On The Language.

“Mowett and Rowan might be given to verse in the gunroom, but they were all hard, tough, driving prose in an emergency.”  – Treason’s Harbour

Patrick O’Brian doesn’t usually get all second order on me, all metacognitive.  He doesn’t often step back, like Fielding or Sterne, and chew the fat about the author’s craft.  Sure, some starving novelist was on Jack Aubrey’s ship awhile back that occasioned a few observations about the publishing industry.  But that was a number of novels ago now, wasn’t it?

I can’t remember what happens in O’Brian’s twenty-and-a-fraction volume Aubrey-Maturin series, so I can reread it every six or seven years.   I’m still usually surprised by a given book’s events.  The timing of the conversations and even the Napoleonic-era sea battles seem as given to chance as the capricious weather and wind that in large part govern the character’s fates.  I usually remember the events when they happen, but I’m also usually surprised by them, surprised that they happen when they do.

To be sure, each novel has a loose plot, and now that I’ve read the series two and a half times, I catch a lot of the foreshadowing I missed (at least on a conscious level) before.  But much of what happens is as arbitrary as the weather, put in ostensibly for realism’s sake: how can a writer always be advancing the plot while still getting across the experience of a tar-melting month in the doldrums, for instance?

It occurs to me that perhaps O’Brian’s series, taken as a whole, is what Mark McGurl and Thomas Wolfe would call a “putter-inner” novel.  Stuff happens for the pure enjoyment of it.  And such relish for words!  Someone has written a 528-page dictionary of the often-obsolete nautical, medical, and scientific terms the book uses (A Sea of Words), a lexicon worthy of Tolkien, whose immense vocabulary, more original than obsolete, came in part from two years as an assistant with the Oxford English Dictionary (A Ring of Words).  And, like Tolkien’s hobbits and elves, O’Brian’s thoroughgoing seamen have the inclination and space between battles to recite rafts of poetry.


  1. Ha. I’ve read the entire series at least five times and some individual novels far more than that (HMS Surprise is still my favorite) and yes, I’m still astonished by them. It feels like an almost wicked indulgence, though.

  2. He’s one of the oddest plotters. I’ve never been sure how much of it was under his control. I love the way the impending duel just sort of goes away, in Post Captain. No dramatic scene of reconciliation, nobody throws the pistol away and exclaims “I can’t!” — it just somehow not there anymore.

    “The Surprise, the blessed Surprise.”

    1. Yeah, the next time the two of them get together, as I recall, Stephen is cross and Jack is ebullient — the usual comic-tone ingredients. All is forgiven, it seems. His main characters certainly keep their dignity.

      As far as his plots, he does seem to know where he’s going — there’s enough foreshadowing for me to catch that after three readings — but it’s a very light touch.

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