Edward Waverley's Reviews > Post Captain

Post Captain by Patrick O'Brian
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's review
Jun 15, 2010

really liked it
Read in June, 2010

Among John Fowles’ many goals in The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) was his intention to pay homage to Jane Austen’s Persuasion. But Post Captain, published just three years after Fowles’s book, is a far happier tribute to Jane, enriching my enjoyment of Austen, while succeeding on many other accounts as well. While Fowles rambles all over Lyme and Bath trying both to epitomize and to outdo the entire body of Victorian literature, O’Brian, as always, entertains and educates with matchless grace and wit. Austen’s impact upon O’Brian’s thought and style is unmistakable, not least in his ability to embed within the action of the novel a nuanced philosophy of love and marriage in His Majesty’s Royal Navy. It would be easy, and tempting, to ignore the moral plumbing of the book, but that would be fatal to a true appreciation of what O’Brian has achieved.

Obviously the Aubrey/Maturin books are much more than an echo of the old English gentry, as are Austen’s books. You will find in Post Captain all the action and espionage of Ian Fleming, all of the good clean fun of the Holmes-Watson friendship in Jack and Stephen, and enough inroads into 19th-century English culture to occupy a lifetime of derivative reading. But the main point of Post Captain is the time that our heroes spend ashore, and particularly in the establishment of the love between Jack and his eventual wife Sophie.

The action moves rapidly between land and sea and, as the telltale compression of pages draws us home, the reader suffers the same bittersweet emotions that will wash over one toward the end of a Jane Austen story. In spite of the absorbing philosophical dialogue in her books, in spite of the fun portraits of social climbing, in spite even of the inevitable tragic illnesses that Austen would use to distract us briefly from the main love story, the question of the heroine’s romantic fate is always uppermost in Austen’s books. Now it is a very sensitive and subtle male novelist who is able to emulate this particular magic of Austen’s. Her assault upon what was then passing as virtue and romance is motivated perfectly by her wish to elevate the reader’s view of both. It is difficult to choose what in Austen is more pleasant: her expertise in puncturing hypocrites or her irresistible celebration of well-earned matrimonial felicity.

Post Captain is shot through with these same qualities. Dialogue is perhaps our best guide in appreciating how Austen has influenced this part of the Aubriad. In chapter ten, we find Stephen Maturin talking with Captain Jack Aubrey’s would-be fiancée Sophie Williams in her home. As they discuss how best to settle a social misunderstanding between Jack and Sophie which is preventing their relationship from proceeding (a perfectly typical piece of Austen fastidiousness), Stephen is attempting to persuade Sophie to throw all aristocratic caution to the wind and to tell Jack in no uncertain terms that she does love him. See if you don’t agree that O’Brian is a worthy successor to Austen in the distressing fight to preserve chivalry.

“There is much to be said for directness.”
“Oh, yes, yes! There is. Everything would be so much simpler if only one said what one thought, or felt. Tell me,” she said shyly, after a pause, “may I say something to you, perhaps quite improper and wrong?”
“I should take it very friendly in you my dear.”

This exchange is an appropriate bow to the 20th-century reader who, generally impatient with the conventions of propriety governing relations between the sexes in Austen’s time, wonders while reading her books (or actually, while watching Austen movies) when in the world the heroine is going to attempt her own seduction of the Darcy figure, or at least propose marriage herself. With such pagans, O’Brian is not entirely unsympathetic. As usual, he has written a novel that is packed to the top with naval action, and he can thrill anyone with his descriptions of battle. But it is in conversations like the one quoted above in which he reveals what he is really all about. Like his idol Jane, O’Brian hankers for an older age when friendship was a work of art shaped by a plethora of considerations, including loyalty, emotional affinity, appeals to reason, and even (Gasp!) a mutual acknowledgement of a transcendent moral structure. That is why it is even intelligible for Stephen to declare, “There is much to be said for directness.” Funnily enough, this is a slogan that will appeal to many in the year 2010 who would never bother to read O’Brian, let alone read Austen. When such people praise directness, what they are actually endorsing is something like a desire to cut to the chase. It is only Sophie’s perfect rejoinder to Stephen’s advice which reminds us that this novel is set in 1803: “Everything would be so much simpler if only one said what one thought, or felt.” Here, Sophie is not referring to the foolish simplicity of internet forums, where everyone is encouraged to blather incoherently regardless of anything. Here thought and feeling are values as important as life and love, and the directness Sophie longs for is assumed to be desirable only among those who have undertaken to fasten their thoughts and feelings to eternal realities.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Hazel Ok G. To the top of my to-read list!

message 2: by G. (new)

G. Gregory


Hazel Thanks, Gregory. Would you believe my library has only one copy? Have to wait til next month! :-(

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