The Wine-Dark Sea

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In this sixteenth novel of a series begun decades ago, Patrick O’Brian continues his story of the voyages of the SURPRISE, flagship of British naval officer Jack Aubrey, and his medical officer Stephen Maturin. Sailing the waters of the Pacific off the west coast of South America, Aubrey leads his band of privateers on raids to capture several ships flying the flags of Britain’s enemies. Maturin, carrying on a secret intelligence mission for Catalonian rebels against Spanish interests in South America, goes ashore to help mount an aborted coup against the government of Peru. Aubrey is successful in capturing several ships and a considerable fortune for the British Crown (and for his own men), and the small flotilla he assembles through his seizures escapes both armed resistance and natural disasters to sail around the southern tip of the Continent and begin the long voyage home to England.

The episodic adventures of Aubrey’s ship give O’Brian ample opportunities to create for readers an authentic sense of life at sea in the early nineteenth century, a period fraught with hardships but offering numerous opportunities for displays of genuine heroism in the face of naval opponents and the harsh environment of the ocean. The author’s expertise in nautical terminology show through on every page. Readers familiar with earlier novels about Aubrey and Maturin will find their complex friendship further developed and explored in THE WINE-DARK SEA; readers new to the series will find the novel an exciting introduction to two fascinating characters whose personal qualities and complex personalities make THE WINE-DARK SEA more than a mere adventure story.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. December 19, 1993, XIV, p.4.

The Christian Science Monitor. December 31, 1993, p.11.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, November 14, 1993, p.9.

The New Yorker. LXIX, October 18, 1993, p.121.

Newsweek. CXXII, November 15, 1993, p.84.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, August 30, 1993, p.73.

Time. CXLII, November 8, 1993, p.92.

The Times Literary Supplement. July 2, 1993, p.21.

The Wall Street Journal. November 3, 1993, p. A20.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, November 7, 1993, p.1.

The Wine-Dark Sea

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Until recently, few American readers were familiar with the work of Patrick O’Brian. It will be a surprise to many to learn that O’Brian, who began writing more than four decades before the publication of The Wine-Dark Sea, has had a busy career. His translations include Francoise Mallet-Jois’ Letter to Myself (1964), Simone de Beauvoir’s When Things of the Spirit Come First (1982), and Jean Lacoutre’s two-volume biography of Charles DeGaulle (1990-1992). He has also ventured into the world of nonfiction, writing biographies of Pablo Picasso (1976) and SirJoseph Banks, a pioneer British scientist of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century (1987). Since 1952, he has worked steadily on his craft of fiction, turning out stories and novels that have allowed him to earn his living by pen. His British publishers have been willing to continue bringing out his productions, which have appealed to a small but devoted audience in England but which, until 1990, were virtually unknown on the other side of the Atlantic.

After that date, O’Brian’s name began to appear with considerable frequency in trade publications, magazines, and newspapers, and his work became the subject of conversation among readers who had an interest in historical literature, and especially in nautical fiction. Since 1990, the publishing house of W W. Norton, at the instigation of editor Sterling Lawrence, has been reissuing O’Brian’s series of nautical novels that feature the twin heroes Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. The reaction in the United States was modest at first, but in 1991 Richard Snow published a lengthy review in The New York Times Book Review in which he called O’Brian the greatest historical novelist of all time. While the claim may be considered hyperbolic (comparison with Leo Tolstoy, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Sir Walter Scott may prove Snow wrong), Snow’s article gained for O’Brian a wide reading public. Extensive reviews of O’Brian’s career have been published by John Bayley in The New York Review of Books (November 7, 1991) and Mark Horowitz in The New York Times Magazine (May 16, 1993). W. W. Norton began a newsletter for O’Brian fans and sold more than 400,000 copies of Aubrey/Maturin novels in the three years after the company began distributing them in America.

It is almost impossible to discuss a single novel in the series without first gaining some understanding of the two characters whose friendship ties together the various narratives of the series. Jack Aubrey is a career naval officer, fiery-tempered and exceptionally knowledgeable of the sea and the ships that sail the deep waters. Maturin is an unlikely compatriot for this sailor; a physician by training, he is intensely loyal to his Catalonian heritage (his Catalan father married an Englishwoman) and equally intense in his pursuit of scientific, especially zoological, knowledge. Both have ties on land (Maturin is frequently concerned about his family), but their love of the sea is a bond that unites them. They are bound, too, by their love of music and by an unstated admiration for each other’s professional skills and personal character traits. First introduced to the reading public in Master and Commander (1970), Aubrey and Maturin have been sailing the fictional world of the early nineteenth century through separate but closely tied adventures; The Wine-Dark Sea marks the sixteenth entry into O’Brian’s saga of life at sea in the age of Admiral Horatio Nelson, a time when Great Britain dominated the seas in a way it had never done before—and was soon never to do again.

In The Wine-Dark Sea, Aubrey and Maturin are in late career. Having given up active command of his flagship, the Surprise, Aubrey is now serving as a kind of admiral without commission, heading up an expedition whose aim is to capture vessels of other nations and deliver their prizes (after appropriate commissions are paid to the officers and crew sailing with Aubrey) to the English government. The Surprise is in Pacific waters, and as the novel opens the ship is chasing the Franklin, a vessel flying American colors. Aboard the Franklin is...

(The entire section is 1736 words.)