Review: H.M.S. Surprise, by Patrick O'Brian

You know, it’s terribly unfashionable to admit this sort of thing, but there is something about the thought of Empire that just thrills me. It’s the words, I think. Fleet. Empire. Armada. The sun never sets, etc. etc. And yes, I know that colonialism is bad, blah de blah de blah, but let me tell you, I still devour this kind of book. The Royal Navy! Scurvy! India! Storms! Cannons! Oh, it is almost too much.

This is the third instalment (of twenty-one!) of Patrick O’Brian’s beloved Aubrey/Maturin series, and I actually read it some years ago. I was staying with my aunt and uncle for part of the summer, and they had a whole shelf full, which I promptly devoured. It’s been long enough that now I remember who all the characters are but not much about what they’ve done, or when, or with whom. It’s one of the best ways to re-read a book, I think.

Anyway, here’s the back:

H.M.S. Surprise follows the variable fortunes of Captain Jack Aubrey’s career in Nelson’s navy as he attempts to hold his ground against admirals, colleagues and the enemy, accepting a commission to convey a British ambassador to the East Indies. The voyage takes him and his friend Stephen Maturin to the strange sights and smells of the Indian subcontinent, and through the archi0pelago of spice islands where the French have a near-overwhelming local superiority.

Rarely has a novel managed to convey more vividly the fragility of a sailing ship in a wild sea. Rarely has a historical novelist combined action and lyricism of style in the way that O’Brian does. His superb sense of place, brilliant characterization and a vigour and joy of writing lifts O’Brian above any but the most exalted of comparisons.

O’Brian was a superb novelist, indeed. There was one storm in particularly that was genuinely breathtaking, and although I know that I romanticize it terribly, after I finish a book in this series I always wish I’d been born a boy in a British naval family about two hundred years ago. Because H.M.S. Surprise is not only adventuresome and tremendously researched, but it’s darn funny. Take these:

“Was you a midshipman in the Surprise, sir?” cried young Callow, amazed, amazed. If he had thought about it at all, he would have supposed that post-captains sprang fully armed from the forehead of the Admiralty. (106)

“I beg your pardon,” said Nicolls with an artificial smile. “I am afraid I lost the thread. What were you saying?”

“I was repeating phrases from this little book. It is all I could get, apart from the Fort William grammar, which is in my cabin. It is a phrase-book, and I believe it must have been compiled by a disappointed man: My horse has been eaten by a tiger, leopard, bear; I wish to hire a palanquin; there are no palanquins in this town, sir — all my money has been stolen; I wish to speak to the Collector: the Collector is dead, sir — I have been beaten by evil men. Yet salacious too, poor burning soul: Woman, wilt thou lie with me?” (126)

The only quibble I have with H.M.S. Surprise is that mine is a second-hand copy, and whoever owned it last underlined all of the words they didn’t know in the first chapter or so. But I knew those words, and so the effect was rather to put the sentences’ emphases in some very odd places. But no matter; at least my copy wasn’t eaten by a tiger, leopard, bear.

4 thoughts on “Review: H.M.S. Surprise, by Patrick O'Brian

  1. I am right there with you when it comes to unreasonable love of the Age of Sail – I've been known to remark “Sometimes I'm just in the mood for the British Navy.” I've read the first book in the series, and have the second, third, fourth (and randomly, seventeenth) book sitting on my shelves, along with several of the companion books. I really need to dive back into them!Fyrefly’s latest blog post:Neil Gaiman & Yoshitaka Amano – Sandman: The Dream Hunters


  2. I have always kind of wanted to read these books, but your review put me over the edge! They sound really great, and really involving…something I definitely need to read. I am going to try the first one and see how it goes. Thanks for posting this!zibilee’s latest blog post:**New Giveaway**


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