The Letter of Marque Paperback – 1992
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Rereading all the books confirmed that O'Brian is a superb writer and that his ability to evoke the past is outstanding. O'Brian has numerous gifts as a writer. He is the master of the long, careful description, and the short, telling episode. His ability to construct ingenious but creditable plots is first-rate, probably because he based much of the action of his books on actual events. For example, some of the episodes of Jack Aubrey's career are based on the life of the famous frigate captain, Lord Cochrane. O'Brian excels also in his depiction of characters. His ability to develop psychologically creditable characters through a combination of dialogue, comments by other characters, and description is tremendous. O'Brien's interest in psychology went well beyond normal character development, some books contain excellent case studies of anxiety, depression, and mania.
Reading O'Brien gives vivid view of the early 19th century. The historian Bernard Bailyn, writing of colonial America, stated once that the 18th century world was not only pre-industrial but also pre-humanitarian (paraphrase). This is true as well for the early 19th century depicted by O'Brien. The casual and invariable presence of violence, brutality, and death is a theme running through all the books. The constant threats to life are the product not only of natural forces beyond human control, particularly the weather and disease, but also of relative human indifference to suffering. There is nothing particularly romantic about the world O'Brien describes but it also a certain grim grandeur. O'Brien also shows the somewhat transitional nature of the early 19th century. The British Navy and its vessals were the apogee of what could be achieved by pre-industrial technology. This is true both of the technology itself and the social organization needed to produce and use the massive sailing vessals. Aubrey's navy is an organization reflecting its society; an order based on deference, rigid hierarchy, primitive notions of honor, favoritism, and very, very corrupt. At the same time, it was one of the largest and most effective bureaucracies in human history to that time. The nature of service exacted great penalities for failure in a particularly environment, and great success was rewarded greatly. In some ways, it was a ruthless meritocracy whose structure and success anticipates the great expansion of government power and capacity seen in the rest of the 19th century.
O'Brian is also the great writer about male friendship. There are important female characters in these books but since most of the action takes place at sea, male characters predominate. The friendship between Aubrey and Maturin is the central armature of the books and is a brilliant creation. The position of women in these books is ambiguous. There are sympathetic characters, notably Aubrey's long suffering wife. Other women figures, notably Maturin's wife, leave a less positive impression. On board ship, women tend to have a disruptive, even malign influence.
How did O'Brian manage to sustain his achievement over 20 books? Beyond his technical abilities as a writer and the instrinsic interest of the subject, O'Brien made a series of very intelligent choices. He has not one but two major protagonists. The contrasting but equally interesting figures of Aubrey and Maturin allowed O'Brien to a particularly rich opportunity to expose different facets of character development and to vary plots carefully. This is quite difficult and I'm not aware of any other writer who has been able to accomplish such sustained development of two major protagonists for such a prolonged period. O'Brian's use of his historical setting is very creative. The scenes and events in the books literally span the whole globe as Aubrey and Maturin encounter numerous cultures and societies. The naval setting allowed him also to introduce numerous new and interesting characters. O'Brian was able to make his stories attractive to many audiences. Several of these stories can be enjoyed as psychological novels, as adventure stories, as suspense novels, and even one as a legal thriller. O'Brian was also a very funny writer, successful at both broad, low humor, and sophisticated wit. Finally, O'Brian made efforts to link some of the books together. While a number are complete in themselves, others form components of extended, multi-book narratives. Desolation Island, Fortune of War, and The Surgeon's Mate are one such grouping. Treason's Harbor, The Far Side of the World, and The Reverse of the Medal are another. The Letter of Marque and the ensuing 4 books, centered around a circumnavigation, are another.
Though the average quality of the books is remarkably high, some are better than others. I suspect that different readers will have different favorites. I personally prefer some of the books with greater psychological elements. The first book, Master and Commander, is one of my favorites. The last 2 or 3, while good, are not as strong as earlier books. I suspect O'Brian's stream of invention was beginning to diminish. All can be read profitably as stand alone works though there is definitely something to be gained by reading in consecutive order.
In the twelfth of Patrick O'Brian's wonderful series of twenty naval adventures, a combination of luck, adherence to honor, and determination turn Jack Aubrey's fortunes. The HMS Surprise is sold out of the service - to Maturin, whose intelligence activities continue in Britain and promise a voyage to South America. First, though, Aubrey undertakes two voyages as a privateer, under a "letter of marque", which combined with Maturin's unmasking of a spy, restore his reputation. Maturin's private reputation has similarly suffered from false gossip about his doings in Malta (in "Treason's Harbour"), and he must similarly seek redemption in a typically private way. So, Maturin travels to Sweden to reconcile with his wife. This gives occasion for the reappearance of the Blue Peter diamond, and further exploration of Maturin's complicated relationship with Diana.
"The Letter of Marque" closes the book on many of setbacks that Aubrey and Maturin suffered recently, leaving them reunited, restored, and with their decks otherwise cleared for action in succeeding volumes. As always, O'Brian's writing is intelligent, informed, and full of wonderful historical nuance.
The novel is largely built around three incidents. First, there is the first sailing of Surprise as a letter of marque (the arcane yet preferred designation of what most would call a privateer) in which she not only captures an American privateer, but several of its prizes, including a ship carrying an entire cargo of quicksilver (literally worth its weight in gold). Although it does not suffice to negate the anguish of no longer being in the Royal Navy, this action alone would have seemed to permanently taken care of Jack's often beleaguered finances. The second incident is Jack's action in cutting out of a French port the French frigate Diane (later to be Jack's ship in the Royal Navy upon his reinstatement), an act that shifts the general public opinion in favor of Jack's reinstatement, though the decisive step in that direction will prove to be the death of his father and Jack's taking the seat in parliament vacated by him. The final section of the book is devoted to Stephen's trek to Stockholm in an effort to reconcile with his wife, who mistakenly thinks that Stephen not only had an affair with another woman in the Mediterranean but publicly flaunted it, and who then fled to Stockholm with another man whom Stephen mistakenly imagines was her lover. A subplot running through the novel is the gradual dilution of Stephen's opium by his servant, who each night steals a bit of it and replaces what he had taken with brandy. The effect was that Stephen gradually lessened the amount of opium he was taking, so that when he arrived in Stockholm and bought an undiluted bottle, then taking what he imagined was his usual dose, he went into an opium coma.
Although most of O'Brian's novels have no especially clear beginning or end, this one does have a somewhat more self-contained story than most in the series. There is some overlap, of course, and a host of old, well-known characters to whom we are reintroduced. What I am amazed by in these novels, apart from their remarkable excellence, is their consistency. Some of the novels are better than others, but single novels is not really the right way to view them. This is a series, and the truth is that the only way to judge it is as a group of books. By this standard this is one of the most unique literary achievements of the past century. This is a series that pulls in both lovers of historical fiction as well as very serious readers more at home with George Eliot and Vladimir Nabokov, a claim that could never conceivably be made, say, about C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower series, which attracts virtually no serious readers at all.