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Patrick O'Brian Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions for Master and Commander, The Aubrey/Maturin Series, and The Yellow Admiral

SPOILER ALERT: Some of the discussion questions give away plot points! Read them AFTER the book!

The World of Patrick O'Brian

On the foundations of an unlikely friendship that began with a dispute at a concert in Port Mahon, Patrick O'Brian has written a series of novels about the sea, history, the Royal Navy of Nelson's era, the early stirrings of modern science, and a whole raft of other subjects that rivals The Iliad for narrative sweep and has been compared, for its attention to detail and social nuance, to the work of Jane Austen.

Richard Snow describes Patrick O'Brian's work in his celebratory 1991 article in the New York Times Book Review:

"Patrick O'Brian presents the lost arcana of that hard-pressed, cruel, courageous world with an immediacy that makes its workings both comprehensible and fascinating. All the marine hardware is in place and functioning; the battles are stirring without being romanticised (this author never romanticises); the portrayal of life aboard a sailing ship is vivid and authoratitive. But in the end it is the serious exploration of human character that gives the books their greatest power: the fretful play of mood that can irrationally darken the edges of the brightest triumph, and can feed a trickle of merriment into the midst of terror and tragedy. Mr. O'Brian manages to express, with the grace and economy of poetry, familiar things that somehow never get written down, as when he carefully details the rueful steps by which Stephen Maturin falls out of love. . . .begin with the first of them, Master and Commander, and there's a good chance you'll find yourself at the final installment all too soon. You will have read what I continue to believe are the best historical novels ever written. Along the way you'll not only have witnessed the unfolding of a tremendous story, but the very beginnings of the world we now inhabit. In one of the books Maturin nearly propounds a theory of Freudian psychology; in another he falls just shy of the immense implications of evolution. His is the kind of questing mind that made the late 18th century such an age of revelation; his counterpart Jack Aubrey personifies the raw energy that fueled the epoch. On every page Mr. O'Brian reminds us with subtle artistry of the most important of all historical lessons: that times change but people don't, that griefs and follies and victories of the men and women who were here before us are in fact the maps of our own lives."—Richard Snow, New York Times Book Review, 1991

Patrick O'Brian is the author of the critically acclaimed 20-volume Aubrey/Maturin series. He has also written biographies of Pablo Picasso and Sir Joseph Banks, and has translated both the novels and the memoirs of Simone de Beauvoir. His first novel of the sea was The Golden Ocean, a fictionalized account of Commodore Anson's expedition to the Pacific to disrupt Spain's gold shipments, which O'Brian says he wrote "in six weeks, laughing much of the time." He published Master and Commander, the first of the Aubrey/Maturin series, in 1970 and Blue at the Mizzen, the final volume, in 1999. Patrick O'Brian passed away in January 2000 at the age of 85.

For Discussion

Master and Commander | About the book
  1. Jack and Stephen meet in awkward circumstances; indeed it is very nearly a fatal encounter. What hints can you find in this scene of the friendship that will blossom between them?
  2. What is the secret connection between Stephen Maturin and James Dillon? And why does Dillon so despise Jack?
  3. The master of the Sophie, Mr. Marshall, has a secret as well. What is the official attitude of the Royal Navy towards homosexuality? How does it differ from Jack's attitude, and Stephen's?
  4. Jack's military judgment in the second half of the book seems to border on recklessness. What combination of motives explains his audacious attacks?
  5. Mowett, the midshipman, fancies himself a poet. Are his artistic impulses out of place in the Royal Navy? Is his poetry any good?
  6. For such a successful commander, Jack seems to have quite difficult relations with his commanding officers. Why should this be so?

The Aubrey/Maturin Series

  1. What is your favorite book in the series, and why?
  2. If you could be one of the characters, which one would you choose? Which character do you think most clearly reflects the author's point of view?
  3. Stephen is fascinated by the autocratic authority that a captain in the Royal Navy exercises over every man aboard his ship. Why does Stephen find this absolute power so interesting, and so troubling?
  4. Many readers single out humor as the most characteristic and most delightful aspect of the Aubrey/Maturin series. How does Jack's sense of humor differ from Stephen's? In what different ways are they both occasional objects of the author's own humor?
  5. Do you think the comparison of O'Brian's work to Jane Austen's holds water? What similarities do you see?
  6. Some readers are surprised that Jack Aubrey is such an accomplished musician. Were you surprised? What other attributes of Jack's do you find surprising?
  7. What comparisons or contrasts would you make between Jack's and Stephen's attitude towards war?
  8. The author often withholds apparently important pieces of information for many pages, inverting what some novelists would think of as the natural order of the story. Do you find this narrative technique interesting or confusing?
  9. Do you feel that the principal characters have changed with the passage of time through the series, or have they remained essentially the same?

The Yellow Admiral | About the book

  1. What is the "reason of state" advanced by Lord Stranrear on behalf of the inclosure scheme that Jack so detests? Can you think of any modern analogies to this debate?
  2. Sophie is clearly upset by the presence of Clarissa Oakes at Woolcombe. What explains her attitude?
  3. Which female character do you think is more typical of the period, Diana or Sophie? Can you think of any modern counterparts to these characters?
  4. Jack Aubrey's misadventures ashore are often a source of humor and concern to the reader. While you might not choose Jack to advise you on investments, what sort of job do you think he'd do as lord of the manor?
  5. On page 188 Sophie is given some rather unusual advice on her marriage by Diana and Clarissa Oakes. Do you think that Sophie is likely to have acted on their suggestion with regard to Captain Adeane ("Captain Apollo")?
  6. "You are very much in favour of independence," says Jack to Stephen. "I have often noticed it." How does Stephen square his own political motivations with his role as naval surgeon and spy for Britain?
  7. Whose side do you take when Sophie discovers Jack's indiscretions?

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