It’s always nice to revisit Aubrey and Maturin. I’ve only read a couple books from this series, and I never feel any serious need to find more installments, but I always enjoy them when I do. And this is one of the best ones – not only because it’s pretty similar to the movie version and picking out what they changed/didn’t change for the adaptation is a fun game, but also for other reasons, which I will now list:
-Plots! So many plots. Almost too many plots.
This book is just over four hundred pages, and there is A LOT happening. The main story concerns the Surprise trying to track an American ship, the Norfolk, around South American (the movie changed the bad guys into Frenchmen, first because it connects better to the threat of Napoleon and also AMERICA FUCK YEAH). But there’s more. Maturin has a spying subplot, as he often does, and there’s a nice scene where Jack helps him figure out where a secret letter has been hidden. Then the Surprise itself is a little fuller than usual, as the ship is carrying a bunch of twelve-year-olds who are learning about ship life (let’s call them interns), which was included in the movie – but there’s also a bunch of crewmen who were recruited from an insane asylum, and also two crewmen bring their wives along. So in addition to the multiple plots, we also have a ton of characters to keep track of, but luckily they’re all a lot of fun. Also we have the tension created between Maturin and Aubrey when Aubrey cancels the former’s day trip to the shore and Maturin gets all huffy about it. And there’s a big scandal where one of the crewmen has an affair with one of the women. And towards the end of the book Aubrey and Maturin fall overboard (or, more accurately, Maturin falls overboard and Aubrey jumps in to save him) and are lost at sea, and then rescued by a boat crewed entirely by Polynesian women who plan to castrate them (why the hell was that not in the movie?). And then Aubrey captures a ship and, due to the Surprise being damaged, the captured crew and Aubrey’s crew have to live on a small island while Aubrey and the other captain try to keep everyone from killing each other.
Quick – without looking, tell me the name of the American ship they’re trying to catch. See what I mean about almost too many plots? It can be hard to keep up with, but luckily it’s all very exciting and well-written, so even if you’re not 100% sure what’s going on, you’re still having a good time.
-Lots of fun details
O’Brian’s books are always impressively researched, but it seemed like there was an extra amount of good insider information about ships in the 1800s here. There are details about the Sunday services given on English ships (sailors were woken up half an hour earlier, to give them time to clean up for services), the sheer number of different people who traveled on ships (see: crewmen’s wives and the interns), and the ceremonies involved in taking a ship and its crew prisoner. I also now know exactly what grog is – I always knew it was watered-down rum, but apparently they also added lemon juice and sugar to it, and someone should really put that in a Mason jar and sell it to hipsters for $15. Additionally, there are a lot of descriptions about the food served on the ship, like this passage about the meal served at a fancy dinner in Aubrey’s cabin:
“‘Mr. Martin,’ said Jack, after the chaplain had said grace, ‘It occurred to me that perhaps you might not yet have seen lobscouse. It is one of the oldest of the forecastle dishes, and eats very savory when it is well made: I used to enjoy it prodigiously when I was young. Allow me to help you to a little.’
Alas, when Jack was young he was also poor, often penniless; and this was a rich man’s lobscouse, a Lord Mayor’s lobscouse. Orrage had been wonderfully generous with his slush, and the liquid fat stood half an inch deep over the whole surface, while the potatoes and pounded biscuit that ordinarily made up the bulk of the dish could scarcely be detected at all, being quite overpowered by the fat meat, fried onions, and powerful spices.”
…yum? Either way, you gotta admire the detail that went into this book. O’Brian knows his stuff.
And now we come to my favorite aspect of this book.
-Ladies! (yeah!) Ladies! (yeah!)
In addition to the two women on board the Surprise (one of whom gets a really good, albeit tragic, subplot where she has an affair with one of the crewmen), there’s the previously-mentioned bit where Aubrey and Maturin get rescued by a ship of Polynesian women. Polynesian women who decorate the masthead of their ship with the severed dicks of their victims. Also at one point a shark swims by their boat, and one of the women jumps into the water and kills it with a knife.
Okay, on the one hand, I understand why this was left out of the movie version, because it would be a total distraction from the whole let’s-get-the-French plot. But on the other hand, where is my movie about a ship full of castrating Polynesian women! Scratch that, I want a miniseries.
Anyway, that entire subplot is awesome, and combined with the two women who travel on the Surprise, completely obliterates the argument that female characters don’t belong in seafaring stories because “it’s not historically accurate!” Check and mate, says O’Brian. Also the Polynesian women are fantastic because they prompt this conversation between Stephen Maturin and another man, which I will reproduce in its entirety because that’s how happy it made me:
“‘No,’ said Martin, ‘I saw nothing but a swarthy crew of ill-looking female savages, full of maligned fury, a disgrace to their sex.’
‘I dare say they had been ill-used, the creatures,’ said Stephen.
‘Perhaps they had,’ said Martin. ‘But to carry resentment to the point of the emasculation you described seems to me inhumane, and profoundly wicked.’
‘Oh, as far as unsexing is concerned, who are we to throw stones? With us any girl that cannot find a husband is unsexed. If she is very high or very low she may go her own way, with the risks entailed therein, but otherwise she must either have no sex or be disgraced. She burns, and she is ridiculed for burning. To say nothing of male tyranny – a wife or a daughter being a mere chattel in most codes of law or custom – and brute force – to say nothing of that, hundreds of thousands of girls are unsexed every generation: and barren women are as much despised as eunuchs. I do assure you, Martin, that if I were a woman I should march out with a flaming torch and a sword; I should emasculate right and left.'”
(at this point, I have to point out that earlier in the book Maturin refuses to perform an abortion on a woman who tells him that her husband will literally kill her if he finds out she’s pregnant, so way to put your money where your mouth is, douche. But the speech is still awesome, and Maturin is still great.)
Verdict: four out of five stars