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The Patrick O'Brian Newsletter: Volume 4, Issue 1

March 1995


Editor's Column

Faithful readers of the Patrick O'Brian Newsletter will rejoice to learn that Mr. O'Brian has made firm plans to visit the United States again in April, to celebrate the publication of his new Aubrey/Maturin novel, The Commodore. (On-sale date in your local bookstore: April 10, 1995.) This will be the first opportunity for the author's West Coast admirers to meet him and hear him talk about his work. Details of his itinerary appear elsewhere in this issue of the newsletter.

Those of you who are wondering just what to read between now and April 10 might want to try one or both of the following books of related interest:

Captain James Cook, by Richard Hough, a biography of the great English explorer and navigator revered by succeeding generations of English mariners. (W. W. Norton)

The Traveler's Tree, by Bruno Bontempelli, a novel chronicling the disastrous, almost hallucinatory adventures of a plague-ridden French ship stranded in the Caribbean. (The New Press)

Whether you tear through The Commodore at a single sitting or linger over each paragraph—the consensus among early readers is that this is one of O'Brian's best—you will be cheered to know that there is more Patrick O'Brian on the horizon. In November we have a double feature: The Unknown Shore, a sequel to The Golden Ocean (not an Aubrey/Maturin novel), and Men-of-War, a brief but richly illustrated book that explains what life was like in Nelson's Navy.

Yes, Patrick O'Brian is at work on the eighteenth installment in the series. Publication date is unknown, but it will probably be spring or summer of 1996. Since so many readers have inquired about a Patrick O'Brian Companion, we are pleased to announce that a knowledgeable gentleman at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich has undertaken this labor, with Mr. O'Brian's blessing.


Just a Phase I'm Going Through?

The beginning of my naval tales about Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin goes back a great way, to the 1950s or even to the late 1940s, when I had finished two difficult novels and, by way of a holiday, I wrote an account of an Irish midshipman's voyage aboard the Centurion, the ship in which Commodore Anson, later Admiral Lord Anson, sailed round the world in the 1740s with a squadron of six men-of-war to harry the Spaniards in the Pacific.

The Centurion alone survived the frightful wear and tear of the circumnavigation, the terrible storms and the scurvy, but the mission itself was a great success, and among other feats the Centurion took the galleon Nuestra Señora de Covadonga with 1,313,843 pieces of eight aboard, to say nothing of the gold bars and silver ingots.

Even by the time Anson's squadron reached Juan Fernández to rest and refit after their terrible passage of the Horn, their numbers had sunk from 961 to 335 (two ships had been obliged to turn back); and when at last they reached home and marched to the Tower of London with 32 great wagons filled with treasure, there were of course fewer still, so that the prize money reached extraordinary sums for even the humblest. That was some small part of the fun of writing the book: I was more than usually penniless at the time, and even the vicarious contemplation of wealth was agreeable.

Yet that was a trifle compared to the rest. The Rev. Mr. Richard Walter, Anson's chaplain, wrote a capital account of the voyage, a book I had known from childhood, so with that and many other contemporary sources I possessed excellent material, and since I had my main characters clearly in mind the writing took very little time: about six weeks, as I remember. How I enjoyed it!

So did my English and American publishers; but, alas, the public did not. At that time, on both sides of the Atlantic, they made a point of ignoring my work, and they looked upon The Golden Ocean with frigid indifference.

Yet the book was not entirely forgotten. Years later an American publisher who had liked it suggested that I should try my hand at the sea again. I was perfectly happy to do so. I knew the element tolerably well, having sailed in most rigs, and naval history had been my delight ever since I bought the six volumes of Beatson before the war and those of James a little later.

I pitched the first book in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars, which had always seemed to me the later English-speaking people's Troy Tale, as capable of infinite variation and extension as the countless successors to The Iliad. Once again I wrote it with intense pleasure and with the particular engagement that I had brought to Testimonies (one of the difficult novels I mentioned), which must still have lingered in my mind to some degree, for as several readers have pointed out, the names Aubrey and Maturin occur in both.

Just how the plot of Master and Commander (so far as it has a plot) came to me I cannot now recall, although obviously I wanted to talk about the difficulty of divided loyalties and the distress of some Irishmen after the failure of the 1798 rising; but as far as particular incidents are concerned, I borrowed Lord Cochrane's little brig the Speedy and her capture of El Gamo, so that the material facts should be wholly authentic.

I did not borrow Lord Cochrane himself, however, because I meant Jack Aubrey to be essentially English and, in fact, a much more agreeable person, one based on many Englishmen of the better sort I have known, particularly sailors. And of course Sir James Saumarez's actions at Algeciras and in the Gut of Gibraltar came straight from his own dispatches and reports of the time.

When I was writing this and the other early books in the series I was so ignorant of the English literary scene that I was quite unaware of the historical novel's blasted reputation: doubly blasted if it had anything to do with the sea. So when once again the public turned a deaf ear, a blind eye, I was somewhat grieved, because I thought Master and Commander quite a good book.

Somewhat grieved, but not unduly: I had never had much notion of myself as a money-spinner and as long as the wolf did not actually shove the door right open I was quite happy in my writing room, with golden orioles outside the window or nightingales, those over-rated birds, and once to utter astonishment a wryneck within a hand's reach, intent upon its breakfast. Quite happy so long as the current book was going well, pen hurrying over the sheets and they piling up; all the more so because I had splendid literary agents who did everything to help and because my successive editors at Collins never lost courage, never failed to support me in spite of what were doubtless some wry looks and acid comments from their accountants.

Then, for reasons I have never fully understood, things began to change. A new American publisher took the risk of bringing out the first few tales: they did moderately well and were indeed doing even better when a brilliant review in The New York Times, followed by articles in The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker, attracted a good deal of attention. Massive reviewing followed, and interviews, alas, some of them very personal and unpleasant. Then a tour of the American east coast, wearing but infinitely rewarding—until one has eaten cod in Boston and clam chowder one has not fully lived. And the television there was suprisingly discreet.

This has continued for some time now, and recently I heard (not without a complacent simper) that the best bookshop in America had moved my books across the aisle from Fiction to Literature. It would be a foolish affectation to pretend that the change does not please me or that I do not find a moderately heavy purse more agreeable than one so light that the first breath of crisis would blow it away; but I can place my hand on my heart—both hands, and spread them wide—and assert that it does not affect my writing in any way at all.

On reflection it occurs to me that there are some possible reasons for part of this charge, but certainly none that explains it entirely. For one thing I had written a quite well-received Life of Picasso (Kenneth Clark said it was the best, God bless him) and another of Sir Joseph Banks, and these books, together with translations of some excellent French writers and the much-praised (but little read) Testimonies, may slowly have separated my naval tales from the rest of the despised genre.

Another thing that quite certainly did so was Collins's brilliant choice of a marine artist for the jacket. Geoff Hunt's pictures, perfectly accurate in period and detail, but very far from merely representational, often suffused with a light reminiscent of Canaletto, are both close to the text and infinitely remote from the wenches lashed to the mast, their bosoms in disarray, that must so often deter any man or woman looking for adult reading-matter.

Yet the essential difficulty remains: why this change? My kinder friends, dear creatures, suggest that merit may have something to do with it. I am very willing to believe them; but there is this obstinate fact—the books now praised are exactly the same as those which were scorned. The merit or lack of merit has not altered.

Could it conceivably be a matter of phase? To take ludicrous examples: Cezanne and Van Gogh said little to most of their contemporaries; our grandfathers could have bought an El Greco for a hundred guineas or less; and my early Encyclopedia Britannica does not even mention Monteverdi. They were out of phase: the phases, ruled by who knows what laws, now coincide. Perhaps on a miniature scale the same thing may have happened here.


Useful Terms: A through L • M through Sp • Sq through Z

Marks and deeps The divisions used in marking a hand-held lead line at the second, third, fifth, seventh, tenth, thirteenth, fifteenth, seventeenth and twentieth fathoms, each designated by bits of leather are called marks. The intermediate fathoms, estimated by the leadsman, are called deeps.

Marline spike or marling spike A pointed iron pin about 16 inches long, furnished with a round head, used by riggers and seamen to separate the strands of rope when splicing and also as a lever when putting on seizing, marling etc.

Middle Watch The watch from midnight until 4 a.m., which follows the first watch.

Miss stays (to) To fail in going about from one tack to the other, as a result of which the ship gets its head to the wind, comes to a stand, and begins to fall off on the same tack.

Mizzen The aftermost mast which supports all the after sails.

Morning watch The watch from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m.

Oakum A caulking material used in waterproofing the seams between strakes of planking. It is a mass of strong, pliable tarred rope fibers obtained from scrap rope, which swell when wet. The fibers are soaked in pine tar and loosely bundled together.

Offing Implies out at sea, or at a good distance from the shore, where there is deep water and no need for a pilot to conduct the ship.

Orlop The lower but temporary deck in a ship of war, whereon the cables are usually coiled, the sails deposited, and the several officers' storerooms contained.

Peak 1. The upper aft corner of a square fore-and-aft sail. 2. A compartment in either extreme end of the vessel, bow or stern, referred to as forepeak or afterpeak.

Pinnace Resembles a barge, but is never rowing more than eight oars, whereas a barge never rows less than ten. The pinnace is for the accommodation of lieutenants etc.

Pintle One of several pins or bolts on the forward edge of the rudder frame, by which the rudder is hinged to the gudgeons of the stern- or rudderpost, around which it pivots. See also gudgeon.

Pitch (to) To plunge with alternate fall and rise of bow and stern, as when a ship passes over waves and into the hollow of the sea.

Points of sailing Sailing points may be defined as the different courses followed by any sailing craft when compared to the direction of the wind. They are named according to the angle between the direction of the wind and the fore-and-aft line of the vessel. When this angle is near 180 degrees the ship is said to be sailing with the wind aft, or before the wind. When it is about 135 degrees it is sailing with the wind on the quarter, or quartering; when about 90 degrees it is running free. When the angle is less than 90 degrees a square-rigged ship is said to be close-hauled, on the wind or by the wind.

Poop The highest and aftermost deck of a ship.

Port See larboard.

Preventer backstay One of a pair of additional backstays set up temporarily leading from the head of a mast to the ship's side where it is set up with a tackle, and carried in strong winds or when under a press of sail.

Quarterdeck A term applied to the afterpart of the upper deck. In naval vessels, that portion of the weather deck which is reserved for the use of the officers.

Ratline One of the small lines traversing the shrouds and forming rope ladders used by seamen for going aloft.

Royals Small square sails, carried next above the main topgallant sail, and used only in light winds because their masts are poorly supported and their position is such that they set with a long leverage and have a tendency to bury the ship and retard her progress in heavier winds.

Sail large, Sail free (to) See large.

Sailing on a bowline Sailing on a wind or close-hauled when the bowlines would be hauled taut.

Sea pie A seaman's dish composed of fish or meat and vegetables in layers between crusts, the number of which determine whether it is a "double-decker" or a "three-decker."

Sheet anchor The largest spare anchor used in a ship, carried in the waist, as far forward as convenient, and kept ready for use in an emergency—the mariner's last refuge.

Sheet home To strain or haul on a sheet until the foot of a sail is as straight and as taut as possible.

Ship biscuit Hard bread, much dried, consisting of flour, water or milk, salt, which does not deteriorate when stored for long periods and therefore is suitable for use on board ship for up to a year after it was baked. Also called hard tack.

Shroud One of a set of strong ropes extending on each side of a masthead to the sides of a ship to support a mast laterally. Shrouds take their name from the spars they support.

Soft tack Seaman's term for leavened bread as distinguished from hard tack or biscuit.

Spar A general term for a round piece of timber, very long in proportion to its diameter, used for masts, yards, booms, gaffs, bowsprits, and so on.

Spritsail A sail attached to a yard which hangs under the bowsprit, and has a large hole at each of its lower corners to evacuate the water which fills its cavity by the surge of the sea when the ship pitches.

Useful Terms, continued: A through LSq through Z


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