Having long ago read and loved the Horatio Hornblower books, it was inevitable that I would eventually read Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. And it’s probably no surprise that I loved them—they’re well-written, with subtle and perspicacious depictions of characters, exciting naval action, an apparently-accurate portrait of the Napoleonic era in Britain, and most of all the interplay between the bluff, hearty (but deeper than that) Captain Jack Aubrey and the philosophizing, oft-melancholy (but deeper than than that) Dr. Stephen Maturin.
They’re excellent books that have received tons of praise, all of it well-deserved—but of course they do have some flaws, too.
The first notable flaw is inevitable in a history of the period, which is that however crucial naval power may have been for Britain’s eventual victory over Napoleon, there was never any decisive final battle at sea where Napoleon was crushed. In fiction, our heroes would necessarily be instrumental in the final showdown with the villain, but history provides no such resolution, which means that there’s a feeling of anticlimax.
O’Brian handles this well, providing some personal goals and victories for the characters that are independent of the war itself. And then, too, the series ends closely enough after the war that there’s not that dispiriting peacetime stretch that turns up at the end of the Hornblower books. (This isn’t necessarily intentional on O’Brian’s part—there is a fragment of a 21st book whose writing was interrupted by his death—but still and all: The series ends almost exactly where it should.)
Less well-handled is another flaw that’s somewhat forced onto the books by their setting, which is their treatment of female characters. Inevitably, the Naval portions of the books are rather male-dominated. The early books in the series deal with this well, with stretches on land where women appear as characters that are as rich as any in the series. But later books fall away from this, with formerly interesting characters being reduced to “wife and mother” status.
And one particularly complex character is badly mistreated by O’Brian. When she’s on the page, she pops out as lively and human—O’Brian is too good a writer to make her seem cardboard-thin—but when she’s offstage and being talked about, the reports of her actions owe more to the prejudices of the times than to anything we’ve seen from her in person. And in one of the late books, O’Brian wraps up her storyline in a way that is ridiculously unfair and distasteful.
But here I am, talking at length about the flaws of the books, which has to give the wrong impression. The books are full of virtues, too. They evoke the feeling of the times, the feeling of being on a ship out at sea, the sense of exploration and discovery, and the complex evolving friendship between two very different men. Very highly recommended.