I’m drifting with my reviews – even when I finish a book on or by Friday, as I did with #149 Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian, it’s not always possible to review it straight away. I got ahead for the posts while we were travelling, and then gave up when we got back to the UK, like we aren’t still living in the van. Really, life isn’t much different in Oxford than it was in Stockholm, apart from the weather, so I need to shape up. That said, I’m thinking of reading a bit of Ulysses while I’m in Ireland this week, so whatever you get next Friday, it’s unlikely to be a full review. Particularly since I haven’t even got a complete copy yet – mine had all the poetry and some of the speech missing, making it unnecessarily confusing.
Master and Commander is a carefully researched historical adventure story. It’s set in the Royal Navy and this, the first book in a long series, opens in 1800. Britain is at war with France (and Spain, and several other countries) and Jack Aubrey, lieutenant, is shipless. He encounters Stephen Maturin, and the two become friends and eventually take ship again, this time together, fighting for king and country.
Messing about in boats
I’m starting to feel I should have a tag for this, given the number of boating books I’ve read for this challenge. Master and Commander takes messing about in boats to a whole new level. The novel is set just after the French Revolution, during the Revolutionary Wars, which started in 1793, and just before they turned into the Napoleonic Wars in 1803. This is the era of grand sea battles, of Nelson and Trafalgar, of Wellington and Waterloo, although both are a few years in the future for these characters. It’s also the era of Jane Austen, who was writing at this time, and it’s worth remembering that although her novels and Regency romances are a sharp contrast to Master and Commander, their worlds would have coexisted.
One aspect of M&C that is strongly reminiscent of Austen’s work is the etiquette. The details differ but the rules behind the rules are strikingly similar. Hierarchy is as important on a naval vessel as in the drawing room, it transpires, and transgressions are punished brutally in both cases. In addition, the social worlds do overlap. Aubrey and Maturin meet at an elegant musical soiree, only rather than getting it from the woman’s point of view, as in Austen, we see it from the men’s.
The Irish Connection
Part of the reason I picked up M&C again this week was that Maturin is Irish-Catalan, and was part of the failed United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798. I know very little about Irish history – I tend to focus on wherever I am, and I’ve spent a total of about 4 days in Ireland, ever, which isn’t enough to scratch the surface. As with the Austen / O’Brian parallels, it was interesting to read about this other contemporary issue, and the effect it has on the characters. Maturin has to hide his past, now the rebellion has failed, and Aubrey can, therefore, easily give offense, being quite a John Bull, gung-ho English protestant.
All at sea
Honestly, most of this book went rather over my head. I believe that O’Brien has described things accurately, and he certainly makes an effort to explain new or technical terms – something a lot of period authors don’t do, throwing slang and archaic terms in like badges of honour. However I still didn’t always understand what was going on. I quite often couldn’t picture a scene, even – or perhaps especially – when things were explained at length. I found myself waiting for a character to react, so I’d know if something was good, bad or business as usual. I need labelled diagrams, I think, before I’ll really start to get it in my head. I could probably do better with another reading, but it was too long and not exciting enough to make that likely.
I broadly enjoyed the book, although I struggled. I think it’s a novel where it would help to watch the film, if it’s accurate, as it would give me a picture of what’s going on. I’ve seen plenty of old ships, from the Cutty Sark to Viking lonships, but I just haven’t enough of a clue. It’s like The Devil Wears Prada – I had to see the film to understand the clothes references as the author just can’t keep going ‘and just to be clear that’s from last season’s collection/ a breach of regulations/dangerously unsafe/immoral so it means that s/he’s due a whipping’.
Overall, I’d say this is a good book, and goes particularly well with trips to see the grand old ships. I didn’t find the book disturbing, but it doesn’t pull punches and there is a fair amount of gore, both during the battle scenes and the mishaps and cruelties of ordinary life.
There aren’t many women in the book – two, perhaps three – and they are shown purely in relation to the male characters. However, in this case I’m not complaining: it’s history, not the far flung future. I also thought the women were plausible and as rounded as minor male characters.
There were sailors of several nationalities and races on the ships, but it would take a closer reading than I managed to say anything useful about this. There were dozens of named characters, and most of the time I was unaware of who was what race or nationality, so perhaps that says enough. Or perhaps the characters of colour where whited up, or largely invisible – I could only keep track of about 5 characters so I don’t know.
I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.