I felt a huge sense of relief to get through this ordeal of a book without being scuppered or broadsided and blasted by a thirty-six pounder or court marshalled and shot by my own side. I kept a furtive lookout for the massing enemy French fleet showing the tips of their masts over the horizon. The thought of comforting myself with several bottles of wine with dinner occurred to me, and a tot of rum a day wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Much of the detail of the action went right over my head and I know that’s the truth for most readers, though there are men who swear they understand every manoeuvre (who you really should not engage in conversation if you have somewhere else to be in the next, say, five hours).
I’m almost afraid of writing a review as it’s sure to earn huffy criticism when I say man-of-war instead of brig-rigged-sloop(?) or mix my tacks with my tackle. There, I’ve blown it already. But that’s part of the fun of it. This book absolutely immerses the reader into early 19th Century naval battles and of course you should expect to be entirely flummoxed by the carry-on of their salty world.
Our Master & Commander and hero of the story is Jack Aubrey, just made up from lieutenant to take command of the fourteen gun HMS Sophie, and he swash-buckles his way from Port Mahon across the Mediterranean, striking fear into the hearts of Napoleon’s fleets and cannonballs into their ships’ fragile timbers. With him is an odd character, Dr Stephen Maturin, who, despite a very rude introduction, Aubrey appoints as his naval surgeon and the pair form an unlikely but strong friendship.
We know very little of the backstories of these two men. Dr Maturin is a member of the United Irishmen, raised in Spain and speaker of several languages, though unversed in naval-speak and not knowing the difference between a frigate and a xebec-frigate, which is a wonderfully curious rig though I can’t remember why. Aubrey, himself, is a beefy bloke, a philanderer and happy drunk, clumsy on land but adroit on the sea. His mother died when he was young, he grew up on an estate (the landed-gentry type) and went to sea when he was twelve. The men share a love of music.
Along with the vocabulary, the attitudes and actions of the men are a reflection of the age and I found it difficult to set aside my enlightened 21st century brain and see these men — all of them from the admirals though our two heroes to the lowliest loblolly on the ship — as anything other than a pack of arrogant dog-eat-dog bullies. I’m not fooled by the violin. Classist, racist, elitist, sexist and full of a bravado and a joy of war. The whole story is shot full of testosterone and very phallic with the cannons blasting all over the place. Out there on the sea the biggest dick wins, though Jack Aubrey would claim its not just size of your cannon but what you can do with it.
Master & Commander is the first of a long series of novels widely regarded as among the best in the genre. It’s been a good read for me during lockdown when I can’t go sailing on the Spirit of New Zealand, on which there is no drinking or swearing, we harness up to climb the rig and no one dies of gunshot or pox.
I do applaud the extraordinary literary feat of these novels and will probably enlist for the remaining twenty books in the series because I think it is healthy to read opinions about which you strongly disagree and I am a sucker for life at sea. But it is a commitment for several years, there are so many other books to read and I have no intention of following Napoleon’s advice : “Never mind manoeuvres, always go at them.”
Guess I’m in for the long haul.