The Hundred Days

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

For twenty years and through eighteen novels Patrick O’Brian has chronicled the adventures of Jack Aubrey, an enterprising officer who rises through the ranks in the British navy exhibiting courage, good judgment, and an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time to participate in important events in Britain’s war against Napoleon. In the nineteenth installment of the series, set in 1815, Aubrey, now a Commodore, finds himself and his small fleet on patrol in the Mediterranean. Napoleon has escaped from Elba and is mounting a new campaign to reclaim his empire. Aubrey’s assignment is to intercept a fortune in gold on its way to Napoleon through the Balkans. Fortunately for the Commodore, his long-time friend and confidante Dr. Stephen Maturin is still at his side. Maturin, whose medical skills are matched by his ability to gather intelligence for the British forces, is able to help the Commodore navigate the unfamiliar seas of diplomatic courts in North Africa and the Middle East, where Muslim emirs rule as petty tyrants over vast uninhabited stretches of land from which gold can be easily obtained and just as easily exported without interference.

As is the case with most of O’Brian’s novels, the chief interest in The Hundred Days lies not in the plot—Aubrey is ultimately successful in preventing the gold from reaching Napoleon—but in the lively descriptions of life at sea. Technically proficient in eighteenth century sailing practices, O’Brian gives readers the sense of being aboard a British warship, watching sailors hoist canvas and battle the dangers of enemy gunfire and the vicissitudes of unpredictable weather. Although in most situations both Aubrey and Maturin are presented as larger-than-life figures whose skills are matched by few and excelled by none, O’Brian manages to keep readers’ interest by involving his heroes in personal situations that bring out their weaknesses and highlight their common humanity. This novel may not interest a wide audience, but it is a must-read for naval buffs.