April 19, 2006

Gratuitous Patrick O'Brian Posting

Hunt Ionian.gif
"The Ionian Mission" by Geoff Hunt

I sometimes feel a little ashamed of the fact that I am reading the Aubrey/Maturin series yet again for the umpteenth time. But then I come across little half-forgotten gems like this:

"Stuff," said Jack. "Subordination is the natural order: there is subordination in Heaven - Thrones and Dominions take precedence over Powers and Principalities, Archangels and ordinary foremast angels; and so it is in the Navy. You have come to the wrong shop for anarchy, brother."

Archangels and ordinary foremast angels - I just love that.

The Ionian Mission, from which this quote comes, is the eighth book of the series. To me, it is really the first book in which O'Brian truly indulges himself in these wonderful little grace notes. Having solidly established his characters and set up several far-reaching story arcs (Jack's landshark troubles, the stormy marriage of Stephen and Diana, the evil duplicity of Andrew Wray) in the prior books, here O'Brian seems to have felt that he could truly relax and enjoy what he was writing. This isn't to say that he didn't do so previously. Rather, I think this book marks the full flowering of the series' best style, a style that O'Brian manages to keep up fairly consistently until The Wine-Dark Sea, after which I'm afraid the poor man - old and worn out - seems to have become quite sick and tired of the whole business.

The painting above presumably depicts H.M.S Worcester, a 74-gun ship of the line commanded by Captain Aubrey in the first part of the novel. O'Brian describes her as a crank, poorly-constructed vessel, the product of a corrupt private yard. This site offers some interesting historical background on her (as well as the other ships of O'Brian's novels):

The Worcester is described in the novel as being of the notorious "Forty Thieves" type (a designation bestowed for their poor workmanship, although the name actually dates from after the close of the Napoleonic Wars, as the fortieth ship was not completed until long after the fighting ended), more formally known as the "Surveyors' class" that began with the launch of HMS Armada in 1810, contrary to the impression given in the novel that the Worcester is an old ship. Although the ship class is genuine, the specific name "Worcester" is fictional. The poor reputation of this group of Third Rates was probably not entirely deserved, and in fact the design produced more ships-of-the-line than any other class. The Armada herself was not sold out of the service until 1863.

I don't know if this information is true or not, but it seems plausible. O'Brian does not seem to have had much of a liking for ships of the line as a whole, preferring instead the more independent and dashing frigates. There is no particular reason he had to turn the Worcester into a floating coffin, other than (I suppose) to heighten the reader's pleasure when Jack transfers back into HMS Surprise for his mission to Greece.

UPDATE: Speaking of the decline of O'Brian's writing toward the end of the series, Basil Seal notes what is the most gratuitously evil episode in the entire 21 book cycle, for which O'Brian really can't be forgiven. **SERIOUS SPOILER ALERT**

UPDATE DEUX: Apparently the Moo-Knew comment filter is playing Old Harry again. I understand this is in response to a wave of spam attacks. Anyhoo, INDCent Bill offers this via the Tasty Bits Mail Sack (TM):

Just an amazing series of books. I'm on my first pass, at number 4 now, and I'm totally blown away by the richness of the characters and the way O'Brian builds his prose. Hard to read the historical and nautical speech sometimes (I sometimes have to skip paragraphs w/o discerning the exact meaning of what they're doing - merely an intimation), but when you think about reconstructing all of the dialects and weaving them seamlessly into the language of his own third person narrative, it really is a "capital" writing achievement. Just brilliance.

In addition, Maturin is such a great character, and many of his observations, medical, scientific, philosophical (in our sense, not the 19th Century synonym for science) impart a great deal of timeless wisdom. This wisdom, of course, really comes from O'Brian, and marks him as a very, very clever fellow.

One thing - I seem to recall you panning the movie, specifically Russell Crowe's portrayal of Aubrey. I think you're wrong about that. The actor could have been a bit rounder (though by Hollywood standards of beauty, Crowe was still the perfect choice in the beefy, charismatic Captain requisite) and his performance could have been a bit more - what's the word? "foolish and slap-happy" in everyday discourse? - but Crowe did indeed capture some of that devil may care mirth ... so I think you don't give the effort enough credit in at least that respect.

Only 16(!) more to go.

Ah...another convert to the O'Brian Nation.

In fact, I did pan the movie for numerous reasons, including two touched on by Bill. First, as he notes, the language of the novels is beautiful and indeed is a large part of what makes them worth reading. Of course, this is impossible to translate to the screen and, IMHO, should not have been attempted. There are plenty of other sea stories out there that could be turned into movies without doing literary violence to them.

Second, I continue to maintain that Russell Crowe is all wrong for the Jack Aubrey penned by O'Brian. I don't know that I'd say Aubrey should be more foolish or slap-happy, but a marked part of his character for most of the series is the fact that in many ways he is (or can be) an overgrown boy, and I simply see no sign of that in Crowe.

More than once I've mulled the question: just who could play Aubrey successfully. I've never really come up with a satisfying answer. However, discounting for both age and accent, the two actors I can think of who might capture some of the Aubrey spirit are Peter O'Toole and (don't laugh) John Wayne.

YIPS from Steve: Uh, Rob? Kurt Russell.

Geez, I'm left with answering all the obvious questions around here.

YIPS BACK from Robbo:


"N'yar, Jim Lad! Hoist the Jolly Roger and prepare ta board!"

I don't think it's quite the same thing.......

Posted by Robert at April 19, 2006 10:52 AM | TrackBack

There's always the possibility of Damon as Aubrey and Affleck as Maturin. Be careful what you ask for . . .

Posted by: The Colossus at April 19, 2006 02:00 PM

Peter O'Toole or John Wayne? You are out of your mind. An uptempo Russell Crowe is 1000x more Jack Aubrey than either of the two. If he just would have laughed a bit more, used a few bad puns, and gained 10 stone or so, he'd have been perfect.

Posted by: Bill from INDC at April 19, 2006 02:39 PM

You have to consider that Aubrey in command of a ship and particularly during an action was a different animal entirely as Maturin and others observed more than once during the series (I'm waiting for delivery of The Letter of Marque). I think that Crowe did a good job. And for the record, I can at least match the horror that Colossus invoked: Kevin Costner in either role. Or George Clooney/Brad Pitt.

Posted by: Jeff at April 19, 2006 03:50 PM

Make it stop!

Posted by: Robbo the LB at April 19, 2006 04:07 PM

Ben Stiller/Luke Wilson

Posted by: The Colossus at April 19, 2006 05:57 PM

Sorry -- that should be Owen Wilson. I can actually see Luke Wilson as Maturin.

Posted by: The Colossus at April 19, 2006 05:58 PM

I am just a tape and a half from having listened to all 20 books on tape (or CD in a few instances). The unabridged versions read by Patrick Tull were by far the best of the various versions available. He does a wonderful job in capturing the accents and different personalities and bringing life to the various characters, I followed along with the books early on, but enjoyed listening more than reading.

I had previously listened to "Blue at the Mizzen" due to its availability at the Library when others weren't so I am about to complete "The Hundred Days". I thought "The Commodore" was still quite good even though one of the later works.

Posted by: DJH at April 19, 2006 06:14 PM

I'll have to agree with Jeff: Aubrey at sea was a natural leader who commanded the respect of his men. Aubrey on land was almost Bertie Wooster-ish--gullible, incompetent, yet completely unmalicious. The movie only concerned Aubrey at sea and Russell Crowe's only opportunity to depict Aubrey goofiness was the "lesser of two weevils" joke.; he really didn't have a chance to show that aspect of the character.

So I liked Crowe in the part, though I don't think he's nearly tall enough.I especially liked how he portrayed Aubrey during the whole Jonah episode.

Posted by: Rachel at April 19, 2006 06:50 PM

Martin and Lewis? Reanimated through the musical majiks of a voodoo chief?

Weekend at Aubreys: The Taking of the Cacafuego!

Posted by: Bill from INDC at April 19, 2006 06:50 PM

Oh geez, I just figured it out - Orlando Bloom as Jack Aubrey, that kid that humped the pie in American Idol as Dr. Maturin.

Posted by: Bill from INDC at April 19, 2006 08:20 PM

American *Pie* (not Idol)

Posted by: Bill from INDC at April 19, 2006 08:20 PM