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The Patrick O'Brian Newsletter: Volume 1, Issue 1

August 1992

Editor's Column

W. W. Norton is pleased to announce the release of The Reverse of the Medal, The Letter of Marque, and The Thirteen Gun Salute, in paperback. When they reach bookstores towards the end of August Patrick O'Brian will have fifteen books in print with Norton. Die hard Aubrey/Maturin fans will be pleased to note that the entire series will be available in paperback in the Spring of 1993.

Our research into Mr. O'Brian's publishing history has turned up some interesting items. Here is an excerpt from a review by Delmore Schwartz of his novel, Testimonies, released in 1953:

"To read a first novel by an unknown author which, sentence by sentence and page by page, makes one say: he can't keep going at this pitch, the intensity is bound to break down, the perfection of tone can't be sustained—is to rejoice in an experience of pleasure and astonishment."
In the same article Schwartz reviews Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, Steinbeck's East of Eden and Waugh's Men at Arms, but he awards the palm to O'Brian's novel.

Intrigued by Schwartz's passion for the book, we dug up a second-hand copy and read it for ourselves. Set in the austere beauty of a tiny Welsh farming village, Testimonies is a dark, compelling tale of love and death; its themes are reminiscent of Thomas Hardy, but the narrative voice is unmistakably O'Brian's. Testimonies will be available next Spring in a cloth edition, as the author puts the finishing touches to the sixteenth Aubrey/Maturin book.

A Word from Patrick O'Brian

I am often asked how I came to write about the sea. It happened like this: in the early fifties, when I had finished a couple of difficult novels, one of them quite good but filled with anguish and written with even more, it occurred to me to write a book for fun. In the usual novel of today you have to invent everything, from the names of your characters onwards, which can be very wearing. But in the present case the names were provided for me, together with the whole sequence of events, just as they were for Homer, Virgil and many others; since the tale I had in mind was that of Anson's voyage round the world. He set out in 1740 at the head of a squadron to make war on the Spaniards in the Pacific, and this, after terrible difficulties and privations, he did, coming home in 1744 with only one ship left, but that ship deep laden with 1,313,843 pieces of eight as well as other loot, the whole filling thirty-two great wagons (that is why I called the tale The Golden Ocean).

Since what I wanted to write was a book for readers of no particular age (after all one can delight in David Copperfield or Kidnapped at twelve or seventy-two) all I had to do was put a boy, an ingenious youth from Connemara, aboard the commodore's ship as a midshipman and raise the anchor.

I was fortunate enough to have great material, and I wrote the book in about six weeks (or was it less?) laughing most of the time. In the first place there was the chaplain's excellent account, together with other contemporary sources; a mass of documents from the British Public Record Office; and the great wealth of the National Maritime Museum and its library at Greenwich. My own knowledge of the sea was useful too; but though I had sailed for many years and in many rigs, both fore-and-aft and square, my vessels were far removed from Anson's ships and it called for a great deal of research to get the technical details quite right—very agreeable research, too, in an atmosphere where I felt thoroughly at home, and in very good company: research that has, in the course of later years, led me through countless ship's logs, official correspondence, courts-martial, Admiralty orders, memoirs and letters written by sailors of all ranks from admiral of the fleet to ordinary seaman, and of course innumerable books dealing with naval history, ship-handling, ship-building, the health of seamen, and the fighting of battles at sea.

In my subsequent naval tales I have rarely had everything, character, plot and ending, handed to me on a salver; but I have often found a comfortable kernel of fact for my fiction: for example I borrowed Cochrane's taking of the immensely superior Cacafuego in Master and Commander, Linois's unsuccessful action against the Indiamen in HMS Surprise, and Captain Riou's collision with an iceberg in Desolation Island.

Indeed, anyone who reads extensively in the subjects I have mentioned will find a great many traces of my borrowing; nor shall I blush on being confronted with them, for I do not claim the merit of originality: only that of being a tolerably exact mirror, reflecting the ships and the seamen of an earlier age.

Reader's Questions

Q. Should the series be read strictly in order?
A. Newcomers would be well advised to start at #1, Master and Commander, for a thorough introduction to the characters and the setting, but seasoned readers should not be afraid to jump forwards and backwards as the mood strikes.

Q. The series needs a "companion" reference volume. Will you be producing one soon?
A. The Aubrey/Maturin series explores so many disciplines, from the intricacies of square-rigged sailing and navigation to botany, early 19th century medicine and philosophy, that the reader can be overwhelmed with new information. Plans are at the drawing-board stage for a companion volume including glossaries, illustrations and explanations to guide the reader through the fifteen books. If you can't wait, and are willing to spend about $50, we recommend Nelson's Navy, by Brian Lavery (Naval Institute Press, 1989). It is a large, heavily illustrated book with a foreword by a certain P. O'Brian.


The frigate was the most glamorous type of ship in the navy. It was big enough to carry significant a gun power, but fast enough to evade larger enemies. It was likely to be given an independent role, while ships of the line normally operated in fleets off the major enemy naval bases. It often fought single-ship actions against enemy frigates, and these were followed avidly by the press and public. Successful frigate captains like Cochrane and Broke achieved great fame, and some became extremely rich on prize money.

The frigate was designed with an unarmed lower deck, so that its guns were well above the waterline; this meant it could be allowed to heel quite considerably, and carry sail in a strong wind and heavy sea. It also meant that it could use its guns in heavy weather, when a two-decker would be unable to open its lower ports. It was much cheaper than a ship of the line (in 1789, a 38-gun frigate cost 20,830 British pounds, and a 74-gun cost 43,820 pounds), so more could be built for a given sum. The frigate was used for convoy escort, commerce raiding, and patrols. It also provided the main reconnaissance force for the battlefleet.

A frigate was expected to take on an enemy frigate, even one of superior gun power, such as the larger French and American frigates. It was not expected to take on a ship of the line, because the difference in gun power was far too great—a 38 had half the broadside weight of a 64, and two-fifths of that of a 74, and the hull scantlings were much weaker. By convention, ships of the line in a fleet battle did not open fire on enemy frigates unless provoked. In other circumstances, a frigate would use its superior sailing to escape.

In ideal conditions there was not much difference between the speed of a 74 and that of a frigate; both types are recorded as 14 knots on occasion. However such speeds were rare among ships of the line. They could only be achieved by well-designed and well-trimmed ships, with daring captains, in ideal conditions of wind and sea. A frigate could maintain its speed in lighter winds, and make a slightly better course to windward; it could keep its gunports open longer than a two-decker, and it could operate with a smaller crew. For these reasons, the frigate was the best general-purpose ship of the war.

Plum Duff

What follows is an excerpt from John Carroll's column in the San Francisco Chronicle, in which he talks about the dishes served in the Aubrey/Maturin series.

Plum Duff is much easier: people are making duffs even today in some parts of the country. Usually they are somewhat more palatable than the dessert described in Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana:

"To enhance the value of Sunday to the crew, they are allowed on that day a pudding, or, as it is called, a 'duff'. This is nothing more than flour boiled in water and eaten with molasses." Simple, soggy and sweet: the three "S's" of British cuisine.

The charitable [cultist-researcher] John Coffin does not believe that "even an Englishman" would consider mere boiled flour to be a pudding; he speculates that duff (the word almost certainly comes from "dough") represents "some simple English pudding, boiled in a wrapping of buttered muslin with dried fruit as an addition for special occasions."


"[The Aubrey/Maturin series] accomplishes nobly the three grand purposes of art: to entertain, to edify and to awe. You will meet nothing like O'Brian in all of literature, and the sooner you make his aquaintance the better for all of us. He is one of the very few writers ever who not only entertain us vastly but alter us morally." —Stephen Becker, The Chicago Sun Times

"How good can [the series] really be? In England, after all, 19th Century naval fiction—from the classic Horatio Hornblower stories by C. S. Forester to the waterlogged tales of Dudley Pope—is a tried and true, not to say tired, genre with limited appeal. But O'Brian's sea stories are as atypical of conventional sea stories as Conrad's. Like John Le Carre, he has erased the boundary separating a debased genre from "serious" fiction. O'Brian is a novelist, pure and simple, and one of the we have."—Mark Horowitz, The Los Angeles Times

"On every page Mr. O'Brian reminds us with subtle artistry of the most 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, The New York Times Book Review

"Six months ago I came across the novels of Patrick O'Brian. Since then I have been scouring libraries in search of anything bearing his signature. The flavor of his writing is unique and addictive. It is a pleasure to observe the skill with which O'Brian handles the development of his characters. His erudition is phenomenal, as is his capacity for creating another completely believable world. He convinces with his total accuracy even in tiny details. Mr. O'Brian is a master of the English language, and I believe I might have given a better idea of this book if I had simply written 600 times the word 'superb'." —Helen Lucy Burke, Irish Press

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