Sailing into the sunset

Culture | Patrick O'Brian's semi-historical novels depicted life in a real community; for those who lament the rise of radical individualism, O'Brian and his stories will be missed

Issue: "Cuban conundrum," Feb. 5, 2000

On Jan. 6, I attached the last deadeye, tightened the rigging, attached the blue pennant to the mizzen mast, heaved a contented sigh and sat back to contemplate the completion of more than two years of (mostly weekend) work in building a model of the frigate HMS Surprise. The building of the 1:60 scale model was the culmination of several years of devoted reading and rereading of 20 novels written by Patrick O'Brian. The novels, starting with Master and Commander, chronicle the experiences of Captain Jack Aubrey and his shipmate Stephen Maturin (friend, surgeon, intellectual, musician, and naturalist) as they sailed around the globe, mostly in the "original" Surprise pursuing Napoleon's navy, rich prizes, and wonderful adventures. Four days later I learned that Patrick O'Brian had died at the age of 86 while working on the 21st book in the series. My immediate reaction was a deep feeling of loss. Not only would there be no new adventures with Aubrey and Maturin, but I would also lose track of a whole boatload of other friends: Jack's steward Preserved Killick, Seaman Awkward Davies, Stephen's "spymaster" Sir Joseph Banks, Clarissa Oakes with her dubious past but heart of pure gold, Jack's wife Sophie, his friend Captain Henaige Dundas, the cultic Shelmerstonian Christians, and numerous other friends, enemies, politicians, cads, and bureaucrats. Why did these semi-historical novels so grab my attention and devotion? I was not alone. Since Norton took a chance in publishing the first of the books in this country 15 years ago, the readership has grown steadily and dramatically. The release of each new book in the series became a major literary event heralded by large posters in Borders and Barnes and Noble. Pundits and critics began to seek out Mr. O'Brian at his modest home in southern France and, late in life, he became a real literary celebrity. This past November he came to the United States and delivered several lectures to packed houses of devoted readers. He seemed very healthy and many of us took heart that this wiry and strong man had a good deal of writing left in him. Alas, it was not to be. We should have known that at the end of the 20th book, Blue at the Mizzen, published just last year, when Jack Aubrey, sailing in Surprise off the coast of Chile, received a message that he should hoist his blue flag-showing promotion to flag grade, an Admiral in the Royal Navy-that it was over. Aubrey had reached the top of his profession-he surely had earned it-and anything more would be anticlimactic. The success of these wonderful novels has led to great revival of interest in life at sea in the age of sail. The A&E Network's recent excellent productions of several of C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower stories, the republication by Owl Books of several stories by authors like Captain Frederick Marryat, James Fenimore Cooper, and Michael Scott in the "Heart of Oak" series edited by Dean King, and the publication by Pocket Books of a series of four (so far) novels by James Nelson depicting American Navy life at the time of our War of Independence all surely are the result of the success of Mr. O'Brian's books. The Aubrey-Maturin books have also led to the publication of a lexicon (so that we lubbers can understand the intricacies of what it means to sail a three-masted ship) as well as an atlas of the voyages of the Surprise, and a cookbook featuring such delicacies as Soused Pig's Head and that favorite "pudding" of Jack Aubrey, Spotted Dog. Then there are two "Musical Evenings with the Captain" CDs from Ess.A.Y. Recordings featuring the concertos of Locatelli and Haydn often played by Aubrey (violin) and Maturin (cello) to pass the evenings at sea. Why? What is it about these men and their time that so many of us found irresistible? The action? Not really. The history? It is readily available in easier-to-digest doses. The "personalities" of Aubrey, Maturin, and others? They are very well-drawn characters, but I don't think that's it. The education that the reader receives? (Did you know that the female platypus is the only venomous mammal? Stephen Maturin found out and almost paid with his life while he was poking around in the outback of New Holland-the Dutch got to Australia first, you see.) All of these pieces come together to make these books a wonderfully attractive package, but I think the most important factor is something else. In this time of the glorification of "do your own thing" individualism-most of us don't even see our next door neighbors as we go off to work in our individual automobiles, or sit in front of our own personal computers-we may not have to even say hello to anyone all day long. At such a time it is arresting and attractive to be placed in the midst of a real community. That is what a ship is. These people lived in the closest proximity to one another for extended periods of time-months, or even years. They had to learn to get along, to support and appreciate one another, to subjugate their "individual" rights to the good of the community. No "penumbra" of the "right" to privacy or the "right" to say whatever came to mind, or to wear whatever sort of costume one chose, existed in that very close community of 100-plus men restricted to the decks of a wooden ship for long periods of time. And yet, these were free men. For the most part they had chosen this career for themselves. Oh, it was certainly pleasant to get off the ship from time to time and to enjoy the less restricted pleasures of life ashore, but by and large they were content with their lives. I think that this same yearning for fellowship, for community, has a good deal to do with the popularity of team sports today and of the fraternities, sororities, and service clubs that have been, and despite "official" disapproval continue to be, a major staple of American social life. We seem to be in danger of forgetting what real freedom is. Is it not being able to choose where we live and whom we live with, and not just being "free" from having any sort of authority to guide and rein in our actions? Crewmembers of the Surprise were free and they devoted their lives to preserving freedom for their countrymen, but they lived very disciplined lives in a close-knit community they had chosen. In that community they had a clear understanding of where they fit and what was expected of them. This was a comfortable way to live. Had they been cast ashore and told that they were now "free" to do whatever they wanted to do and that no one had any right to prod them along if they didn't want to go, they would have been confused and unhappy people. There are a lot of confused and unhappy people in the world today. Perhaps we need others. Perhaps the encouragement, support, and discipline of the community, and an understanding of just where we fit in and what is expected of us, are necessary for fulfillment in life. Now that Patrick O'Brian is gone, I'm going to have to find some new shipmates. I suggest that you would be well advised to do two things: First, begin to read Patrick O'Brian and discover what real community is and, second, begin to develop your own community-a place where you can find not just companionship, but a sense of common purpose-a place where you know what is expected of you and where you know what to expect of others-an environment that will give purpose and shape to your life and your family. As for me, I plan to begin work on a model of the sloop of war Sophie, which was Aubrey's first command. Maybe I can find or start a ship model building club.

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