The Yellow Admiral, Patrick O'Brian
As it happens, Helen and I have been reading from exactly the opposite ends of Patrick O'Brian's twenty-book series. She has just posted about the third book (probably my favorite), HMS Surprise (the dear Surprise, bless her). The Yellow Admiral is Book 17, the third from the end.
I was recently invited to join a Patrick O'Brian reading group, an off-shoot of a Dorothy Dunnett listserv to which I belong. The group, reading through the series, has just started this one. I signed on not just for the fun of discussing O'Brian, probably with sidelights into Dorothy Dunnett's books. But I am hoping that reading along with this book and the next, The Hundred Days, will finally get me to the last book, Blue at the Mizzen. I bought it when it was published in 1999, and it has sat unread ever since. Before I read the final book, I wanted to read again through the series, which sometimes feels like one (very long) story. But I never made it to the end (I kept re-reading the early books). So here I am, jumping in with one of the last, The Yellow Admiral.
Though I may have forgotten some of the details in the previous books, the characters feel like old friends met again. I have just been reading C.P. Snow's biography of Anthony Trollope, where he discusses Trollope's gift in creating characters who feel real and alive. I think Patrick O'Brian had that same gift. And this book brings together so many old friends: not just Jack and Stephen, but Sir Joseph Blaine, Barrett Bonden (the Archie of the series), Clarissa Oakes, Heneage Dundas, and Jack's young brother Philip, as well as the other members of Jack and Stephen's families.
The term "yellow admiral" makes me think of butterflies. Here it refers to Jack's greatest fear: being passed over for promotion. In the Royal Navy at the time, promotion to the rank of admiral went very much like clock-work, based on seniority in the service. There were three sets of admirals (red, white and blue), and three ranks within each set (rear-admiral, vice-admiral, and admiral). Thus Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park talks of the vices and rears in her uncle the Admiral's home, and Anne Elliot in Persuasion knows that Admiral Crofts is "rear admiral of the white," half-way up the ranks. He would have started as rear admiral of the blue, before promotion to vice and then admiral of the blue, with the next step to the white (as rear admiral again). When a vacancy occurred, each man moved up in strict order, and the most senior captain on the list became the new rear-admiral of the blue. Once a captain made it to admiral, as long as he stayed alive he would rise through the list. The ultimate prize was the rank of Admiral of the Fleet, which Jane Austen's brother Frank held. But captains who made too many enemies in the service, particularly at the Admiralty, risk being "yellowed," effectively retired by a meaningless promotion to rear-admiral (unattached to a squadron). And with the end of the Napoleonic Wars in sight, a lot of sailors are going to find themselves turned on shore.
I won't say too much about the plot of this book, except to note that it is equally divided between sea and land adventures (not to mention misadventures). Jack has a tendency to get himself into trouble on shore. Here he is resisting a fellow landowner's plan to enclose a village common. Unfortunately for him, his opponent is his admiral's nephew. That creates an awkward situation when Jack returns to his ship, part of the blockade off Brest. I can't help thinking that Patrick O'Brian must have had strong feelings about enclosure himself, almost two hundred years later, to make it so central to his story. Stephen meanwhile continues his intelligence work, meeting this time with Chileans hoping to gain their independence from Spain. As I remember, it is rare to follow Stephen on his missions ashore. Usually, as here, we only learn the results after he has returned safely to the ship - or in this case, to Sir Joseph in London.
I am glad that I jumped back into this series, even so far into it, and though I can feel the temptation to go back to earlier books, I have set my sights firmly on The Hundred Days. Of course, if the O'Brian list finishes Blue at the Mizzen and then starts the series over again, I may be right there with them again, at that fateful concert in Port Mahon.