Curiously, for a book full of action, the two most notable aspects of these, the third and first Aubrey and Maturin novels, are the author’s confidence in the reader’s appetite for period naval jargon, and the long, patient accumulation of personality in the two main characters. Why, then, do readers stick with this lengthy enterprise? How does Patrick O’Brian make it work?
Taken together, the Aubrey and Maturin books I have read and listened to are a scattershot of the first half-dozen in the 30- book series. I have read elsewhere, and come to agree, that readers (and listeners) can view this as less a sequence than a great tapestry of character. There is some term for this that escapes me, romans something-or-other, that means generally this.
One test of this idea is that I entered the Aubrey-and-Maturin universe through the now-decade-old movie said to be based on two of the novels together, Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World. Years after viewing the movie, when I first read one of O’Brian’s books, I heard the movie’s actors in my head, and saw them in my mind, especially Captain (or Master and Commander, or Lieutenant, or Post-Captain, as appropriate) Jack Aubrey, Doctor Steven Maturin, and (in the movie and after the second book) Lieutenant Thomas Pullings, a very sympathetic supporting character. However, with continued listening to two different voice actors’ renderings, and with my own readings – and these critically with the aid of O’Brian’s own vivid and idiosyncratic descriptions – I developed my own standards for the principal characters’ speech. Maybe it was just the divergence of readers, actors, and descriptions that freed my imagination to create or choose voices of my own for the characters.
The movie Master and Commander bears little resemblance to the book by the same name, with the exception of those three characters, the setting, and the jargon. It seems that translating the novels into a movie required rearrangement of the events, and some characters, to suit the audience and format. It’s similar to Captain Aubrey’s practice of re-stowing the holds of the various ships he captains, or “raking the masts” of the sloop Sophie, or installing bentinck-shrouds (extra stays on the masts that support again extra sails), against naval tradition and at some cost to his military advancement, in order to eke another half-knot out of whatever assemblage of timber and canvas he currently commands.
And when the ship confronts its target, he maneuvers it and presses his advantages to leave it in sad shape. When the masts are compromised, the yardarms and ropes snapped or cut, the sails shredded, the ship’s rigging is “all-ahoo,” one of my favorite naval terms from the series. I have a recollection of the term being applied to wigs and the like, but I won’t wait to confirm that before applying it as needed in my own circumstances.
For example, I have struggled to set aside enough time to write this, but my scheduling has been crowded and chaotic – in other words, all-ahoo. That’s why it took two weeks, allowing me to finish lsitening to Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls in the meantime. While I was listening, I found two of the 11 cds included repetitions of earlier segments of the book after the completion of the sequential segments. It was as if a printer inserted a second copy of pages 121-160 after page 244. This was, it turns out, my first application of the term “all-ahoo.” My second occurred with the realization that I was going to listen to a second book before reviewing the first (actually, first two).
One reason for my difficulty in getting organized enough to write this was coaching. I have struggled to educate myself about the many parts of soccer I never got good at. Sometimes, practices go well, and people have fun. At other times, my players and I wrestle each other for control of a small game at practice. The chaos is, well, evocative of the idea. It’s also pretty inescapable when layering five hours a week of planning and working with “U-9s” atop a lopsided routine of work, home life, and the commute between. Has anybody seen my son’s left cleat?
And a “cleat” is the key. The chaos and rush of life, or of naval warfare, or of constructing or inhabiting a fictional world, relies on a few stable points. Without them, and without them being strong enough to bear the load, the whole project flies apart. We rely on teachers, family, and neithbors to fill the gaps in our own ability as parents, both to satisfy immediate wants and to provide more generally for the children we cross bridges to support, and again to see. A “cleat” in British seamen’s speech two centuries ago is a piece of metal, wedged into wood, on which a line can be fastened. This is only what I’ve gleaned, but this gleaning helps in reading the stories.
Fastening a few points to hang the rest of the rigging on is a bare essential for readers. Disbelief requires a capacious and sturdy framework (three masts, with stays and shrouds?) for the reader to suspend it. O’Brian’s characters do things we don’t recognize today, not entirely, and think things that are surprisingly alien. (The masts, stays and shrouds of rank in British society at the time are not very distinct to American readers of this time, generally.) Yet when one hauls on a rope (a character, say, Aubrey, encounters a barrier to his advancement based on class rather than accomplishment), the shape of the rigging is indicated by the movement of the sails. This is true for social aspects of the story, for technical aspects, and every other.
Long, slow, careful study—lightened by the fact of its pleasure—is required to generate an understanding of all of the terms in use, and all of their meanings and variations, and of the society and physical world the describe. Locally, O’Brian would have written these books for an audience a half century closer to the language, politics, society, and technology in the books than current readers. He and the initial readers and the current ones all make a substantial leap through time to inhabit that world, however briefly. The cleats, holding ropes fast to keep the masts and sails in place, bear a heavy load.
With so much difference between readers’ experiences inside and outside the novels, the author must have found more durable reference points, commonalities, than the apparent specifics. There’s a diagram of a frigate’s rigging at the front of many of the books, to help bridge the gap, but until I read the story, several of them, I found the diagram unhelpful. What allows readers to bridge that gap, to construct characters over meandering plots in thirty books, to cope with unfamiliar social customs, language, and technologies? How do we hold on and where do we step so as not to fall overboard?
“All-ahoo” is a wonderful term. I am adopting it because it makes sense, it stands out in my memory from reading, and I look forward to my next encounter with it. I have “all-ahoo” in my life because it’s universal, and I can connect with it. The real answer to the question about continuing to suspend disbelief is that there are many points of connection, many fasteners and useful concepts, flashes of recognition closing the gap between reader and characters. I care about Aubrey’s unwelcome innovations with rigging not because I am a sailor (I am not), but because I am hesitant to shake things up in my own career. Maturin’s extremes of social awkwardness are confusing at first, but each layer of details makes his behavior more intelligible. The avid loyalties of lower-ranked men seem strange until readers get a close look at Aubrey’s coxswain, Bonden, or see both sides of the relationship with Thomas Pullings. The ropes come into view a length at a time.