Captain Jack Aubrey has never much liked having women on his ships, and in the 15th book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, we can see why. Titled The Truelove in the U.S. and Clarissa Oakes overseas, this book follows the HMS Surprise through the South Pacific after their sojourn in New South Wales. The book takes place almost entirely at sea, and the drama mostly involves the relationships among the crew.
The source of a lot of the tension on the ship is a stowaway named Clarissa Harville, an escaped convict brought on board in Sydney by Midshipman Oakes. Although Jack in not a bit pleased about her being there, he decides to be kind and allow them to marry and stay on board. He even gives her cloth for a wedding gown and makes sure that some of the most skilled stitchers on the crew are able to help create a suitable dress. Once again, Jack proves to be soft-hearted.
But even after the wedding, Clarissa’s presence causes tension. Her casual attitude toward sex gives several of the men the wrong idea about her feelings and creates rivalries. Stephen later learns that she was sexually abused as a child and worked for years in a brothel, usually as a bookkeeper but sometimes serving clients. This, we’re led to assume, accounts for her attitude toward men. I’m not sure that this psychologizing really holds up, but I’m impressed that O’Brian makes an effort to round Clarissa out and make her sympathetic, rather than merely a object for the men to dispute over.
Like the other books in the series, this novel is filled with little subplots and incidents, some of which are related to the larger arc of the story, and some of which are not. Jack shows some signs of depression, and Stephen encourages him to exercise. Jack gets orders that he’s not sure he should share with Stephen, and Stephen continues to seek out the spy Wray previously reported to. Clarissa proves to be helpful here, having seen Wray and Ledward at the brothel with another man. When Clarissa eventually leaves the ship, Stephen sends a coded message with her in hopes of getting the investigation moving ahead.
A worrying development involves Stephen’s daughter, Brigid, born while Stephen was on this journey. Diana seems to have little interest in the baby, and her letters are brief, undated, and focus mostly on horses. Sophie’s more detailed letters to Jack hint that something is wrong with the child. Although I’ve grown to like Diana very much over the course of the series, I’ve been uncertain about whether she’d handle motherhood well, and if the baby is still, I’m even more concerned. Stephen has been so excited about becoming a father, and I fear there’s going to be heartbreak ahead. I hope I’m wrong, but things so often go badly for poor Stephen that I won’t be surprised if I’m right.