Patrick O'Brian 1914-2000
(Has also written under the pseudonym Richard Patrick Russ) Irish novelist, short story writer, translator, nonfiction writer, and biographer.
The following entry presents an overview of O'Brian's career through 2000.
O'Brian is a noted scholar and biographer, however, it is his historical fiction novels that have garnered him the most critical and popular attention. While the genre of historical fiction has been ignored by some literary critics, several reviewers have argued that O'Brian transcends the genre with his extensive knowledge of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century naval life, botany, history, and music. His Aubrey/Maturin series of novels, set during the Napoleonic Wars, combined his historical expertise with tightly-constructed adventure narratives. The series is comprised of twenty novels and spans over thirty years of writing, beginning with Master and Commander (1969) and concluding with Blue at the Mizzen (1999).
O'Brian was born in 1914 in Galway, Ireland. His mother died while he was still young and he moved several times to live with various relatives throughout Ireland and England. O'Brian suffered from a recurrent childhood illness which would plague him for years. O'Brian began writing short stories and fiction in his youth, and was fascinated with the eighteenth century, reading authors such as Samuel Richardson, Samuel Johnson, and Jane Austen. In the 1930s, O'Brian studied the classics and philosophy in both England and France. He was denied active service duties during World War II due to medical reasons, but served as an ambulance driver in Chelsea. He also worked for a period in British intelligence with his wife, Mary. After the war, O'Brian focused on developing his writing career and began publishing short stories and novels. He was awarded a CBE award and a Heywood Hill literary prize. O'Brian moved to the Roussillon region of France in the 1950s where he lived in relative seclusion until his death in 2000.
O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series of historical novels traces the relationship between Captain Jack Aubrey, a naval officer, and Stephen Maturin, a naturalist, doctor, and occasional spy for Great Britain, as they adventure across the high seas during the Napoleonic Wars. The two characters have contrasting personalities whose differences play off each other throughout the series. Jack Aubrey is an accomplished sailor and confident leader of his crew, but on land, his skills are limited and he lacks social refinement. Maturin has difficulties adjusting to life at sea, but he is suave, diplomatic, and intelligent when on land. The first novel, Master and Commander, opens as the two men first meet at a musical performance in Spain, where Maturin riles Aubrey with a remark about his lack of musical timing. Although this first encounter does not end well, the two encounter one another again the next day, and Aubrey, who has been offered command of a ship in the British navy, recruits Maturin as the vessel's surgeon. The series contains a wealth of nineteenth-century historical detail—particularly nautical information about life onboard a ship and the mechanics of sailing. The Aubrey/Maturin novels typically create an adventure narrative set against a backdrop of events that actually occurred during the Napoleonic Wars. For example, The Wine-Dark Sea (1993) finds Aubrey's ship, the HMS Surprise, delivering Maturin on a secret mission in Peru and Chile, where he helps independence movements beneficial to the British Crown. In The Yellow Admiral (1996), Aubrey is awaiting a fateful decision about his career, and is hoping for a promotion to rear admiral of the Blue Squadron. He dreads the other possible outcome—a promotion to a post that carries no command—sometimes called a “Yellow Admiral.” Aubrey threatens his promotion with his criticism of naval policy and his inability to get along with his superiors. The Aubrey/Maturin series eventually spanned twenty novels, ending with Blue at the Mizzen. This last volume opens with Napoleon being defeated at Waterloo. Aubrey and Maturin are sent to Chile to help free the country from their occupation by Spain. During the voyage, half of Aubrey's crew deserts the ship and the under-staffed Surprise is forced to battle the Spanish Armada.
Although the Aubrey/Maturin series comprises O'Brian's best known and most acclaimed works, he is also an accomplished short story writer, biographer, and translator. In the short fiction collection, The Rendezvous and Other Stories (1995), only the story “Billabillian” focuses on nautical history. The rest of the stories in the volume examine the relationship between nature and humankind, as in “The Chian Wine,” which deals with a medieval European town on its emergence into the twentieth century. O'Brian has produced several translations of the works of French authors, including Simone de Beauvoir and Henri Charriere. He has also published two well received biographies, one of artist Pablo Picasso, the other about naturalist Joseph Banks. In Joseph Banks: A Life (1987) O'Brian uses journal entries, letters, and reports from Banks' contemporaries to recount the life of the naturalist who served as the president of the Royal Society for more than forty years.
Although the Aubrey/Maturin novels were critically and commercially popular in England for many years, they received a lukewarm critical reception upon their publication in the United States in the 1970s. The series did, however, gain a renewed popularity in the 1990s when the entire run was released in paperback. Reviewers have often discussed the Aubrey/Maturin novels as though they are interlinked into one epic saga, or treat them as separate chapters within an ongoing novel. Many critics have favorably compared the novels to C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower series. Others have compared O'Brian to Jane Austen because of his precision of language and ability to flesh out nineteenth-century characters. James Hamilton-Paterson asserted, “Patrick O'Brian is unquestionably the Homer of the Napoleonic wars.” Reviewers have debated about the categorization of O'Brian's seafaring novels, with some calling them adventure stories and others historical novels. In fact, much of the criticism surrounding the Aubrey/Maturin novels revolves around this question of genre and a debate over their legitimacy as literature. A number of critics have also disagreed about the quality of O'Brian's characterization in the Aubrey/Maturin series. John Mullan stated in a review of The Yellow Admiral, “While the information is dense, characterization is primitive. Aubrey and Maturin scarcely exist except to voice knowledge and exhibit wearying abilities.” However, several reviewers have cited the portrayal of the main characters and their relationship as the strongest feature of the series. While many reviewers were enthusiastic about the first novels in the series, several critics began to tire of the repetition found in the later novels. Christopher Claussen asserted, “The […] disadvantage to so long a series is that the characters and action become too predictable. What began as a set of premises hardens into formula.” Despite these complaints, O'Brian has been consistently lauded by critics for his extensive historical knowledge and his ability to infuse his work with the minutia of nineteenth-century life. Patrick T. Reardon praised O'Brian's “wonderfully exact language, his erudition, his delight in human idiosyncrasy, his fine hand with character, his zest for the nitty-gritty of life and for life itself, his love of the sea and his ability to infect even committed landlubbers with a touch of that love.” Critics have generally lauded O'Brian's biographies, particularly for their ability to condense a tremendous amount of research into a readable narrative. Yet several reviewers have criticized O'Brian's reverence for his subjects—especially Joseph Banks—and claim that such reverence limits his ability to accurately portray them.
A Book of Voyages [editor] (nonfiction) 1947
The Last Pool and Other Stories (short stories) 1950
Three Bear Witness (novel) 1952 [published in the U.S. as Testimonies]
The Frozen Flame (novel) 1953 [published in the U.S. as The Catalans]
The Walker and Other Stories (short stories) 1955 [published in the U.S. as Lying in the Sun and Other Stories]
The Golden Ocean (novel) 1956; revised edition, 1970
The Unknown Shore (novel) 1959
Richard Temple (novel) 1962
The Wreathed Head [translator; from the novel by Christine de Rivoyre] (novel) 1962
*Master and Commander (novel) 1969
*Post Captain (novel) 1972
*HMS Surprise (novel) 1973
The Chian Wine and Other Stories (short stories) 1974
Men-of-War (nonfiction) 1974
Picasso: A Biography (biography) 1976
*The Mauritius Command (novel) 1977
*Desolation Island (novel) 1978
*The Fortune of War (novel) 1979
*The Surgeon's Mate (novel) 1980
*The Ionian Mission (novel) 1981
When Things of the Spirit...
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SOURCE: “In Which We Serve,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. 38, No. 18, November 7, 1991, pp. 7–8.
[In the following essay, Bayley discusses O'Brian's series of novels about Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin and praises the author's gifts as a novelist.]
In Aldous Huxley's first novel, Crome Yellow, a man of action recounts an escapade of his youth, and comments that such things are only really agreeable to look back on after the event. Nothing is exciting as it happens. Warriors in heroic times only knew what they had been through when they heard about it from the bard in the mead-hall. Armchair warriors who have never performed such feats can nonetheless become connoisseurs of them at second hand. In the same way, it is possible to become an expert on the apparatus of the old-time naval world—backstays and top-gallants, twenty-four pounders and hardtack—without having the faintest idea how to fire a gun, reef a sail, or fother a ship's bottom. Naval novels today are unique among the genre in this engaging respect: author and reader are alike innocent of the experience graphically conveyed by the one and eagerly appreciated by the other.
This may seem a good reason for not taking such books very seriously. The Marryat who wrote Mr. Midshipman Easy and the Melville who wrote Moby-Dick had themselves been to sea, as frigate officer and as a whaling hand:...
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SOURCE: “The Very Social Scientist,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 4, 1993, p. 9.
[In the following review, Stewart praises O'Brian's ability to skillfully condense large amounts of biographical material in Joseph Banks: A Life, but complains that O'Brian shows too much deference to his subject.]
When Captain James Cook returned from his first great circumnavigation of the globe in 1771, the British public was wild with admiration. We have forgotten, though, that public adoration at the time was not for James Cook at all but for his young naturalist passenger, Joseph Banks, whose life Patrick O'Brian recounts in Joseph Banks: A Life. As quickly as the Endeavor docked, Cook was shunted aside and forgotten in the excitement. The expedition was popularly referred to as “Mr. Banks's Voyage,” and some newspapers reported—wrongly—that Banks and not Cook had been the ship's commander.
Before the voyage, Joseph Banks had published virtually nothing, nor was he renowned as a botanist. Yet he was soon to become the most prominent naturalist in England. Within a very short time, he was elected president of the Royal Society, a post formerly held by Isaac Newton. And he was to remain president for more than 40 years, until his death at age 77, guiding the society to a new era of scientific professionalism.
Joseph Banks' meteoric rise to...
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SOURCE: “So Much They Talked, So Very Little Said,” in Spectator, Vol. 271, No. 8609, July 10, 1993, pp. 28–29.
[In the following positive review, Rogers explores the vast amount of historical detail included in The Wine-Dark Sea.]
The Wine-Dark Sea has to be the most extraordinary work I have read by a contemporary. It is the 16th in a series about the sea wars against Napoleon, a series so interlinked that to come for the first time on one of these books is like finding a solitary surviving fragment from a lost cycle of heroic saga.
I am reminded of those fragments written by Taliesin in the sixth century about the doomed Welsh kingdoms of Southern Scotland. In these, as here, characters appear trailing incidents and relationships you are expected to know about from earlier works. Such matters have kept Welsh scholars gainfully employed for decades, and I could have done with their footnotes or their equivalent.
As in Taliesin and other heroic poets, characterisation is perfunctory, for Owain ap Urien and Achilles are endlessly their familiar selves. Structure is also perfunctory, for the events are part of a much larger cycle, so there is no more tension than in that experienced in watching a lit train travel slowly across a landscape at night. Pace and exegesis are not of our time, so it is remarkable to see that this book appears under the imprint of...
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SOURCE: A review of Joseph Banks: A Life, in Smithsonian, Vol. 24, No. 5, August, 1993, p. 106.
[In the following review, Dirda offers a positive assessment of Joseph Banks: A Life, calling the biography “well-researched.”]
Anyone who regularly reads historical novels or remembers with pleasure C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower sea stories probably already knows about Patrick O'Brian. Over the past two or three years O'Brian's adventure novels about Captain Jack Aubrey and surgeon-spy Stephen Maturin—there are about 15, all set during the Napoleonic Wars—stopped being coterie classics and found a wide, appreciative audience. Reviewers competed in their choice of superlatives; bookstores vainly tried to keep Master and Commander or The Letter of Marque in stock. After a lifetime of writing and translating (Simone de Beauvoir, among others) Patrick O'Brian was, at nearly 80, a literary celebrity.
One benefit of that renown is the American publication of O'Brian's 1987 life of Joseph Banks, (Joseph Banks: A Life) the 18th-century naturalist who accompanied Captain Cook on his first voyage to the South Seas and who later became the president of Britain's scientific Royal Society. The biography rivals the Aubrey-Maturin novels as genial, civilized entertainment.
Rich, outdoorsy and immensely likable, Joseph Banks (1743–1820)...
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SOURCE: “Patrick O'Brian's Profoundly Addictive Tales of the Sea,” in Chicago Tribune Books, December 19, 1993, p. 4.
[In the following review, Reardon offers a positive assessment of The Wine-Dark Sea, noting that—although the novels in O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series are similar—each installment remains enjoyable on its own.]
The Wine-Dark Sea, is the 16th in Patrick O'Brian's series of addictively readable Aubrey/Maturin novels of the British Navy at sea and at war in the early 19th Century.
For those already caught in the thrall of the exploits of Captain Jack Aubrey and his particular friend, Stephen Maturin, a surgeon, naturalist and spy of high skills, no more needs to be said. Skip the rest of this review. Go out and buy the book.
For those who have seen the handsomely packaged paperback copies of the series blossoming, seemingly all at once, across entire shelves of bookstores in the past year or so and remain puzzled over what all the fuss is about, a few words of explanation:
The best way to think of these novels is as a single 5,000-page book. But this is no overstuffed epic. It is, if you can imagine such a thing, an intimate book that just happens to be 5,000 pages long.
Also, you don't have to read it from beginning to end. You can pick up any book in the series—The Wine-Dark Sea, for...
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SOURCE: “Vivid Adventures of Two Friends,” in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 86, December 31, 1993, p. 11.
[In the following review, Pratter offers a positive assessment of The Wine-Dark Sea, calling the novel a good introduction into the world of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.]
The Wine-Dark Sea is a perfect sampler of O'Brian's distinctive style. It begins with a chase across the South Seas from New South Wales to Peru, a chase interrupted by a submarine volcanic eruption—the portent of which is the lurid orange of the sky and the deep purplish tinge of the swell. The novel ends as vividly among the blue ice mountains of the Antarctic seas south of Cape Horn. In between, there are sea-fights, a South American revolution, dead calms, and hurricane gales.
But the focus of this volume, as in the preceding ones of this notable series, is the friendship of Captain Jack Aubrey and his companion, Stephen Maturin, physician, naturalist, and spy. A good many of the incidents are told, as in Attic tragedy, by off-stage commentators. We see the awful night of the volcano from the perspective of Maturin's surgery below decks, as he tends to the casualties of the eruption.
The two friends were introduced in the 1970 volume Master and Commander in which Aubrey, newly made captain of His Majesty's Sloop of War Sophie, meets Maturin in Port Mahon,...
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SOURCE: “Regressive Pleasures,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 2, 1994, pp. 4, 11.
[In the following review, Balzar offers a positive assessment of The Wine-Dark Sea and the Aubrey/Maturin series.]
Ned Ludd is said to have been an apprentice stocking maker in England 175 years ago. In a fit one day he grabbed a hammer and smashed his newly invented knitting frame to pieces. They called him a half-wit, though you can decide for yourself if this is a fair characterization of the man whose name came to symbolize the idea that technological advancement is not necessarily or always for the good.
Encyclopedia references suggest the Luddite movement was quickly wiped out by the British Army—an example to the billions of us born since that progress is a one-way street and you'll be trampled if you go against traffic.
But Luddite sympathizers have stubbornly hung on all these years, nursing their gripe with the cult of efficiency. You may know them as the people who would like to heave their desktop out the window, but cannot, because their hands are crippled by carpal tunnel syndrome. They ask what is to be gained when dishes must be washed off before inserted in the dishwasher, and recognize each other on the streets by the stains on their fingers from leaky fountain pens.
And in recent years, these American Luddites have bought more...
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SOURCE: “Delmore Schwartz Was a Fan,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 2, 1994, p. 4.
[In the following review, McGonigle discusses the moral difficulties explored in Testimonies.]
Questions are being asked as Testimonies opens. Something terrible must have happened. Questions do not get asked when something good has happened. Does one believe the testimony that is given? Well, that depends on the telling, on the sense of veracity that the author creates within the voice of the character.
Testimonies, published more than 40 years ago to mostly very good reviews, has been returned to print because of Patrick O'Brian's recent great success as the author of a series of, to this moment, 16 novels devoted to the adventures of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin during the period of the Napoleonic wars. These novels have been hailed as being among the greatest historical novels ever written.
When a novel is being revived it is thought that it serves the novel well if those original reviews are prominently quoted and thus new reviewers and readers will be intimidated against daring to question the judgment of those authorities who usually have gone on to much greater fame. It is to be wondered if O'Brian's current fans will be interested in this intensely literary novel. In any case Delmore Schwartz does yeoman duty and a section from his compilation...
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SOURCE: “Seaworthy,” in National Review, Vol. 46, January 24, 1994, p. 65.
[In the following positive review, Abrams argues that The Wine-Dark Sea is first and foremost a straightforward adventure story.]
Patrick O'Brian [author of The Wine-Dark Sea] is a 79-year-old Irishman who has lived in the south of France for four decades. In addition to translating all of Simone de Beauvoir, a bit of Colette, and Jean Lacouture's recent biography of de Gaulle, he has written well-received biographies of Picasso and Joseph Banks, and many other novels. In 1969 he began publishing a series of sea stories set in the Napoleonic period. The series relates the adventures of a British sea captain, Jack Aubrey, and his friend Stephen Maturin, ship's surgeon and British intelligence agent. Five of these tales were published in the United States in the early 1970s, but poor sales led the publisher to drop them, and for over a decade Mr. O'Brian's books were almost unavailable in this country.
And then—Boom! In the last three years Patrick O'Brian has become a phenomenon, racking up ecstatic reviews, sales in the hundreds of thousands, and celebrity status. His book-signings are mobbed, and when he was invited to read from his works at the National Archives an overflow crowd filled two auditoriums.
The O'Brian craze started in 1991. The last bad old review came in the...
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SOURCE: “Napoleonic Complex,” in New Republic, Vol. 211, December 26, 1994, pp. 31–35.
[In the following review, Hamilton-Paterson discusses O'Brian's writing style, focusing on The Rendezvous and Other Stories, The Commodore, and Patrick O'Brian: Critical Essays and a Bibliography.]
Here we have that not unfamiliar figure: the first-rate writer who has worked consistently and prolifically for almost the past half-century, whose books have been greatly praised by famous people while remaining unknown to a wide audience, but whose time—at last—has come. No one whose time has not come is treated to his own bibliography fleshed out with admiring essays. And when the essayists are people as varied and distinguished as a British ex-minister for science, a Fellow of the National Maritime Museum, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA, an ex-professor of English literature at Oxford and Charlton Heston, you know you're dealing with someone special.
But what kind of writer merits this ambiguous kind of attention? Among the answers would be: a private and retiring soul who lives on the borders of Catalonia and has little truck with literary society; someone whose erudition is so deep and wide that he can be written off as “just a scholar”; a writer whose great achievement is a seventeen-volume masterpiece of fiction who can yet be dismissed as “just a historical novelist.”...
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SOURCE: “Battling Slavers Off the West Coast of Africa,” in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 87, May 2, 1995, p. 14.
[In the following review, Pratter offers a positive assessment of The Commodore, calling it a welcome addition to the Aubrey/Maturin series.]
One of the best storytellers afloat sets sail again in the pages of The Commodore. This 17th novel in Patrick O'Brian's series about adventure in the British Royal Navy is as finely trimmed as the ships he writes about.
The legion of fans who have savored the unfolding story of Captain “Lucky Jack” Aubrey and the saturnine Dr. Steven Maturin can be of good cheer. The old master hasn't lost his touch.
Last year's Wine-Dark Sea was a grand melodrama, filled with storms, sea chases, and climactic battles. A first-time reader might do well to start with that volume, then return to the beginning of the series, with Master and Commander (1969) and Post Captain (1972).
This year's offering is in a lower key. The focus is on character, not incident, and the social byplay of life ashore and in the closed world of the ships of the British fleet during the last years of the Napoleonic wars.
As the novel opens, the two friends are returning from the circumnavigation that has occupied the last few books. Both are immensely wealthy from this and...
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SOURCE: “An Eighteenth-Century Voice,” in Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 276, July, 1995, pp. 92–96.
[In the following mixed review, Powers argues that The Commodore is not as impressive as the earlier books in the Aubrey/Maturin series, but the novel is still better than most contemporary fiction.]
The noise accompanying the publication this spring of The Commodore, the seventeenth novel in Patrick O'Brian's Napoleonic naval-war series, demonstrates that this ancient Irishman, long the object of reverence for a small, fanatically devoted sect, is now the center of a booming industry. And yet there remain cautious readers who would not consider taking up one of these volumes, believing them to be no more than deep-dish costume dramas.
“What I hadn't understood, when I began these things,” O'Brian says, “was what a depraved genre it is in the general mind. It had never occurred to me that to shift the scene of a novel to another age … and to cast it in an English in some degrees pleasanter than the current, put me in a disreputable genre. I met some very astonishing statements—such as that I was a writer of adventure stories.”
At the risk of alienating the self-improving reader, let me say that these books are, in fact, extraordinarily exciting, with adventure very much on the page. Patrick O'Brian is indeed the true heir of Captain...
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SOURCE: “On the High Seas with the Royal Navy and Patrick O'Brian,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. 104, No. 2, Spring, 1996, p. R40.
[In the following review, Pickering argues that although Men-of-War is an interesting look at life in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, he believes that the Aubrey/Maturin series offer a more-rounded portrayal of the era due to the fictional narrative.]
“Thick weather in the chops of the Channel and a dirty night, with the strong north-east wind bringing rain from the low sky and racing clouds: Ushant somewhere away on the starboard bow, the Scillies to larboard, but never a light, never a star to be seen; and no observation for the last four days.” Thick weather, racing clouds, and the wind from the northeast are matters worth thinking about after a day at the office and the long drive home, the radio jabbering about “grass-combing lubbers” and squalls of no consequence: Whitewater, Deon Sanders, and Pat Buchanan.
The dirty night occurs at the beginning of The Commodore, Patrick O'Brian's seventeenth novel describing the fortunes of Captain Jack Aubrey and his chum Stephen Maturin. Men-of-War was published in Britain in 1974. The success of O'Brian's series has led to the book's being published in the United States. For readers whose experience of the watery deep is limited to the novels of Alexander Kent or C. S....
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SOURCE: “The O'Brian Touch,” in Raritan: A Quarterly Review, Vol. 16, No. 1, Summer, 1996, pp. 116–31.
[In the following essay, Edwards offers a positive assessment of the Aubrey/Maturin series, stating that the novels transcend mere genre writing.]
Admirers of Patrick O'Brian's historical novels sometimes think of the literate English-speaking world as divided into three parts: themselves, people who haven't yet read the books, and those—so few as to be negligible—who do know but don't like them. The second group may need to hear that there are now seventeen novels dealing with the adventures during the Napoleonic wars of Captain John Aubrey, R.N., and his shipmate and close friend Dr. Stephen Maturin, physician, naturalist, and intelligence agent.
Our sense of who we are includes memories of the reading that brought us pleasure and illumination at the right time; Keats on Chapman's Homer and King Lear is more candid about this than most writers have liked to be. The kind of pleasure and illumination naturally varies, and not all the books need be certifiably great. Nor does everyone remember and cherish the same ones, for the same reasons. I myself read C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower stories when young, and I still value what they had to say about history, the sea, and the devices of leadership. I don't recall them as being impressive otherwise, and a recent...
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SOURCE: “O'Brian Back at the Helm,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 20, 1996, p. 3.
[In the following review, Balzar offers a positive assessment of The Yellow Admiral.]
The Yellow Admiral is Patrick O'Brian's 18th novel in the British seafaring adventures of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin—that most improbably wonderful series of grown-up literary-historical flights of escapism. Here, in the year 1814, “The Yellow Admiral” refers not to a cowardice in battle but to an admiral without ships to command.
No use dwelling on the plot, though. The no-longer secret is that plots of O'Brian's tales are like grapes to wine: pretty much essential, but not by themselves sublime. Virtuosity proves itself when a sip of the story actuates the senses and stirs cravings that become habits, no matter where you find yourself being taken.
At this point, it can be noted that there is a split in the reading public.
There are those already planning this afternoon's trip to the bookstore. Their only reaction is: Thank god, Patrick O'Brian is still writing.
To you, I say, not a moment to lose. Peace is breaking out in Europe and the tension is exquisite. Aubrey is having an awful time ashore and afloat, but Maturin materializes with a plan. Except Napoleon pops a surprise.
Then, there are those of you readers...
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SOURCE: “Ahoy! Patrick O'Brian Sails Again,” in Commonweal, Vol. 123, No. 19, November 8, 1996, pp. 9–10.
[In the following positive review, Wheeler compares The Yellow Admiral and the entire Aubrey/Maturin series with Homer's epic tales of ancient Greek life.]
The enormous success of Patrick O'Brian's historical novels defies any simple explanation. Perhaps the current interest in film adaptations of Jane Austen's works offer some explanatory clue. Indeed, the two authors share a loving devotion to the Royal Navy at the time of the Napoleonic campaigns, but O'Brian sails with hindsight into waters which Miss Austen could only imagine, landlocked as she was ashore. Norton, O'Brian's publishers, certainly cannot be at sea when they regard the enormous sales figures; their best-selling author can even be found smiling quizzically from his own spot on their internet home page. Perhaps he wonders about the on-line links to a chat group and a list-serv which allow, well, a little ebb and flow of conversation for his readers after the novels are read and reread.
Whatever the case may be, the good news in the Patrick O'Brian home port is that the eighteenth Aubrey/Maturin novel, The Yellow Admiral, has just been published. The bad news lies in the fact that the master storyteller is over eighty and the likelihood of many more novels in the series is surely fading away....
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SOURCE: “Up and Down with Stephen and Jack,” in New Leader, Vol. 79, No. 9, December 16, 1996, pp. 22–23.
[In the following negative review, Clausen complains that The Yellow Admiral is repetitive and that O'Brian should have stopped the Aubrey/Maturin series after the seventh novel.]
It's been a long voyage, but Captain John Aubrey, RN, and Dr. Stephen Maturin seem to be heading, if at a leisurely pace, for their final port. Aubrey and Maturin, as millions of readers know, are the co-protagonist of Patrick O'Brian's 18 novels about life on the high seas during the Napoleonic Wars. By the end of The Yellow Admiral, Napoleon has at last been exiled to Elba and peace has returned to Europe—though only for the moment.
It seems an age since Stephen and Jack met at a concert (both characters are accomplished amateur musicians) on the Mediterranean island of Minorca in the spring of 1800. It has been an age, 27 years to be exact, since the initial volume in the series, Master and Commander, issued obscurely from Collins in England and Lippincott in this country. After the first three novels Lippincott was replaced by Stein and Day, which brought out the next two. The series had no American publisher throughout the 1980s, when eight further volumes appeared in England. Not until 1990 did Norton begin bringing out new installments as they appeared and, perhaps more...
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SOURCE: “Something Happened on the Way to Chile,” in Spectator, Vol. 278, No. 8788, January 4, 1997, pp. 30–31.
[In the following review, Teacher offers a positive assessment of The Yellow Admiral, complimenting O'Brian's great knowledge of English country life.]
Fourteen years have passed since the acrimonious exchange between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin during the interval of the first and second movements of Locatelli's C-major quartet in the music-room of Government House, Port Mahon on 1 April 1800. The period covered by The Yellow Admiral (the 18th novel in the series chronicling the careers of these remarkable fictional characters) is that of the Brest blockade prior to Napoleon's abdication after the Battle of Toulouse, 10 April 1814, until his subsequent escape from Elba.
Jack Aubrey's most fervent wish, as he creeps to the top of the Captains' List, is for promotion to Rear-Admiral of the Blue Squadron. However, as long as the uneasy peace in Europe prevails so does the likelihood of his being yellowed increase—the ultimate naval humiliation for an ambitious naval captain, that of promotion to a post which carries no command, the Yellow Squadron, and whose officers, although entitled to the half-pay of a rear-admiral, have no further prospects of either employment or promotion.
And, of course, on the home front Jack Aubrey does...
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SOURCE: “Nicely Culled,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4893, January 10, 1997, p. 20.
[In the following review, Mullan offers a negative assessment of The Yellow Admiral, criticizing the novel's weak plot and sparse characterization.]
Auscultation, calidarium, fulvous, grego, grigs, horchata, leet, mumping, sillery, wariangle, xebec: just a small sample from the diction of Patrick O'Brian's The Yellow Admiral, the latest in his series of novels of nautical derring-do, set during the Napoleonic wars, which began with Master and Commander in 1969. Help is at hand for curious readers, who will soon be able to reach for the Patrick O'Brian Companion, recently commissioned by his American publisher, if they do not already own the rival, A Sea of Words: A Lexicon and Companion for Patrick O'Brian's Seafaring Tales. It is to be hoped that the compilers of both these books have been in communication with the author, for he has a special liking for words obscure enough to have evaded dictionary-makers.
The recondite vocabulary is, in a way, what O'Brian's fiction is all about. This is not just because he writes stories of the sea, full of salty slang and names of the parts of ships. Only the last of those words at the beginning of this review is specifically nautical: “xebec”—a small three-masted Mediterranean ship, lateen-rigged but with some...
(The entire section is 1286 words.)
SOURCE: “In Full Sail,” in Books Magazine, Vol. 11, No. 4, October, 1997, p. 5.
[In the following review, the critic offers a positive assessment of The Yellow Admiral and notes that he believes O'Brian's work is finally getting the recognition it deserves.]
Tom Stoppard, Mark Knopfler, Professor John Bayley, Nicholas Soames, William Waldegrave, Charlton Heston, Michael Grade, Warren Christopher … What could possibly link such an eclectic group of people? The answer is not what but who—Patrick O'Brian, a reclusive octogenarian who has been described as “the finest novelist now writing in the English language.”
For close on thirty years, O'Brian has been quietly working away on a series of novels set in the Napoleonic wars and featuring Captain ‘Lucky Jack’ Aubrey and his friend and shipmate Stephen Maturin. The sequence opened with Master and Commander and the latest—his eighteenth—is The Yellow Admiral. Set against the backdrop of the Brest Blockade, it finds Aubrey hoping for promotion to Rear-Admiral of the Blue Squadron but worried about the prospect of demotion to Yellow Squadron, whose officers have no command and no hope of further advancement. And, of course, Aubrey's criticism of naval policy is causing intense annoyance at Westminster.
Over the years, O'Brian has acquired a growing audience of devoted fans and,...
(The entire section is 726 words.)
SOURCE: “Summer Reading,” in Commonweal, Vol. 125, No. 12, June 19, 1998, p. 20.
[In the following excerpt, Finn argues that O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series is perfect for summer reading.]
I've always wondered what's meant by “summer reading.” Must it consist of books too lightweight to admit to reading during the rest of the year? Do we really want to spend a season leafing through books of ponderous humor, memoirs about pets, accounts of the foibles of the royal family? Certainly one doesn't want to lug the complete Remembrance of Things Past to the beach, where it has to compete with the sun beating down, saltwater sticky hands, sand between the pages. But to read it volume by volume, on a grassy terrace in late afternoon or for an hour, with coffee, on a fragrant summer morning … well, why not?
For my kind of summer reading you have to have unaccustomed leisure (enough time to read for sheer pleasure at least several hours at a stretch), physical comfort (relief from oppressive heat, bugs, and other distractions of the season), and most important, you have to choose a congenial spot. Here's my daydream of summer reading: A shady screened porch, a slight breeze wafting in the scent of new-mown grass, a little vase of jewel-like nasturtiums catching a ray of afternoon sun. I am reclining in exquisite comfort in my lounge chair, reading from beginning to end the (so...
(The entire section is 759 words.)
SOURCE: “Those in Peril on the Sea,” in Spectator, Vol. 281, No. 8872, August 22, 1998, p. 32.
[In the following review, Judd offers a positive assessment of The Hundred Days, praising the novel's characterization, action, and credibility.]
The creation of a convincing imaginary world, one whose power to convince rests not only on the truth of history but the truth of experience, compelling assent—yes, this is what it is like to doubt, fear, love, thirst, hope and despair—is itself a significant literary achievement. To sustain that world over 19 sequential novels, as Patrick O'Brian has now done with The Hundred Days, goes beyond significance. These novels, set in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars and featuring his two complementary heroes, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, are as remarkable a literary endeavour as were the historical endeavours that gave them rise. Part of that remarkableness is that the novels transcend their origin; you do not need to be interested in the sea or warfare to enjoy them, though you will doubtless become so.
As the title suggests, the action of the 19th adventure takes place between Napoleon's escape from Elba and Waterloo. It is set in the Mediterranean, in the Aegean and along the Barbary Coast, with Jack Aubrey beginning the book flying his commodore's flag. The political and military background is the destruction of any...
(The entire section is 850 words.)
SOURCE: “A Genuine Romancer,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4979, September 4, 1998, p. 10.
[In the following review, Everett offers a positive assessment of The Hundred Days.]
Manifestly successful at last, often described now as the greatest historical novelist of the century, and awarded prizes and honours as well as accolades, Patrick O'Brian still doesn't convince quite everybody. For some old admirers, the excitement has not survived a second reading; there are readers who call him second-rate on the first. What is lacking is real agreement as to what the writer is first- or second-rate at doing.
Part of the confusion may derive from uncertainty as to what fiction really is. The novel, though highly reputed, is a late development—merely an offshoot of Romance, the non-naturalistic form which dominated Europe for 1,000 years before Shakespeare and a hundred or two after. Romance still survives as crime fiction, science fiction and the historical novel, and the form may, in fact, in a modernistic and postmodernistic age, be becoming again as important as it was in the Middle Ages. Certainly it often seems to be attracting (or creating) richer talents than the current and orthodox novel.
The Hundred Days is a romance. O'Brian started off as a novelist—the early Testimonies (as it is now called) is an admirably refined and intense novel of...
(The entire section is 811 words.)
SOURCE: “A Credible Shivering of Timbers,” in Observer, September 6, 1998, p. 16.
[In the following positive review, Jacques praises the writing and sense of history in The Hundred Days.]
Historical novels are an extraordinary genre. They have the ability to convey the feel, the detail, the language, the etiquette, the technology of the time like no conventional history book can ever do. While historical works are strong on explanation and fact, only historical novels can transport your soul and your senses back to the period in question. Their only rival is a good television historical drama, or its big screen equivalent, but the experience is somehow less total. The historical novel is a three-dimensional experience, four if you allow for your own imagination, while the screen is strictly two.
Of course, much depends on the quality of the telling and it is here that Patrick O'Brian scores in The Hundred Days. First, he knows his subject through and through. Even if you know nothing about men-of-war in 1815 and are baffled by talk of fore-topsails and mizzen topgallants, the naturalness of the detail, the assumption that the ship in all its finery is second-nature, draws one page by page into feeling that somehow this is not an alien world but in fact your very own.
O'Brian has a fine command of the language. There is something effortless about his style...
(The entire section is 577 words.)
SOURCE: “O'Brian's Great Voyage,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. 47, No. 4, March 9, 2000, pp. 11–16.
[In the following essay, Hitchens compares and contrasts O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series to C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower saga, and discusses the personal insights found in Dean King's biography Patrick O'Brian: A Life Revealed.]
On any approximately proportionate view of history, of the kind that may become more gradually available to us as the long day of the twentieth century wanes, the Napoleonic conflict would deserve to be called the First World War. Never before had two great powers and their volatile allies mobilized their societies so extensively to contend for mastery over so immense a reach of the earth's surface. Great engagements were fought at the gates of Moscow, in the Baltic, at the mouth of the Nile, in Italy, Turkey, and Spain, but the reverberations extended, by way of proxy fighting, to China, Australia, and other barely charted latitudes. Both North and South America, and the intervening Caribbean basin, were drawn in, and found their internal politics conditioned by French and English rivalries and allegiances. Hitherto obscure archipelagoes and islands such as the Falklands and Mauritius became decisive. Local nationalisms were inflamed and manipulated from Chile to Ireland. Macaulay later wrote of Frederick the Great that, as a...
(The entire section is 6223 words.)
Ewan, Joseph. Review of Joseph Banks: A Life, by Patrick O'Brian. Isis 85, No. 3 (September 1994): 523.
Ewan offers a positive assessment of Joseph Banks: A Life.
Gordon, Neil. “The Admiral: Patrick O'Brian's Poseidon Adventure.” Voice Literary Supplement 136 (June 1995): 15–19.
Gordon explores the major characteristics of O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novel series and discusses how the novels have been received in within their genre of historical fiction.
Gray, Paul. “Sailing Off to the Past.” Time 142, No. 19 (8 November 1993): 90.
Gray argues that the allure of The Wine-Dark Sea is partially due to the meticulously-researched nineteenth-century world that O'Brian has created.
Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. “Two Characters in Search of Nautical Enigmas.” New York Times (1 November 1993): C19.
Lehmann-Haupt compliments O'Brian's convincing prose in The Wine-Dark Sea.
McGrath, Charles. “The Long Journey.” New Yorker 69, No. 34 (18 October 1993): 121.
McGrath analyzes how O'Brian's Jack Aubrey novels display both the benefits and the limitations of writing within a specific literary genre.
Prance, Ghillean T. “Captain Cook's Naturalist.”...
(The entire section is 248 words.)