some very superficial remarks about the sea-elephant, there is barely a curious observation in his book" (485). They irritate one another while enjoying friendship in the deepest sense of the word.

The battles, of course, provide some of the greatest entertainment of the series. O'Brian is a master at the details of action, pairing just enough specifics with generalities that the crew come to life alongside their guns. With gun powder silting the air, Maturin mending some type of hemorrage, Aubrey pacing the ship with a slight bullet wound to his chest calling orders, a portion of the crew rowing out for a surprise boarding of the enemy ship by nightfall. It is enough to make one actually thirst for grog, just to share in the excitement.

This book in particular was full of many laugh aloud moments: Jack Aubrey's father, a politician whose platform is simply "Death to the Whigs"; Aubrey re-decorating the captain's quarters in an attempt to accommodate some respectable female passengers, revealing that his idea of "women's quarters" exactly resembles a brothel; Aubrey's quick decision to end mutiny on board by immediately taking the ship into battle; and Aubrey's escape from France dressed in a bearskin with Maturin dressed as his gypsy owner.

All in all - a pleasurable read.
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