At the end of Treason’s Harbor, the ninth installment in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, Stephen Maturin sends a letter sharing his suspicions about a French spy in the upper ranks of the Royal Navy—to the actual French spy. On top of that, Jack Aubrey is about to lose his precious HMS Surprise, which is slated to be broken up for scrap. As The Far Side of the World opens, Jack and the Surprise get a reprieve, but Stephen is no closer to uncovering the spy.
Instead of being broken apart, the Surprise is to go to the Pacific Ocean to protect the British whalers from the USS Norfolk, which is believed to be headed to the Pacific to attack the whalers. As usual, Stephen is on board as ship’s surgeon, and he recruits an assistant, Higgins, to help with dentistry. Also on board is a Mrs Horner, wife of the ship’s gunner, as well as several mutinous men who previously served on the Defender and some others recently released from a psychiatric ward. The Admiral claimed Aubrey was just the captain to straighten these men out.
As the Surprise took its long journey across the Atlantic, I felt rather impatient as I watched the ship move away from any good opportunity to help resolve the espionage problem. There’s still plenty of banter and fun (the cat named Scourge–ha!), but not much seems to be happening. There are storms and still waters and shipboard conflict. It’s a difficult journey, but uneventful in compared to others. Well, until the murders.
The story picks up considerably when Stephen learns of a shipboard romance affair between Mrs Horner and a midshipman, Hollom. The affair has led to a pregnancy, and Stephen has to decide what to do. This is just the kind of complication that no one wants aboard a ship. One of the difficulties of being on the other side of the world is being far away from help when there’s a crisis. But when the ship has stopped in the islands past Cape Horn, Hollum and Mrs Horner don’t return to the ship. The Surprises believe Horner has murdered them, and he’s looking for more people to blame for his misfortunes. It’s all very dramatic!
That situation does get resolved—dramatically!—but there are more crises to come. The most notable is probably Stephen’s unfortunate fall from the ship. Jack dives into the sea to rescue him, and they both end up stranded in the water. And now it gets bonkers. The two are
rescued captured by a boat full of Polynesian (possibly cannibal) women. But instead of castrating them, as Stephen feared, they leave them on a deserted island where they must wait and hope for the Surprise to find them.
I don’t even know what to make of this incident, but it’s entertaining. I wonder if O’Brian came across some account or rumor of a group of similar women. The whole business did lead to one of my favorite conversations in the book, that of Jack and Martin discussing these women and why they might abandon male company and strike out on their own, emasculating any men they come across. Stephen defends them with this speech:
Oh, as far as unsexing is concerned, who are we to throw stones? With us any girl that cannot find a husband is unsexed. If she is very high or very low she may go her own way, with the risks entailed therein, but otherwise she must either have no sex or be disgraced. She burns, and she is ridiculed for burning. To say nothing of male tyranny—a wife or a daughter being a mere chattel in most codes of law or custom—and brute force—to say nothing to that, hundreds of thousands of girls are in effect unsexed every generation: and barren women are as much despised as eunuchs. I do assure you, Martin, that if I were a woman I should march out with a flaming torch and a sword; I should emasculate right and left. As for the women of the pahi, I am astonished at their moderation.
Oh, Stephen, I knew I liked you.
Eventually, the Surprise does catch up with the Norfolk, but the circumstances are far from ideal. There’s been a bad storm, Stephen appears to need surgery, and the Norfolk is claiming the war is over. And so, being on the far side of the world, away from any news, Jack has to make the best choices he can, even if he doesn’t quite trust the Norfolk.
This book got off to a slow and sometimes frustrating start, but the last half was so much fun that it will probably end up being one of the most memorable in the series. The final chapters are loaded with suspense, right up to the final paragraph. I look forward to getting back to the espionage plot in future books, but I’m not sorry to have gotten this story instead.