08 October 2015

The thing about Patrick O'Brian

The thing about English novelist Patrick O'Brian (1914-2000), author of the awe-inspiring 20-novel series Aubrey-Maturin novels of the Napoleonic Wars, is that he has a remarkable way with a sentence. His command of commas is, without a doubt, peerless, and in spinning his early-19th-century naval stories with such erudition, wit and, it is undoubtedly fair to say, literary flair and verisimilitude, he deploys these commas and his many other gifts to spin an extended odyssey that is essential reading for those interested in the era.

It was a great treat to discover O'Brian's novels in the mid-1990s, and an even greater stroke of luck when I learned that they were actually two decades old and in the intervening years a mass of work of the highest quality had followed. Indeed, the only thing that stopped me from plowing straight through all 20 novels was the fear that I would never again be able to read them all for the first time. So at some point I desisted, at about the 12th or 13th title.

In the intervening years Peter Weir's Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany-starring Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) was issued, captured the O'Brian world admirably, and was nominated for 10 Oscars. (I really must re-watch it soon) And only recently I recommenced reading the series from the very beginning, with Master & Commander from 1969. Currently I'm speeding through the second book, Post Captain, and it's this, the first glimpse of England in the series, that allows O'Brian to prove he's more than just a supremely talented writer of naval militaria. Because unlike his hero Jack Aubrey, who is famously 'a lion at sea and an ass ashore', O'Brian is equally at ease in the withdrawing rooms and post-chaises of Austen's England as he is on a quarterdeck of a well-gunned Mediterranean naval brig. Here's a prime example, as he introduces a family that would come to dominate Aubrey's (married) life - the Williams ladies. Is there a finer end to a paragraph than that coolly fiscal conclusion to the penultimate paragraph? Anything so evocative of the age?


'Mapes Court was an entirely feminine household - not a man in it, apart from the butler and the groom. Mrs Williams was a woman, in the natural course of things; but she was a woman so emphatically, so totally a woman, that she was almost devoid of any private character. A vulgar woman, too, although her family, which was of some importance in the neighbourhood, had been settled there since Dutch William's time.

It was difficult to see any connection, any family likeness, between her and her daughters and her niece, who made up the rest of the family. Indeed, it was not much of a house for family likeness: the dim portraits might have been bought at various auctions, and although the three daughters had been brought up together, with the same people around them, in the same atmosphere of genteel money-worship, position-worship and suffused indignation - an indignation that did not require any object for its existence; a housemaid wearing silver buckles on a Sunday would bring on a full week's flow - they were as different in their minds as they were in their looks.

Sophia, the eldest, was a tall girl with wide-set grey eyes, a broad, smooth forehead, and a wonderful sweetness of expression - soft fair hair, inclining to gold : an exquisite skin. She was a reserved creature, living much in an inward dream whose nature she did not communicate to anyone. Perhaps it was her mother's unprincipled rectitude that had given her this early disgust for adult life; but whether or no, she seemed very young for her twenty-seven years. There was nothing in the least degree affected or kittenish about this : rather a kind of ethereal quality - the quality of a sacrificial object. Iphigeneia before the letter. Her looks were very much admired; she was always elegant, and when she was in looks she was quite lovely. She spoke little, in company or out, but she was capable of a sudden dart of sharpness, of a remark that showed much more intelligence and reflection than would have been expected from her rudimentary education and her quiet provincial life. These remarks had a much greater force, coming from an amiable, pliant, and as it were sleepy reserve, and before now they had startled men who did not know her well - men who had been prating away happily with the conscious superiority of their sex. They dimly grasped and underlying strength, and they connected it with her occasional expression of secret amusement, the relish of something that she did not choose to share.

Cecilia was more nearly her mother's daughter : a little goose with a round face and china-blue eyes, devoted to ornament and to crimping her yellow hair, shallow and foolish almost to simplicity, but happy, full of cheerful noise, and not yet at all ill-natured. She dearly loved the company of men, men of any size or shape. Her younger sister Frances did not : she was indifferent to their admiration - a long-legged nymph, still given to whistling and shying stones at the squirrels in the walnut-tree. Here was all the pitilessness of youth intact; and she was perfectly entrancing, as a spectacle. She had her cousin Diana's black hair and great dark blue misty pools of eyes, but she was as unlike her sisters as though they belonged to another sex. All they had in common was youthful grace and a good deal of gaiety, splendid health, and ten thousand pounds apiece.

With these attractions it was strange that none of them should have married, particularly as the marriage-bed was never far from Mrs Williams' mind. But the paucity of men, of eligible bachelors, in the neighbourhood, the disrupting effect of ten years of war, and Sophia's reluctance (she had had several offers) explained a great deal; the rest could be accounted for by Mrs Williams' avidity for a good marriage settlement, and by an unwillingness on the part of the local gentlemen to have her as a mother-in-law'.

- Patrick O'Brian, Post Captain, 1972 (1993 edn.), p.21-3.
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