Sunday, April 17, 2011

The experience of command

The Mauritius Command, Patrick O'Brian

There was some discussion of Patrick O'Brian recently on Marzipan, one of the Dorothy Dunnett listservs - comments both from devoted POB readers and some who had tried the series but found the books unreadable.  I was also reminded of POB reading Tony Horwitz's book Blue Latitudes, especially its first chapter on sailing in a replica Royal Navy ship.  It has been several years since I've read through the entire series, but last year I re-read the first three books.  In the past, when I read O'Brian, I usually read straight through the series, often starting or ending with the newest book.  I don't feel that same compulsion, now, perhaps because I know the characters and the arc of the story - or because in general I'm re-reading less.

Not that I remember all the details, of course, especially in the later books that I have re-read less often.  But even with The Mauritius Command, I found I remembered only the broad outlines.  This book, about an expedition commanded by Jack Aubrey to take two islands east of Madagascar from the French, seems more a stand-alone, unlike the later books where expeditions stretch across three or even more books, as do character arcs and the more domestic stories.

This book gives Jack his first experience of command over a squadron, as a commodore.  As he naturally finds, this is very different from command over his single ship, and I found myself thinking back to the last book I read, U.S. Grant's memoirs, which are also about command and responsibility in war.  O'Brian gives us several different pictures of authority in the different captains and army officers in Jack's command.  Like Grant, Jack Aubrey can be pretty scathing on the failures of high command.

When I first discovered the series, Stephen Maturin was my favorite character, but I have come to appreciate Jack Aubrey's courage, skill, humor, and essential kind-heartedness.  This book also includes old friends like Barret Bonden (the true hero of the series), Tom Pullings, and Sophy Aubrey.

Patrick O'Brian would definitely be on my "desert-island" list of books - but choosing just one, well that would bring me by the lee shore.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!