The British and their sailing
August 17, 2004 2:07 AM   Subscribe

I have recently begun Patrick OBrians series of Aubrey-Maturin novels, set in the rich and vibrant world of the 18th century Royal Navy; I have also enjoyed the movie. These superb historic novel have rekindled my interest in the great age of sail, especially the exploits of Lord Nelson. The Royal Navy at this time ruled the world, although the tactics used were brutal and seaman were often taken to sea against their will. The Battle of Trafalgar is certainly the most famous engagement and HMS Victory the most famous of the ships. Next year is the 200th anniversary of the battle, the preparations sound spectacular and it is good to see the strong British sailing tradition continues.
posted by Samuel Farrow (21 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Coincidentally, there's a BBC report today claiming that the 'Nautical novelist "couldn't even sail."'
posted by misteraitch at 3:34 AM on August 17, 2004

Bless you, my dear fellow, you are embarking on a wonderful voyage with much more to offer than the film (as much as I loved it) ever could. I grew up reading the Hornblower series, and loved every moment as a child. As an adult, I found the O'Brian novels to be a nice step forward into a more grown-up rendering of time and place. Jack is, after all, the great lecher of the world and Stephen's drug addiction makes a fascinating sub-plot.

I will forever treasure O'Brian's work for the scene somewhere among those novels in which (if I recall aright) Stephen suffers an Homeric case of the runs that starts prior to, and lasts through, a brief naval battle. He's closeted in a quarter galley with great guns booming all about him and round-shot likely to end his misery at any moment. I can't recall Horatio H. ever even using the restroom, let alone fall prey to the weaknesses of that part of the flesh.

I'm also a great fan of the musical moments that define Jack and Stephen's relationship for much of their time together. In several of those scenes, I found myself reminded of the sort of musical interplay that one might find in good jazz, or the better moments of a Grateful Dead jam.

I chanced upon the replica tall ship that was used in the movie -- the "HMS" Rose -- at the Maritime Museum of San Diego last week and enjoyed a pleasant hour strolling her decks and imagining myself an officer of the time (after reading those novels several times each I know better than to wish for life before the mast).

As to the mysteries and lies in much of O'Brian's life, I can live with that. It's his skill as a story-teller that I treasure.
posted by mmahaffie at 4:03 AM on August 17, 2004 [2 favorites]

For more nautical (and related) historical fiction, visit Broadside: The Nautical Fiction Website (moderate in scope) and Literature on the Age of Napoleon (much bigger).
posted by thomas j wise at 5:37 AM on August 17, 2004

Well, that BBC story is a load of piffle. Who cares if a novelist didn't actually know how to sail? He did all of his technical research and wrote convincingly. I suppose they'd carp that Isaac Asimov never actually built positronic robot brains.

As a devotee of both O'Brian and Forester, I'll second everything mmahaffle said. Be warned, though, that the books get to be a bit rote 'round the middle of the series. O'Brian had clearly cooled to them and was cranking them out to keep the publisher happy. The last few can more or less be read all together in a bunch.
posted by briank at 6:16 AM on August 17, 2004

Good old O'Brian; there's at least one little gem in every book -- usually the best stuff is only glancingly related to sailing. But have you bought the book-length companion glossary yet? That's when you're committed.

I'm no expert, but the first chapter of John Keegan's The Price of Admiralty gives as good an account of Trafalgar as I've read.

The Torrington Cavaliers sound like an interesting lot.
posted by coelecanth at 6:57 AM on August 17, 2004

Be warned, though, that the books get to be a bit rote 'round the middle of the series.

I really never felt that way. My only complaints were the last few books seemed like he was trying to wrap everything up before he dropped dead. My introduction to the series was David Mamet's obituary for O'Brian in the NYT (warning: contains some serious spoilers). I figured a series that made a gushing fanboy out of Mamet had to be good.
posted by yerfatma at 7:47 AM on August 17, 2004

Man, with all the love for him in this thread, it means I'll have to try to read Master & Commander again -- I got about a third into it, and then gave up when I was convinced that he was going to go into very exacting detail about each and every possible knot a sailor could use. Reminded me a bit too much of all the nautical museums my dad dragged me to when I was little...
posted by Katemonkey at 7:56 AM on August 17, 2004 [1 favorite]

Do you know Katemonkey I think it is that very attention to detail I love
about him, I just let it wash over me in the same sort of way as the dialect of
Irvine Welsh (it took me half of Trainspotting to figure out what a bairn was).
posted by Samuel Farrow at 8:11 AM on August 17, 2004

Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast is about merchant shipping not navy but it is a fascinating look at what life on a ship was like for an ordinary seaman.
posted by arse_hat at 8:26 AM on August 17, 2004 [1 favorite]

katemonkey, there are huge swaths of the novels that have nothing to do with the ocean -- e.g. they spend probably the first two thirds of the second novel on land, at home, in England. Believe it or not, you can skip over most of the nautical jargon and still have a really good read.
posted by coelecanth at 8:32 AM on August 17, 2004

Katemonkey, I read Master and Commander the way Samuel Farrow did, just letting all the nautical details wash over me. Then, sometime during Post Captain I picked up a copy of the lexicon coelcanth referred to, read the essays, skimmed a lot of definitions, and six months later I'm on book fourteen in the series. There are nuggets sprinkled throughout the series about how hopeless Maturin is about nautical terminology, and in one of the books, he sort of hazes the new guy with all these made up nautical terms invented on the fly. I never really mastered the finer points, and as coelecanth says, it isn't really necessary.
posted by ambrosia at 8:42 AM on August 17, 2004 [2 favorites]

I've been listening to them on tape (and/or CD), and I highly recommend doing it that way. For some reason, the details don't seem as onerous...
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:55 AM on August 17, 2004

Like mmahaffie, I grew up reading about that period and loved it when I found the "adult" version. The author I read as a child was Armstrong Sperry whose "Storm Canvas," "John Paul Jones Fighting Sailor" and "Hull Down for Action" shaped my taste for sea-faring literature and taught me the language of spars and yards.
posted by ahimsakid at 9:05 AM on August 17, 2004

Man, with all the love for him in this thread, it means I'll have to try to read Master & Commander again -- I got about a third into it, and then gave up when I was convinced that he was going to go into very exacting detail about each and every possible knot a sailor could use.

I started reading Master and Commander last week and recall your comment about the knots on AskMe. It made me laugh, though I've been wary of when I'm going to hit that part of the book. ;)
posted by filmgoerjuan at 9:15 AM on August 17, 2004

If you can't tell your breast rope from your cunt splice try this dictionary
of rigging
. Also has dictionaries of
ropes, sails, blocks
etc. Above that is history with shipbuilding, gunnery and more. Not sure how it compares to the lexicon coelecanth mentioned but I found this fun and helpful and free.
posted by arse_hat at 9:31 AM on August 17, 2004 [1 favorite]

It seems to me that the extensive dialog about knots and sails and the like in M&C was mostly for effect and for O'Brian to prove to the hard-core people that he'd done his homework. It's nowhere near that thick in the rest of the books. Skim over that part if you must and get on with the story.

You might also like the accompanying cookbook, which features a recipe for "boiled shit".
posted by briank at 9:53 AM on August 17, 2004

I'm up to The Yellow Admiral, and this late in the game, Jack and Stephen are getting kinda crotchety.

posted by linux at 11:07 AM on August 17, 2004 [1 favorite]

I give you joy!
posted by freebird at 12:05 PM on August 17, 2004 [1 favorite]

sidhedevil's comment needs seconding. Listening to the Recorded Books version of the these novels narrated by Patrick Tull is a very different experience from reading them "with your eyes" -- and very rewarding.
posted by bmckenzie at 8:28 PM on August 17, 2004

But have you bought the book-length companion glossary yet? That's when you're committed.

No, you're committed when you buy the cookbook.(On preview: Yes, briank, that's the one, all right.)

I've only just started reading the Aubrey-Maturin novels myself. I've only gotten up to the third book; somewhere in the Twin Cities, there must be several people who are one book ahead of me, because every time I go to the bookstore, they don't have any copies of the one I need.

I've also just begun Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe novels, which also take place during the Napoleonic Wars, only in the British Army rather than the Navy. I had never had much of an interest in that time period until I started reading both of these series. Now I'm absolutely fascinated.
posted by MrBadExample at 9:24 PM on August 17, 2004

The Richard Sharpe series is a great joy, though it does become a one-chord jam eventually. If you have a high tolerance for the literature of combat (testosterone?) Cornwell has written several fine none-series novels. His take on Stonehenge (sorry, the title escapes me), for example, is well worth your time.

While we're at it: George Macdonald Fraser and the legendary Harry Flashman.
posted by mmahaffie at 4:04 AM on August 18, 2004

« Older An American Military Hero   |   Why Oh Why?! Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments