The sloth sneezed, and looking up, Jack caught its gaze fixed upon him; its inverted face had an expression of anxiety and concern. 'Try a piece of this, old cock,' he said, dipping his cake in the grog and proffering the sop. 'It might put a little heart into you.' The sloth sighed, closed its eyes, but gently absorbed the piece, and sighed again.
Some minutes later he felt a touch on his knee; the sloth had silently climbed down and it was standing there, its beady eyes looking up into his face, bright with expectation. More cake, more grog; growing confidence and esteem. After this, as soon as the drum had beat the retreat, the sloth would meet him, hurrying towards the door on its uneven legs: it was given its own bowl and would grip it with its claws, lowering its round face into it and pursing its lips to drink. Sometimes it went to sleep in this position, bowed over the emptiness.
I'll be damned if there is a historical novelist better than Patrick O'Brian.* I spent last week reading the third book in his Aubrey-Maturin series, H M S Surprise (1973), with a smile on my face. I think it is almost certainly the best in the sequence so far, beginning as it does with a daring rescue and ending with the promise of a wedding. A jaunt to India (accompanied by the aforesaid 'debauched sloth'), a duel and an extroadinary sea-battle are sandwiched between. As usual there were whole swathes of the book that I didn't entirely follow, even though I'm now quite au fait with the differences between a jib and a spanker, and the mizzen mast and the mainsail. Once O'Brian digs his teeth into a confrontation or a manoeuvre at sea, the jargon starts flying at a dizzying, incomprehensible rate. But it doesn't matter at all - I'm happy to read with only a vague understanding, since it all adds to the authenticity of the experience. Not to mention that, for me, it is just the shine on the surface of the real matter of the book: namely, the complicated friendship between Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin, and the lives of the men (and women) who follow them. [I should warn you that some general spoilers follow.]
As the novel opens it is 1803 and Jack is (once again) in debt and without a commission. The enormous Spanish 'prize' he captured in the Lively at the end of Post-Captain has been declared forfeit to the crown, and his attempts to satisfy his creditors, and to finally wed his sweetheart, Sophie Williams, have been thwarted. Meanwhile Stephen has been busy at his own work, both as a physician and as a spy with the nascent British intelligence service (in which capacity he has recently been captured and tortured by the French). Circumstances take a turn for the better, however, when Jack is offered a ship - an elderly, 28 gun frigate called Surprise - and a mission to escort a Royal envoy to Malaysia, via South America, Bombay and Calcutta. It is hardly in Jack's nature to play the ferryman, and he would much prefer a 'cruise' for 'prizes' in the Med, but beggars cannot be choosers. His father, the garrulous General Aubrey, has been stirring up resentment in parliament again and he is lucky to have been chosen at all.
Once the Surprise arrives in India, limping into port after a battering around the Cape, Jack has the crew working smoothly towards his particular foibles, including impeccable rigging and sheeting, and endless gunnery practise. Amongst them are several old friends: Tom Pullings, now a 2nd lieutenant, and Barrett Bonden, Jack's coxswain, as well as the irrepressible Preserved Killick, his steward (all familliar to fans of the film, Master and Commander). The latter is on finest form in HMS Surprise, fetching and carrying for Jack with his habitual mixture of contempt, affection and peevishness. His trademark muttered monologues remain priceless, an example of the sardonic humour that runs right through O'Brian's writing:
'Coat torn in five places - cutlass slash in the forearm which how can I ever darn that? Bullet ole all singed, never get the powder marks out. Breeches all a-hoo and all this nasty blood everywhere, like you'd been a-wallowing in a lay-stall, sir. What Miss would say, I don't know, sir, God strike me blind. Epaulette acked, fair acked to pieces. (Jesus what a life.)'
In Bombay we meet up with another familiar face - Stephen's erstwhile femme-fatale, Diana Villiers, now the acknowledged mistress of Richard Canning, a princely administrator of the East India Company. She is everything she ever was: beautiful, charming and brilliant, repressed by her scandalous place in society, yet endlessly adaptable to her limitations. She is a delightful mix between Becky Sharpe of Vanity Fair and Milady de Winter of The Three Muskateers, a mercurial vixen with an eye for self-preservation and her own interests. More I cannot say, for fear of revealing too much and spoiling the treat for new readers, of which I hope there are many.
As on previous occasions I found O'Brian's prose an absolute treat - he is a writer thoroughly at ease with himself. His descriptions of the rhythm of life aboard a ship of Nelson's Navy are delightful, full of poetry and whimsy and little points of interest. And they never get old. Although we return to the Surprise again and again, and O'Brian makes a point of establishing the monotony of life aboard, he never runs out of new ways of describing his subject. I think I mentioned in my previous post that O'Brian's writing is full of love, both for his historical period and its actors. This is still clearly in evidence in HMS Suprise (so much so that it has inspired me to learn more about naval history, which hasn't at all interested me in the past - yet more books to buy.) Of particular note are the evocations of India, and of its peoples. Through Stephen's eyes we are vigorously introduced to colonial life and its impact on the caste system; a Hindu festival provides the centrepiece, with a melee of natives and Company officials mingling on the sea shore:
'There were some groups already on the strand, with their leaders standing waist deep, wafting flowers into the sea; but most of the inhabitants of Bombay seemed to have gathered here on the green to mill about in their best clothes, laughing, singing, beating drums, eating sweetmeats and saucers of cooked food from tiny stalls, breaking off now and then to form a vague procession, chanting a shrill and powerful hymn. Great warmth, an infinite variety of smells and colours, the bray of conchs, deep hooting trumpets, countless people; and winding in and out among the people elephants with crowded castles on their backs, bullock carts, hundreds of thousands of palanquins, horse men, holy cows, European carriages.'
If anything O'Brian's quick-slow style - the way he builds scenes roughly but languidly by blocking images - and his perfect integration of letters and dialogue with descriptive prose, move up a gear in the third novel. It becomes positively post-modern; a reminder that contemporary novelists don't have a patent on stylistic quirks. More than ever he teases the reader with mysterious, undescribed events 'off-screen', and by skipping abruptly between characters, settings and time periods (often in mid-sentence, or mid-conversation), so that at one moment we're with Stephen, writing a letter in Bath, the next we are in London with Jack when he receives it, and then with the housemaid at his inn, and then back again with Stephen, all without a paragraph break. (I would quote, but O'Brian's set-ups take too long to isolate a working snippet. You'll just have to read for yourself.) These give a fibrous texture to the narrative, not to mention keeping you on your toes - reading O'Brian while you're half asleep is not an option.
Still, the subtlety of the Aubrey/Maturin relationship remains the central lure of the books for me, although I felt it had a slightly different flavour this time to previously. In the post I wrote about Master and Commander in January 2007, I pointed out that Stephen and Jack were perfect antidotes to each other, and that their friendship was built upon the melancholy intelligence of one being balanced against the bumptiousness wit of the other. But I find myself having to revise my thoughts, or expand on them at least. Jack and Stephen's friendship has already been thoroughly tested by the time events bring us around to HMS Surprise; in the second novel, Post-Captain (which I didn't write about; bad me!) they almost killed each other over Diana Villiers. Theirs is no longer the sweet, charming attraction of opposites that it was in the first book. It is something spikier, almost antagonistic, and much more dangerous. As events unfold in India, and Stephen continues to lust for Diana, the pair are once again ranged in opposition to one another. Of course, Jack pursues the course that is most appropriate to the Service (and, in his own bumbling way, to his friend's mental and physical health), while Stephen is reckless and, at times, openly dishonest. Both men end by telling lies, and hiding their true motives. Which is not to say that the affection of the earlier books has disappeared, but it has become fierce, a sort of grappling love that transcends mere liking. Clearly it will survive anything - women, war, injury - but it is not above harm or foul.
There is also the growing sense that Stephen's love for Jack is slightly condescending - as he points out Jack is 'a romantic creature', an extroadinary seaman who loves to see action but hates to kill; a bumbler on land and a less than sharp wit. Stephen is often amused at his expense, just as he is at the antics of the animals that he collects in his capacity as a naturalist; at times he is actively making fun. At the same time we come to understand that Jack's loyalty is in spite of the doctor's shadow self - his Mr Hyde, if you like - and that, more often than not, he is striving to protect Stephen from himself. There is a part of him that makes a wonderful spy, being deceptive, stubborn, ruthless. It is an aspect that has always been partially obscured by his childish quirks and scientific enthusiasms but which is, nevertheless, relentlessly dark. In HMS Surprise it emerges much more frequently than before. It is actually quite disturbing, almost to the point of being upsetting - it is difficult to admit that a favourite character is less than a saint and more like a human being.
Stephen's greatest weakness, and his desperate flaw, is his attraction to Diana. Perhaps he sees something of himself in her? It is easy to imagine that he would be like her if placed in a similar situation. If he didn't have his science, his medical training and his espionage to exercise his mind (and remove the taint of being Irish and illegitimate), might he also become unscrupulous and scheming? Diana's mind is as sharp as his, and as resourceful. Might he also take every chance at power and influence, even to the harm of his friends, if rendered as powerless as she is? At least, he realises, Diana is true to herself, whereas his life is always pitched between honour and subterfuge:
There are some, and Diana is one I believe, who have a seperate truth of their own: ordinary people, Sophie and myself, for example, are nothing without the ordinary truth, nothing at all. They die without it: without innocence and candour. Indeed the very great majority kill themselves long before their time.
She is a fascinating figure, to be sure, just at Jack is. They are both roundly visualised, complex and believable. But it is the great conflict deep within Stephen that convinces me that he is the most interesting of O'Brian's creations. Such density of character is rare, particularly in historical fiction, and a gift. I concur entirely with Helen Lucy Burke's review of HMS Surprise in the Irish Times:
'O'Brian's erudition is phenomenal, as is his capacity for creating another completely believable world. I might have given a better idea of this book if I had simply written six hundred times the word 'SUPERB'.'
*He is definitely on a par with Dorothy Dunnett, whose work is also extroadinary. They write in very different styles, periods and milieu but they both light fires under their subjects; I wonder what they thought of each other?