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.