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The Patrick O'Brian Newsletter: Volume 2, Issue 1

March 1993


From the Editor's Column

Thank you for all the letters, cards, orders, and questions you have so kindly provided us—nothing is easier than leaving the editorial tiller of a newsletter in the capable hands of its readers. However, there seems to be some confusion, and indeed apprehension, about Mr. O'Brian's writing intentions, and we should clear this up right away.

O'Brian is at work on volume number sixteen, tentatively titled The Wine-Dark Sea, and the hardcover version should be appearing in September 1993. He has indicated, furthermore, that it will take at least a seventeenth installment to bring his heroes into a friendly port, at which point he may break off for a while and pursue another writing project.

Of the work in progress O'Brian writes: "I am plunging about in the Andes, Darwin in one hand, Humboldt in the other, guiding Maturin through the snow and ice towards Valparaiso, where he may or may not be picked up by the Surprise, herself battered by a prodigious eastern blast." Readers who had resigned themselves to reading the existing series for the second, or perhaps third time, should take heart.

Meanwhile we will continue to revive O'Brian's other books—which, as was the case with the Aubrey/Maturin series until surprisingly recently, are all out of print in this country. This year we are planning to reissue in paperback his magnificent biography of Pablo Picasso, written some seventeen years ago, and so definitive it is rumored that Norman Mailer stopped work on his own biography of the painter because he felt he could not add to the story. Tentatively planned for 1994 are reissues of a volume of short stories and perhaps an early sea novel, precursor to the Aubrey/Maturin series.


POB in vineyard

Patrick O'Brian at work in his vineyard in the French Pyrenees.
(Photo credit: Stuart Bennet)

A Word from Patrick O'Brian

The vineyard is some 1,000 feet up in the foothills of the eastern Pyrenees; at its lower edge a cork-oak forest runs down to a distant stream; the Spanish frontier can be seen a few miles to the south, and on a peak to the west stands a thirteenth-century watch-tower that guarded the coast from Moorish raiders. The vineyard itself is small, producing no more than is needed for friends and home consumption, a full-bodied red wine pressed from black and grey and white grenache with a fair amount of carignan and a little muscat, excellent as vin nouveau, indifferent for the next four or five years but then improving steadily. There is a little stone house among the vines and here I sit writing in the high summer at those times when there are too many people on the coast; for although the place is no more than twenty minutes' drive away from the village it is wonderfully quiet and peaceful, and the sun is rarely too hot.

To be sure this remoteness has its disadvantages, for wild boars live in the dense maquis above and in the forest below: they systematically grub up the stone-pine kernels sown in hope of a future grove, and although they do not eat the grapes their playful young skip about the terraces knocking them off when they are ripe and damaging the drystone walls, while the aged boars root up the earthworks designed to protect the little house and its path from the equinoctial storms. But the boars are little to pay for the quietness and the other creatures that live up there—golden orioles, bee-eaters, three kinds of eagle, ocellated lizards, badgers and the occasional genet, to say nothing of the honey-buzzards on their spring migration, standing northwards by the thousand under a pale blue sky.


Reader's Questions

Q. What is a voyol? (Far Side of the World, p. 213)
A. A voyol, also known as a viol, was, as Admiral Smyth defines it, "a large messenger formerly used to assist in weighing an anchor by the capstan."

Q. Aubrey seems to have served in a large number of ships during his career. Is this unusual?
A. Officers generally served in many ships during their naval service, since commissions on individual ships tended to be less than two years and officers would then face either protracted time on shore (at half pay) or a commission on another ship. Nelson, for instance, served in eight before he reached post rank and five more before he became rear-admiral.

Q. What does the rank "Admiral of the blue" signify?
A. There were three separate ranks: admiral, vice admiral and rear admiral. Each of these ranks was divided into three squadrons, titled, in order of seniority, red, white, and blue. The system of rank had originated in the mid-seventeenth century, when the fleet was divided into three divisions, each carrying a different color of ensign; each division was divided, in turn, into three squadrons. The navy no longer fought as a single unit by the 1800s, and the system had long become obsolete, but, like so many other aspects of naval rank, the titles remained even when the substance was greatly changed.


The Female Perspective

A number of readers have asked whether Patrick O'Brian's books appeal to women, and what they see in the ostensibly male-oriented life of a Royal Navy ship. Rather than attempt to explain this ourselves, we offer instead a letter written to us from Carol Prisant of Roslyn Harbor, New York:

"What can a fiftyish, female, New York type who gets seasick in calms find in the Audrey-Maturin novels? Well, enough to have hunted down the whole series for herself and then bought six of the first one to give to uninitiated friends. Never have I read any single novel that has the wit, erudition, and precision of language that Mr. O'Brian combines in each of the fifteen. He creates an entire and perfect world with so little seeming effort that I can only muse, a bit, about the possibilities of re-incarnation. And if he is not a re-born post-captain, has his immersion in the period affected his daily manner of speech? Does he still do research, or is the entire era now intact in his head? Is he, too, a naturalist, a musician, a drug addict? Is he married? (No, forget that.)

I'm not certain if it's better to have gobbled up the series all at once, as I did, or, to have the exquisite delight of anticipating a yearly addition. I did try to prolong my enjoyment by interspersing each book with other, lengthy readings: once even ploughing through the 1,500 pages of Les Miserables. But Aubrey/Maturin were always my impatiently awaited dessert. Yet, now that I'm finally caught up, can I retain sufficient naval lore until the next volume? Do the yearly readers have that problem? Having a glossary, though, will seem like cheating.

I'm so glad that Norton has arranged a forum for Mr. O'Brian's fans. Now, at last, we can heap him with warming encomiums, just one of which is to let him know that not since Odysseus has a sailor had such a superb fabulist. Mr. O'Brian, I give you of your splendid epic."


The Carronade

The carronade was first invented in the late 1770s, by Melville, Gascoigne and Miller, as a short gun with a relatively large bore. It was developed by the Carron Company, and was first adopted by the navy in 1779. It was fitted to the quarterdecks, forecastles and poops of various ships—but only if the captain applied for them. By 1782, 167 ships had been fitted but only forty of these remained by 1793. In 1794, a new establishment of carronades was drawn up, making the gun compulsory on most types of ship, though, in the first instance, only for ships to be fitted out in the future. The most common were 32-pounders and 24-pounders, even on quite small ships. In the following year, the first brig sloops to be designed round a main armament of carronades were begun, and, in 1797, carronades had begun to replace long guns, rather than supplement them, on the quarterdecks and ships-of-the-line and frigates. As a general rule, the smaller the ship the greater proportion of carronades among her armament. Brig sloops were often armed almost entirely with carronades, while a first rate like the Victory carried only two, albeit 68-pounders. By the 1800s, most ships carried carronades in one form or another.

The carronade's effective range was never very great. The point-blank range of a 32-pound carronade was 340 yards, and its full range with 11 degrees elevation was tested at 1,930 yards—surprisingly, not much less than the range of a 24 pound long gun (2,213 yards). However, these figures were attained with land-based guns under practice conditions; ranges at sea would be rather less. Also, accuracy would be very poor at more than a few hundred yards for the carronade.

Carronade
Shipboard cannon in the early 19th century. Above, the traditional long gun in firing position; below, the carronade. The latter was especially important for close-in fighting.

Illustrations are taken from Nelson's Navy, by Brian Lavery, (Annapolis 1989 and London 1989). Reprinted by permission.


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