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Aubrey-Maturin series

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Title: Aubrey-Maturin series  
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Subject: Boudica, Portsmouth, Royal Navy, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, Ramon Llull, Patrick O'Brian, Trinity College, Dublin, Master and Commander, Jack Aubrey, Appledore, Torridge, Devon
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Aubrey-Maturin series

Aubrey-Maturin series
Author Patrick O'Brian
Country Great Britain
Language English
Genre Nautical fiction, Historical Fiction
Published 1969–2004

The Aubrey–Maturin series is a sequence of nautical historical novels—20 completed and one unfinished—by Patrick O'Brian, set during the Napoleonic Wars and centring on the friendship between Captain Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy and his ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin, a physician, natural philosopher, and secret agent. The first novel, Master and Commander, was published in 1969 and the last finished novel in 1999.[1] The 21st novel of the series, left unfinished at O'Brian's death in 2000, appeared in print in late 2004. The series received considerable international acclaim and most of the novels reached The New York Times Best Seller list.[1] These novels comprised the canon of an author often compared to Jane Austen, C. S. Forester and other British authors central to the English literature canon.[2][3][4][5][6]

The 2003 film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World took material from books in this series, notably Master and Commander, HMS Surprise, The Letter of Marque, The Fortune of War, and particularly The Far Side of the World. Russell Crowe played the role of Jack Aubrey, and Paul Bettany that of Stephen Maturin.


Patrick O'Brian's The Golden Ocean (1956) and The Unknown Shore (1959) both depict fictional pairs of young men loosely based on real seaman who participate in George Anson's voyage around the world. In these two novels, O'Brian began to develop the models for the characters of Aubrey and Maturin as well as the storytelling techniques used in the series.[7]

The series

  1. Master and Commander (1970)
  2. Post Captain (1972)
  3. HMS Surprise (1973)
  4. The Mauritius Command (1977)
  5. Desolation Island (1978)
  6. The Fortune of War (1979)
  7. The Surgeon's Mate (1980)
  8. The Ionian Mission (1981)
  9. Treason's Harbour (1983)
  10. The Far Side of the World (1984)
  11. The Reverse of the Medal (1986)
  12. The Letter of Marque (1988)
  13. The Thirteen Gun Salute (1989)
  14. The Nutmeg of Consolation (1991)
  15. Clarissa Oakes (1992) – (The Truelove in the USA)
  16. The Wine-Dark Sea (1993)
  17. The Commodore (1995)
  18. The Yellow Admiral (1996)
  19. The Hundred Days (1998)
  20. Blue at the Mizzen (1999)
  21. The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey (2004) – (21 in the USA)

Internal Chronology

O'Brian's books were written and published in the same chronological sequence as the events they describe, beginning with Master and Commander, set in 1800, and carrying through to the final novels, set shortly after Waterloo.

However, they do not strictly follow history. The first six books quickly move through twelve years of the Napoleonic Wars, as established by frequent reference to historical events, with The Fortune of War ending on 1 June 1813 with the battle between the Shannon and Chesapeake. Yet the series then enters a kind of fantasy-time in which it takes another dozen novels to progress to November 1813. Much of this period is spent at sea, with little or no connection to real-world history, and the events of the novels take up substantially more time than the few months 'available'. External historical reference returns with The Yellow Admiral: towards the beginning of this novel it is stated that the British army under the Duke of Wellington has entered France from Spain, therefore in November 1813. A narrative apparently lasting several months ensues before a specific arrival at Christmas 1813; thereafter the book moves swiftly through the events of Napoleon's last defeats on land, his abdication, his exile to Elba, and it ends with his escape from Elba, which was on 26 February 1815. O'Brian wrote that he had "made use of hypothetical years, rather like those hypothetical moons used in the calculation of Easter: an 1812a as it were or even an 1812b".[8] In effect, the period June–November 1813 is stretched out to accommodate events that ought to occupy five or six years.


The series focuses on two main characters, naval officer Jack Aubrey and physician, naturalist, and spy Stephen Maturin, and the ongoing plot is structured around Aubrey's ascent from Lieutenant to Rear Admiral in the Royal Navy during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

Jack Aubrey is a large man (both literally and figuratively) with an energetic, gregarious, cheerful, and relatively simple personality and a deep respect for naval tradition. Remarkable early success earned him the nickname "Lucky Jack Aubrey" and a reputation as a "fighting captain", a reputation which he sought to retain throughout his career. But while frequently "brilliant" and much respected at sea, he is less competent on land, as indiscreet liaisons, impertinent remarks, and poor financial decisions often bring him trouble. Aubrey's professional life of daring exploits and reverses was inspired by the chequered careers of Thomas Cochrane and other notable captains of the Royal Navy from the period.[9]

Irish-Catalan Dr. Stephen Maturin ostensibly serves as an adept ship's surgeon on Aubrey's various commands. However, unknown to many of his associates, he also serves as a particularly skilled volunteer intelligence agent for the British Admiralty. Maturin is described as a small, quiet, "ugly" man who is known to cast a "dangerous, pale, reptilian eye" towards his enemies. Unlike his action-oriented friend, Maturin is very well educated with several intellectual pursuits. He is passionately fascinated by the natural world, and takes every opportunity to explore the native wildlife of his ships' ports of call around the world. He is also deeply introspective, and frequently muses on philosophical concepts of identity and self-understanding in his ciphered personal journal.[10] Another aspect of this complex character is portrayed by his long-lasting and frequently frustrating romantic pursuit of the beautiful but unreliable Diana Villiers, a pursuit that drove him to become an opium addict for a time.

Maturin's various professional roles and personal interests allows the series to leave the sea and explore different aspects of the political and social order during the Napoleonic Era.[9] Eventually, Maturin upstages Aubrey in character development within the series due to the diverse situations in which O'Brian can place him.[9]

On the surface, the two main characters have little in common. As O'Brian wrote in The Ionian Mission, "Although (they) were almost as unlike as men could be, unlike in nationality, religion, education, size, shape, profession, habit of mind, they were united in a deep love for music, and many and many an evening had they played together, violin answering cello or both singing together far into the night." This musical connection began in the first paragraph of the first book in the series, when the two characters meet at a concert. They also share a delight in puns and dry witticisms, and particularly memorable wordplay is sometimes repeated in subsequent novels in the series, years later in book-time.

Despite their many differences, the pair are invaluable and indispensable companions throughout many years of adventure and danger. Reviewers have compared Aubrey and Maturin to other seemingly mismatched yet inseparable fictional duos such as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in "Don Quixote", Holmes and Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories, and Kirk and Spock in the original Star Trek TV series.[11][12][13]


Patrick O'Brian once wrote "Obviously, I have lived very much out of the world: I know little of present-day Dublin or London or Paris, even less of post-modernity, post-structuralism, hard rock or rap, and I cannot write with much conviction about the contemporary scene."[14] This becomes obvious for readers of the Aubrey-Maturin Series, as he adopts a narrative voice contemporary with their setting.[11] Richard Ollard, in examining the general reception to O'Brian's books, suggests that O'Brian's naval officers would be able to talk with and recognise Jane Austen's.[9]

In addition to the period language, O'Brian is adept at using naval jargon with little or no translation for the "lubberly" reader. The combination of the historical-voice narration and naval terms may seem daunting at first to some readers; but most note that after a short while a "total immersion" effect results.[15] Occasionally, O'Brian explains obscure nautical terms by placing Stephen Maturin into the tutelage of seamen, allowing the author to vicariously teach the reader about various parts and functions of a period sailing vessel without breaking from the narrative. This was especially common early in the series, when Maturin was still new to the British navy.[9]

Also, O'Brian often addresses the historical events and themes within his books indirectly, allowing a fuller immersion for his readers without flaunting his historical understanding unlike other similar nautical authors.[9]


O'Brian's bone-dry and cutting wit is present throughout all his novels. Its delivery, whether in the form of narration or dialogue, is often so forthright that the reader may not perceive it at first. At times, however, O'Brian will spend a considerable portion of a volume setting up comedic sequences - for example, Jack's use of rum in the "debauchery" of Maturin's pet sloth in HMS Surprise or Jack's assertion to William Babbington, while discussing nautical terminology, that "Sheep ain't poetical", supporting his statement by saying: "Remember that fellow in the play who calls out: 'My Kingdom for a horse'? Would not have been poetry at all, has he said sheep." (See the The Ionian Mission.) Drunk animals are a common motif through the series; for instance the following conversation between Jack and Stephen in Post Captain: "'The carrier has brought you an ape.' 'What sort of an ape?' asked Stephen. 'A damned ill-conditioned sort of an ape. It had a can of ale at every pot-house on the road, and is reeling drunk. It has been offering itself to Babbington.'"[16]

Puns - often "bad" on the part of Jack - are also common throughout the novels, much to the chagrin of Stephen Maturin. Jack takes a special, perhaps overzealous, interest in nautical puns. For example, Jack often repeats one of Stephen's spur-of-the-moment puns regard dog-watches. Stephen suggests they are called "dog" watches because they are "curtailed" ("Cur Tailed", "cur" meaning "dog"), and like other puns, Aubrey repeats the witticism as often as occasion allows. The use of humor contrasts the two central characters. Aubrey is simple and forthright while Stephen is subtle and cunning, mirroring each's overall personality, especially regarding warfare tactics.

O'Brian has Aubrey speaking many proverbs (Brunvand, 2004), but usually in mangled form, such as "There's a great deal to be said for making hay while the iron is hot." Another example is "A bird in the hand is worth any amount of beating about the bush". Sometimes Aubrey gets in a muddle and Maturin affectionately mocks him by playing on the mixed metaphor: '... they have chosen their cake, and must lie in it.' 'You mean, they cannot have their bed and eat it.'

Related to proverbs, Aubrey tells Maturin a clever Wellerism, "'It's not a fit night out for man or beast,' as the centaur observed, ha, ha, ha!" (Yellow Admiral).

Publication history

Master and Commander was first published in Great Britain and Ireland in 1969, and the series continued to be a modest success throughout the British Isles. However, in 1989 Starling Lawrence of W.W. Norton discovered the novels on a plane flight between London and New York. WW Norton began printing the books, and they became more seriously taken by critics and a publishing success. His novels sold over 400,000 copies in the next two years and continued to be a success, selling over 2 million copies by 2000.[1] W. W. Norton released the novels in e-book format on 5 December 2011.[17]

Literary significance and criticism

Though sometimes compared to Trollope, Melville, Conrad and even Proust, the Aubrey–Maturin series has most often been compared to the works of Jane Austen, one of O'Brian's greatest inspirations in English literature.[1] In a cover-story in The New York Times Book Review published on 6 January 1991, Richard Snow characterised Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin naval adventure novels as "the best historical novels ever written. On every page Mr. O'Brian reminds us with subtle artistry of the most important of all historical lessons: that times change but people don't, that the griefs and follies and victories of the men and women who were here before us are in fact the maps of our own lives."[18] And in a Washington Post article published 2 August 1992, Ken Ringle wrote, "The Aubrey/Maturin series far beyond any episodic chronicle, ebbs and flows with the timeless tide of character and the human heart."

Even critics uninterested in the Aubrey–Maturin series have praised the intricacy and character development of the books. When reviewing The Wine Dark Sea in the Hudson Review, Gary Krist is very critical of the plot of the books, suggesting that the books are full of elements of "pop fiction" and O'Brian's excessive "delight in the sheer specificity of seafaring mechanics."[19] However, he did not deny the qualities that "push it close to that great, fuzzy art-entertainment meridian" including character development and at times, "the sense of being in the presence of an active, complex, and compassionate intelligence."[19]

Numerous authors have been inspired by the Aubrey–Maturin series, including Iris Murdoch, Eudora Welty and Tom Stoppard.[1] Even science fiction author David Drake has stated that his RCN Series was inspired by the Aubrey–Maturin books.[20]

See also

Novels portal
  • Frederick Marryat, a 19th-century pioneer of the nautical novel, who wrote under the name "Captain Marryat" — a real-life successful naval officer in the Napoleonic Wars, and thus a contemporary of Aubrey and Maturin.
  • C. S. Forester, 20th-century novelist whose Horatio Hornblower series in many ways prefigured O'Brian's sea-tales.
  • Thomas Cochrane, dashing and controversial captain in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars whose exploits and reverses inspired many events in the fictional careers of both Jack Aubrey and Horatio Hornblower.
  • Ramage (novel), first of a series of novels about Lord Ramage, an officer in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, written by Dudley Pope.
  • The Republic of Cinnabar Navy series of science-fiction novels written by David Drake were directly inspired by the Aubrey–Maturin series.



  • Brunvand, Jan. 2004. "'The Early Bird is Worth Two in the Bush': Captain Jack Aubrey's Fractured Proverbs," in What Goes Around comes Around: The Circulation of Proverbs in Contemporary Life, edited by Kimberly J. Lau, Peter Tokofsky, and Stephen D. Winick. Logan: Utah State University Press, pp. 152–170.

External links

  • The Aubrey-Maturin series from W. W. Norton, US Publisher
  • Aubrey-Maturin series E-Book page
  • The Gunroom, a web-site and e-mail list devoted to the series. Many resources appear here.
  • "Patrick O'Brian's Last"
  • Patrick O'Brian Mapping Project – A Google Maps mashup project to chart the course of ships and track the movements of the main

characters in all 21 books in the series.

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