Rereading Patrick O’Brian

After a spate of heavy reading (two war novels in a row, why I did that I don’t know) I went back to my tried and true, my darling precious beloved Patrick O’Brian. I hardly have words to describe how much I love those Aubrey-Maturin novels, how immersed I am in that world. I mean it. I am immersed. Permanently. It doesn’t matter what else is going on around me: I could be in a meeting with clients, I could be at the elementary school ice cream social or my kids’ violin recital, I could be out on a date with my honey, it doesn’t matter. I am always looking at the world through Patrick O’Brian-colored glasses. And the world feels like a better place because of it.

My favorite section of the series is books five through nine, and that’s where I dove in this time. I read Desolation Island (that’s number five) a few days ago and now I’m deeply immersed in The Fortune of War, number six. This is the one where they come home from the Dutch East Indies in La Flèche, which catches fire and blows up. They float around in lifeboats for a quite a while and nearly perish until at last they are picked up by HMS Java, which is subsequently taken in a very bloody action by the USS Constitution. This is the War of 1812, by the way, and that battle actually happened. So Aubrey and Maturin eventually end up in Boston as prisoners of war. Captain Aubrey is recovering in the hospital with the mental ward — providing material for some of the funniest scenes in the entire canon — while the good doctor is busy reuniting with Diana Villiers and fighting off French agents provocateurs. In just a few more pages they will nick Mr. Johnson’s diamonds and secret papers and escape in the Shannon. The book will end with a bang as Shannon takes the Chesapeake in another bloody and historically true battle. Huzzah!

I would just like to state for the record that my interest in Age of Sail, Regency England and the Napoleonic Wars came about as a result of reading Patrick O’Brian, not the other way around. I love these books despite the history and jargon, not because of it. I wouldn’t touch a Horatio Hornblower book with a ten foot pole. What kills me the most about these books is not the battles but rather the humor, the friendship, the manners and morals, the music, and most of all the tenderness. Yes, the tenderness! There is something incredibly tender and poignant about these books. O’Brian often makes fun of his characters, e.g. Jack being so clueless on shore and Stephen never learning the difference between larboard and starboard, but he does it so gently and lovingly that it makes your heart swell even while you’re laughing. There are also scenes of cruelty and despair, but somehow it is acceptable too, because underlying it is this love of humanity that just tears you apart.

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