New historians–both young people and those who might be rekindling passions–are evolving all the time. Should booksellers only promote new historical works to these customers? What about supplementing recently issued works with exemplary works from the backlist?
Imagine that a customer of a certain interest level comes in the store. He likes history and historical novels, he’s perhaps heard good things about Patrick O’Brian’s series, and now, here the customer is, browsing the fiction section and…oh, here are the O’Brian novels. What’s this? Hmmm… a brochure inside the flap, providing an overview of what you get if you decide to try a couple of books in the series. And even better? Here’s the list, giving the titles in order, so you don’t have to ask, and don’t have to go home and look it up on Wiki. (And the booksellers don’t have to fumble around trying to figure out which one’s which.)
In the New York Time Book Review, Richard Snow described Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series as, “The best historical novels ever written.” Here’s an overview of the series.
As O’Brian’s series opens, Jack Aubrey is a hard-driving officer on the brink of great exploits. His love of chamber music sets him on a collision course with an unconventional natural philosopher and physician, Stephen Maturin. Soon enough, however, the pair end up balancing each other, as Maturin ensures that Aubrey is able to navigate his way through relationships, debt collectors and national politics, while Aubrey leads Maturin into a world filled with exotic locales, new species and an outlet for his hidden life as a spy. The shortcomings of one character play to the strengths of the other, creating a friendship that won’t be easily broken by wine, women and wars.
Each character in the series is richly engaging, from the lowliest cabin boy to the highest politician. Aubrey’s crews mature, wander off, and find their way back as the series develops. The two protagonists evolve over time, their characters revealed in every situation, as they sometimes surprise even themselves. Scars, hardships, victories and trials mold the characters into recurring people that we love or hate.
In 2003, a feature film was released based on the series. While titled Master and Commander, the film mixed major plot lines from the books Master and Commander and The Far Side of the World. Incidents and characters from many other books were added as well, and characters in the film were composites of multiple characters from the books. Many of the more interesting aspects of the characters, including important physical traits and characterizations from the books are left completely out of the film. This is unfortunate when you consider the depth of the character writing in the novels.
At the heart of the series are the wooden navies of the Napoleonic Wars. O’Brian is as technical as any armchair admiral could desire. Rigging, seamanship, celestial navigation, the art of sea battle—all of these elements and more are at work in fascinating detail. The genius of O’Brian’s approach is that he allows the historian of these navies to swim freely in the details while also observing a character, Maturin, who remains oblivious to the machinations of the wooden and canvas world, thereby opening opportunities for explanation as Maturin is educated by his shipmates.
Although the nautical world is to the forefront of the series, casual readers can easily keep up with the movement and action of the novels without being experts. When Aubrey and Maturin come on shore, O’Brian weaves wonderfully detailed environments, from the treacherous streets of London to the wild shores of Australia and beyond.
Aubrey and Maturin are steeped in the culture of the late Enlightenment. Music, coffee, humanism, debates of religion, revolutionary politics, gender roles, class, economics—all of the topics of the period are in play throughout the series. More than mere swashbuckling tales, O’Brian’s books are about the world of the late 18th and early 19th century. Ultimately, the reader is immersed in the broad forces that shaped Western Europe.
Food, or, Skillygalee, Drowned Baby, & Soused Hog’s Face
The palate is frequently to the fore. From the splendor of a successful captain’s table to the squalor of a crew too long on station, food (names of dishes referenced above) is a critical part of the Aubrey/Maturin series. In fact, the books have spun off their own cookbook, Lobscouse and Spotted Dog: Which It’s a Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey/Maturin Novels. A question therefore arises: How many fiction series have spawned a cookbook? (Spotted Dog, it should be noted, is a kind of pudding.)
Aboard the wooden ship, the reader embarks on a deep literary foray into a historical period, complete with all of the elements that made it memorable. O’Brian’s prose style matches the period. The Aubrey/Maturin Series is a singular literary oeuvre, recognized as a zenith of its kind, rewarding on every level.
The Aubrey/Maturin Novels in Order of Publication
- Master and Commander
- Post Captain
- H.M.S. Surprise
- The Mauritius Command
- Desolation Island
- The Fortune of War
- The Surgeon’s Mate
- The Ionian Mission
- Treason’s Harbour
- The Far Side of the World
- The Reverse of the Medal
- The Letter of Marque
- The Thirteen-Gun Salute
- The Nutmeg of Consolation
- The Truelove
- The Wine-Dark Sea
- The Commodore
- The Yellow Admiral
- The Hundred Days
- Blue at the Mizzen
- The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey
Should a store keep the whole series in stock? The first five titles should be there, and if you’re known to be selling to a customer who is working his way through the series, better to err on the side of having them as opposed to not having them. If the customer sees that you don’t have what he wants, alas, he may look to a competitor to solve his problem.