Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1810
Blue at the Mizzen is the twentieth volume of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, a saga about life in England’s Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. The series opened in 1801 withMaster and Commander (1969), in which Lt. Jack Aubrey is promoted to commander and given control of his first warship. Blue at the Mizzen brings Aubrey’s career to a new stage. At the beginning of the story, he is a senior post captain and skipper of the HMS Surprise; at the end he is promoted to admiral. The story picks up exactly where the previous volume, The Hundred Days(1998), ended. Napoleon I has been defeated at Waterloo, Belgium, and the long, desperate struggle with Republican and Imperial France is over. Two dominant strands of the saga therefore reach their logical conclusion: the career of a warship’s captain and the struggle against tyranny. At the same time, the themes of friendship and family, which are central to the social texture of the series, grow increasingly poignant and salient as a tone of closure enters the saga. Moreover, O’Brian died on January 2, 2000, leaving the manuscript for the next episode uncompleted. Aubrey and Maturin will sail no farther.
Accordingly, the book is likely to move O’Brian’s fans deeply. It is among his best. He not only freshens the familiar themes but also does so with his accustomed humorous dialogue, gentle irony, nautical erudition, and the associated recondite vocabulary of seafaring. He zestfully describes storms and battles that strike landlubber readers as truly daunting. Moreover, as the story unfolds, so many allusions are made to previous episodes in the long saga and so many names of long-gone shipmates appear that the book can nearly stand as an index to the entire series. While the references may delight fans, these very elements are likely to discourage readers new to O’Brian and may bewilder fans who have not devoted themselves sufficiently to the life and times of Aubrey and Maturin. Only those who have read the entire series, for example, will understand Aubrey’s mourning Barrett Bonden, the coxswain of his gig who was killed in the previous episode, or Maturin’s despair over the death of his wife Dianna, even though they seldom saw each other and shared few intellectual interests.
The story opens in the Royal Navy’s base at Gibraltar, Spain. Aubrey distributes prize money to his crew from the capture of an enemy treasure ship. The good fortune, however, only leads to trouble. Flush with money and the celebration of victory, the sailors either desert or participate in a drunken riot on the base. Aubrey is disgusted and depressed by his men’s behavior, as is Maturin, who is already despondent over Dianna’s death. Both are relieved to sail on a long-delayed voyage to Chile aboard the Surprise, which is manned by a loyal core of experienced men. Ostensibly, Aubrey is to conduct a hydrographic survey of the poorly mapped coast there, but the primary mission is really to carry Maturin to meetings with the revolutionary juntas who are marshalling strength for a rebellion against Spain. The voyage nearly ends in disaster at the outset. On the first night at sea, during a violent storm, the Surprise collides with a merchant vessel. Only heroic efforts bring the ship back to Gibraltar, and after temporary repairs, it sails for Funchal in Madeira for permanent repairs. The ship’s captain and crew arrive to find the port city burning and the docks in ruins. Aubrey decides to sail to England for the repairs, and Maturin, who is impatient for recent information about the Chileans, sails ahead in the ship’s companion vessel, the sloop Ringle.
Reunited in England, Aubrey and Maturin visit their family members, including the captain’s wife Sophie, his daughters, his son, and the surgeon’s daughter Brigid, as well as a multitude of shipmates and relations. For fans of the series, the England scenes are like grand reunions, bubbling with good humor, because almost each person encountered brings to mind an earlier book. They also meet Prince William (later King William IV), who prevails upon Aubrey to accept his illegitimate son, Horatio Fitzroy Hanson, as a midshipman. Aubrey and Maturin at last depart with a replenished crew, hastened on their way by news that Sir David Lindsay, a maverick Royal Navy officer, has been hired by a faction of Chileans to command a tiny navy. Maturin considers him a threat to the political order that England desires and that he is expected to foster.
Maturin’s impatience to depart has an additional cause. He has been corresponding with Christine Wood, an old friend and accomplished naturalist. Maturin views the recently widowed woman as an ideal second wife, whose temperament and scientific interests match his. When the ship reaches Freetown in northwest Africa, where she lives, he enjoys an idyllic day bird-watching with her, as described in one of the most captivating scenes in all of O’Brian’s books. He proposes; she turns him down, but he is not disheartened, because she promises to give his offer more thought and to visit Sophie Aubrey and Brigid in England. He departs with high hopes for an eventual marriage and a life of scientific inquiry with a soul mate.
The Surprise finally reaches the Chilean coast, following a friendly encounter with a once-foe American frigate and a shockingly prolonged, arduous journey around Cape Horn that conjures shipboard life in vivid, often hilarious detail. Awaiting Maturin in Chile is Dr. Amos Jacob, his assistant surgeon and spy, who preceded the ship overland from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to gather fresh intelligence. They learn that the Chilean faction that England supports, led by Chilean revolutionary leader Bernardo O’Higgins and Argentine general José de San Martin, is losing support. While Maturin tries to shore up that support, Aubrey undertakes to disrupt Spanish shipping and capture its men- of-war. In doing so, he must work with Lindsay, a volatile, violent man. Their initial meeting nearly leads to trouble, but Lindsay is soon removed from the story when he dies in a dual with another man.
Related with much dash and occasional comedy, Aubrey’s exploits are astonishingly daring, inventive, and successful. They revive O’Higgins’ power and bring him revenue from a captured treasure.
However, all is not well with the Surprise. O’Higgins does not share the treasure with the English sailors as promised, and morale plummets. Aubrey continues to train Chilean sailors and conducts his hydrographic survey, but he is angry, depressed, and fretful from recent wounds. Having long suffered from an ailment endemic to post captains, “flag sickness,” the aching desire for promotion to admiral, he believes that, with the European war over, his exploits will receive no attention from the Admiralty and his career will languish. In the book’s final scene, however, he at last receives orders to hoist his flag, blue at the mizzen, to denote his status as a rear admiral in charge of a squadron.
For his part, Maturin has every reason to believe, based on letters received, that Wood will agree to marriage when he returns. If that is true and if he fulfills his desire to take her on a prolonged expedition, then his career in the Royal Navy is finished. The basic premise of the series, the adventures of a warship’s skipper and his friend, the surgeon, therefore appears to be abandoned.
The reader receives the tale primarily from an omniscient third- person perspective, conveyed in O’Brian’s remarkably supple, rich prose. However, at several important junctures, the narrative is taken up in letters written by Maturin to Wood or to his spymaster, Sir Joseph Blaine. Particularly through these letters, the reader learns about Aubrey’s longing for his wife and children, despite his great ambition. His family is the tether that binds him to England and prevents him from turning into a disreputable mercenary like Lindsay. Similarly, Maturin ponders his love for Wood, a mutual intellectual respect sweetened by physical attraction. This theme of home and love has always been a value-creating backdrop of the saga.
Even more important is the theme of friendship. The book displays the deep affection and trust between the two central characters and the willingness of each to accommodate the intellect and eccentricities of the other. It is an ideal of friendship. O’Brian develops the theme further in showing how Aubrey takes a liking to Horatio Hanson and becomes his nautical mentor in a relationship that grows to become nearly that of a father and son. By the end of the book, Hanson shows such talent for the naval life, the reader may well wonder if he is another Jack Aubrey in the making. The affection for and guidance of the young also turns up in Maturin’s relation with Brigid and the two South Seas girls he found and helped raise. Thus, the book continues the work of previous episodes in displaying the thoroughgoing humanity of Aubrey and Maturin, despite their faults.
The two characters’ ideal friendship, great success in their respective careers, wealth, fierceness in battle, tenderness toward their families, and enduring luck through many misfortunes are the properties of male fantasy, the impulse for vicarious peril that attracts readers to swashbucklers and thrillers. Considering that the series takes place largely aboard warships, which are, in essence, microcosms of male society, the fantasy receives a particularly concentrated treatment. However, as Blue at the Mizzen takes such care to depict, the influence of home and love are powerful governors to the fantasy. Add to these themes the struggle of men against nature, the waywardness of institutional and national politics, and the sapping effects of ambition and of regrets for lost opportunities, and the book conjures a world that seems too large, convoluted, fortuitous, and messily human to be mere fantasy. O’Brian has a strangely entrancing ability to create characters whose careers are indeed like a daydream of glory but whose lives and personalities show the contours of quotidian existence.
Unfortunately, the fantasy is over. Blue at the Mizzen may leave fans yearning for answers to questions raised in this book: Can Aubrey reenter the intimate, routine life of his family ashore? Will Hanson indeed become a star of the next generation of Royal Navy officers? What will Aubrey do about the treasure withheld from him by the Chileans? Most of all, will Maturin marry Wood? Still, in bringing the saga to a narrative sea change, its twentieth episode is a logical conclusion for the series, whose cumulative power and artistry have no equal in adventure fiction.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 96 (October, 1999): 308.
Library Journal 124 (November 1, 1999): 124.
The New York Times Book Review 104 (October 2, 1999): 40.
The New Yorker 75 (November 8, 1999): 92.
Publishers Weekly 246 (October 11, 1999): 55.
The Washington Post, February 1, 1999, p. A21.
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