He may look to the moon,
Flotsam and jetsam
To the great mount of Diana.
While forlorn he does mourn
On the Isle of St. Helena.
-John Renfro Davis, Napoleon Bonaparte
Whilst dropping sea faring phrases like Davy Jones's locker and Nail your colors to the mast into the nodegel last summer, fair reader riverrun suggested I might enjoy reading Patrick O'Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels. Half way through Post Captain I was thinking, give me leaking wooden frigates and a high seas adventure any day because times of yore are so entertaining! These books are classic adventure yarns of the highest legendary caliber; the kind of stuff many simply can't get enough of. As first impressions go I wondered if this would be along the lines of Sir Author Conan Dolye’s friendship of crime fighting duo. Or maybe it was about privateer Henry Morgan and perhaps O’Brian may have picked up on the thread of the relationship between Morgan and his biographer, who is like Maturin, his ship’s surgeon John Esquemeling. However, some reviewers compare the work to that of Jane Austen if she had written rousing sea yarns.
Published in 1972 Lippencott published the first trio of O’Brian’s novels in the United States followed by Stein & Day. The next editions were released in 1990 when W.W. Norton reissued the series first in paperback and later in hardcover. Post Captain is the second of the Captain Jack Aubrey’s sea-faring novels. Two years earlier Master and Commander had come out as the first volume of the Aubrey-Maturin novels. It introduced Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, ship's surgeon and intelligence agent during the Napoleonic wars.
I could almost smell the sea. The era is 19th century Great Britain and it more than just navel battles. With has a first-rate ear for dialogue Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, surface as three-dimensional figures as friends and naval officers in Napoleonic-era England. But no one is left high and dry. O'Brian's descriptions of battles at sea are riveting with most derived from logbooks, official letters and even the personal memoirs of less famous 19th century sailors. The joys of scientific breakthroughs via Maturin’s fabulous assortment of animals and insects are presented in the best Darwinian style.
There is plenty of naval action, it is the character studies of Aubrey and Maturin that energize the novel. The requirements, privileges and duties of command conflict with Jack's ongoing troubles with money and his relationships with Sophie and Diana are explored. Then there is Mrs. Williams with her petty prejudices along with the internal scheming at the admiralty for ships and stations. Spying abroad on the French and Spanish, dueling, honor and friendship and daring escapes. Love sought, found, lost and rekindled. But ahoy!
A swashbuckling voyage
The story takes place on the Atlantic in the English channel between 1803 and 1804. The Treaty of Amiens had been signed in 1802 and was considered a "Definitive Treaty of Peace" between France and Britain. Between March and October prisoners and hostages had been exchanged. While France withdrew from the Papal States Britain gave up much of the West Indies.
When it was time to execute of the treaty, Great Britain became reluctant because of certain terms, such as “evacuating their military presence from Malta, because of French refusal to respect other terms of the treaty. “Aubrey and Maturin are in France when war is declared once again, Napoleon tries to have all British citizens arrested, and the two heroes have to escape.
Captain Jack Aubrey, Royal Navy, takes refuge in France from his creditors, is thrown into jail. He flees debtors' prison, a possible mutiny, and pursues his quarry straight into the mouth of a French-held-harbor. Stephen Maturin's struggles, with himself as much as with a proud and intelligent woman, become ensnared into his friendship with Aubrey's until rising cruelty approaches a breaking point. Stephen Maturin's activities as a secret agent for the British Admiralty are revealed. Napoleon begins to gather his Grande Armée on the coast of France to invade England. Bankrupt and having lost his captaincy Aubrey accepts command of an experimental and disintegrating ship.
The Carpenter's Mistake
Many readers get as giddy as Captain Jack Aubrey when they study O’Brian’s untried ship. One of the main characters in each of O’Brian’s books is the ship itself--her design, rigging, deck, mast, bulwark, spars, and rudders. The HMS Polychrest is no exception. She is skillfully used as a backdrop to draw attention to Jack and Stephen’s crumbling friendship. O'Brian appropriated the word polychrest for Jack Aubrey's second command, after the Sophie. She was named Polychrest for good reasons. The Oxford English Dictionary describes the word as, "something adapted to several different uses; esp. a drug or medicine serving to cure various diseases." There is also polychrest salt a medicinal combination of potassium sulfate that was specifically achieved by fusing niter with sulfur.
The HMS Polychrest is a flash ship; all paint on the outside and no order within. Her armor is comprised of twenty-four 32-pounder carronades that are so heavy that they’re only efficient for short range firing. Triple-masted and square-rigged, she has two main topsail yards. The launching system are the leftovers of an unsuccessful secret weapon. She’s described as 'the Carpenter's Mistake'…built by a gang of rogues and jobbers' and 'no one in the service imagined she would ever be launched.'
Her design is experimental and unwieldy and eventually she becomes regarded as unlucky. Pointed at both ends she can sail against the tide and the wind. She has a false bottom, no hold, and sliding keels and rudders. One can never tell if she is coming or going, and she droops in the mizzen with far too much leeway.
The physical form of the Polychrest (except for the secret weapon) was taken from the Dart class of sloops. The sliding keels, originally designed by a (captain in the Royal Navy) were employed upon a number of small vessels around this period, although problems with leaking centerboard cases perhaps discouraged wider experimentation. Unlike the Polychrest with its extraordinary leeway and a propensity for missing stays, the real HMS Dart and her sister ship Arrow performed satisfactorily during their Royal Navy service. The Dart was broken up in 1809. The poor sailing qualities of Polychrest and perhaps the notion of a new secret weapon were likely taken from HMS Project, a much smaller vessel than the Dart (and Polychrest) with a very shallow draft to carry a new design of howitzer into coastal waters. The Project was broken up in 1810 after only five years of service.
is the second novel in Patrick O'Brian's favorite adventure series. Despite the flaws of the Polychrest the French army never makes it across the English channel
. After she is severely damaged in a raid on a French port. Aubrey fights the Polychrest until she sinks under him in the English Channel. In spite of himself, the ship, his commanding officer, and his men, Aubrey survives and earns the rank of Post Captain. As for the Polychrest
, she starts off as second best but by the time she goes down what remains is respect and admiration for the author and his subtle imagination.
Don’t give up the ship!
Somerset House in England is the location for many scenarios in Port Captain. Inside its museum is a collection of exquisite ship models including an experimental sloop with sliding keels which probably worked like the Polychrest. There is also a model of a frigate of the same kind as Aubrey’s most triumphant command, the Surprise. Some wonder if it’s more than just a coincidence that the name of the model is of the Diana, a name O'Brian chose for his most complicated female character.
Patrick O'Brian's Post Captain is an enthralling adventure story with his incredibly authentic research, and truly complex characters. O'Brien does an excellent job of providing enough details to fully understand the historical setting British life at the beginning of the 19th century. The book is much deeper than the Peter Weir film and is an absolute sea change from Master and Commander.
Law and Morality in Patrick O’Brian’s Post Captain:
Lubber’s London- The Master and Commander Museum Trail :
What's a Polychrest?:
The Ships of Jack Aubrey:
Treaty of Amiens: