The Mauritius Command

I’ve been spending this weekend sweating away in the midst of a power outage and triple-digit temperatures, during which my long-distance and cell phone services also went down, leaving me with only a small battery-operated radio for getting news. Feeling completely cut off from civilization from Friday night to early Sunday afternoon, I could console myself with the fact that Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin had to deal with far worse conditions in The Mauritius Command. A lack of air conditioning is no fun, but at least I wasn’t on a ship in the middle of the ocean during a hurricane. And a lack of phone and Internet is aggravating, but at least I didn’t have to wait months for a letter from home only to find that it was soaked through and completely illegible.

The Mauritius Command is the fourth of Patrick O’Brian’s books about Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin. When the book begins, it’s 1810, and Jack, now married and the father of twin girls, is at home in a cottage in Hampshire. Aside from his cottage being a little draughty and too small for his growing family and his pay being cut in half, Jack has every reason to be happy. But he’s miserable. He’s not impressed with his infant daughters, and he’s annoyed with the lack of discipline in his home. In truth, he longs to be at sea again—and not just for the money. So when Stephen brings word that Jack is to be asked to lead a campaign against the French at the islands of Mauritius and La Réunion, Jack is eager to go.

In previous books in this series, I’ve been most impressed by and interested in Stephen Maturin. He is, to put it simply, my type of man. I’ve liked Jack because Stephen likes Jack, not so much for Jack’s own qualities, although I could see that he was an excellent ship’s captain. This was the book in which Jack won me over for himself. As commodore, with authority over a fleet of ships, Jack proves to be a brilliant strategist and an extraordinary manager of men. He’s able to maneuver people and ships because he understands their strengths and weaknesses and can see just where they’ll be most useful. He may be known as “Lucky Jack Aubrey,” but his success is not about luck; it’s skill.

Not all of Jack’s exploits are successful, of course. Luck sometimes turns against “Lucky” Jack, and some of the men under his command refuse to be managed. Lord Clonfert, a commander with whom Jack has some history, is a particularly troubling case, and Jack’s relationship with him presents difficulties throughout the mission. Clonfort is perhaps the most memorable character in this book, aside from Stephen and Jack.

Stephen and Jack’s relationship, however, is the central one in this book, and their closeness continues to grow. When Stephen has to leave Jack’s ship for a brief diplomatic mission, Jack’s worrying is downright adorable. The two men are quite different from each other—music is one of the only things they have in common—but their affection is strong.

One thing this novel brought to my attention is the way in which Jack and Stephen’s differences show how times are changing. Jack and Stephen seem to represent the past and the future, and their friendship shows how the past and the future need not be at war. Jack is very much a man of his time. He’s interested in science only insofar as it can help him navigate his ship. He’d rather have a son than a daughter, even though Stephen points that a daughter is even better assurance that his line will continue into posterity than a boy would be. And although Jack acknowledges that Stephen is probably quite right in his opposition to slavery, he can see the benefit of having a servant who won’t be able to resign at the slightest provocation. Stephen’s more forward-thinking knowledge does little to keep him out of danger in the present, and Jack notes that “in all practical matters other than physic and surgery Stephen should never be allowed out alone.” (I think Jack is a little severe on his friend here, but Stephen does at times seem to have his head in the clouds. Such simple sea-faring activities as being transported by rope from one ship to another tend to go horribly wrong when Stephen is involved.)

In thinking about Jack Aubrey as a man of his time, I remembered Litlove’s recent post about our expectations for historical fiction and the discomfort we sometimes feel about characters who think and act like people of their time. By having Stephen be on the cutting-edge of his time and having Jack be more traditional, O’Brian scratches both readerly itches. We can experience what at least feels like an authentic and traditional 19th-century point of view through Jack’s eyes, and we can look toward the future through Stephen’s. And by watching the two of them look with love on each other, we can see the value of both perspectives. I’m going to be interested to see whether this dichotomy bears out in future books, or whether it’s just something my heat-addled brain cooked up while reading this one.

Although I’m enjoying this series, I am still struggling to follow some of the battles and the behind-the scenes political machinations. Often, I’ll read a conversation or battle scene a couple of times and have no idea why it’s significant. The essentials eventually come clear, but I’m certain that I’m missing some of the subtleties in O’Brian’s writing. Following Stephen and Jack’s relationship provides sufficient pleasure, but I hate knowing that I’m missing out on more. I’m not suggesting that O’Brian should have dumbed down the books for readers like me; mostly I’m just wishing I were smart enough to follow every moment because the moments I can follow are delightful.

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14 Responses to The Mauritius Command

  1. I’ve read 15 in the series so far and I still don’t follow the battle scenes. There will be a glimmer or two of understanding for me, here or there, then I’ll go pages without understanding a thing.

    I’m sorry you’ve been without power, but I do think Jack and Stephen are the perfect company for such occasions.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who gets lost for pages at a time. But the parts I do follow are so good that I don’t mind much. And Jack and Stephen were very good company in the heat!

  2. JaneGS says:

    This is the farthest I got in the series, not because I didn’t like the books, but there is just so much to read that I haven’t gotten around to continuing yet. I love your comments on the historical perspective with regards to Jack’s and Stephen’s characters–I’m with you in preferring Stephen, and I think you hit on why, although it does bug me to no end when historical novels merely show modern characters in period dress.

    The battles are hard to follow, though I am getting more comfortable with the Napoleonic Wars, but it’s a lot to absorb.

    My sympathies with the heat–CO has just ended the second hottest June ever, with 14 days in a row >95 deg F. Stay cool…

    • Teresa says:

      I’m really enjoying both characters, and I’m interested to see how they grow. I think Jack’s harder to like than Stephen, but this book really brought out his wonderful qualities.

  3. Lisa says:

    When I first read the series, I focused on Stephen, but each time I re-read I come to appreciate Jack more & more – for his leadership, and his seamanship, and for his good humor and patience. I hadn’t thought of them representing past and future. I need to think about that one some more.

    • Teresa says:

      Jack really is wonderful. I’m glad this book brought his great qualities to light. I think maybe Stephen is easier to like because he’s more modern, but it might just be in this book where that contrast appears–it hadn’t occurred to me when reading the earlier books. I’ll be keeping an eye out for it in future books.

      • Lisa says:

        I was thinking too that Jack often appears ridiculous or foolish on shore, he is really only in his element aboard his ship and at sea – the opposite of Stephen, who is a hazard to himself & others at sea, but ashore he’s the capable and even crafty one – and maybe I find that easier to relate to, as a landlubber myself.

  4. gaskella says:

    My Ex loves these books, but before he embarked he bought a book called A Sea of Words by Dean King which explains all the technical terms and historical significance.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve thought about getting that book. I’ve heard good things about it. With the previous books, I was able to go online if I really wanted to figure something out as I was reading, but without Internet access over the weekend, I was on my own!

      • Lisa says:

        I’ve also found “Harbors and High Seas, An Atlas and Geographical Guide” very helpful – also by Dean King.

  5. Stefanie says:

    I’ve been tempted by the series but have yet to succumb. I imagine one of these days I will finally give in.Sorry you are among the many who lost power in the East coast heatwave. We are having a bad heatwave in Minnesota as well but so far the power is staying on.

    • Teresa says:

      I think Jenny was ready to lock me in a room with nothing but these books if I hadn’t given in soon!

      The power outage was miserable, and we’re still recovering. My office still doesn’t have power, and some areas are expected to be without power until Friday. And it seemed to come out of the blue–the only prediction I saw treated the coming derecho like a sort of odd, but not necessarily severe, thunderstorm. I don’t think people saw much need to prepare as they might for a hurricane.

  6. Sarah says:

    The key to really understanding the battle scenes and political maneuvers is to re-read! I’m on my fourth(or fifth?) journey through them. I read them in bed, and when I’m finished with Twenty-one I go back and start over. I adore coming to familiar beloved scenes (Jack in the bear costume! Running into icebergs! The likening of playing Bach to hunting in rough country!) and each time the hard parts make a little more sense. I read plenty of other books, of course, but it’s very rare for me to take one of my current books up to bed. Jack and Stephen always make me feel cheerful and energetic about my life before I fall asleep.

    I wish I knew more people who’d read this series and taken it seriously. I haven’t found a good on-line community either. The Gun Room seems more focused on the sailing and also not very current.

    P.S. I was encouraged in my obsession to read a blog post from Louise Erdrich confessing that she might need to enter a 12-step program for detaching herself from Patrick O’Brian.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m sure rereading would help. Maybe someday–I have Dorothy Dunnett’s ouevre to reread first (and I have some of the same issues with understanding those).

      And oh that bear suit–it’s one of my favorite parts of the series so far. I laughed and laughed at that! And so interesting to know that Louise Erdrich loves these books. I’ve recently become a fan of her work, and it makes me happy when writers I like enjoy reading the same things I do.

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