Monday, November 09, 2015

Patrick O’Brian – ‘Post Captain’

Am I getting this yet? Twenty books? That’s very nearly half an arm! They’re so rough and ready, too, and episodic enough to perhaps not be discrete novels at all, but an almost unending single work. And yet, and yet. What were those episodes again? There’s an entirely unexpected, and unexpectedly convincing Jane Austen bit near the beginning, when Stephen and Jack retire to a country house on the proceeds of the Cacafuego, blasted into submission by the heroic Sophie at the end of Master and Commander. Jack takes up courting – appropriately – Sophia Williams, and Stephen Diana Villers, her cousin. Then Jack’s prize agent fails, and he finds himself bankrupt, spending the rest of the novel in an undignified avoidance of arrest for debt (shades of Amelia, which I think also has information on where in London one can and can’t be arrested for this). There’s an amazing sequence in France, when war is declared and all Englishmen are wanted, so Jack dresses up as a performing bear, with Stephen his keeper, for a supremely uncomfortable walk to Spain. On returning, Jack is given command of an almost un-sailable ship, the Polychrest, which was built to carry a massive gun in any direction, so bow and stern are the same, and she advances, slowly, along a permanent curve (or leeway). The gun itself was found to be impracticable during construction, but the ship was completed anyway. Jack nevertheless manages a daring mission in her, and so arrives at a more satisfactory, but temporary, command, of the streamlined Lively. Here Stephen comes aboard as Jack’s guest, as there is already a surgeon, and is free to indulge his inner crank, which is a match for (and as funny as) Professor Calculus from Tintin. He brings aboard a swarm of bees, for research, and is delighted when they learn to feed on the crew’s morning cocoa, as it shows that they are able to communicate (the crew are less delighted). He wears an all-in-one woollen outfit, with flaps and sleeves to adapt it to various climactic conditions, which is a huge embarrassment to Jack, instantly undermining his new command, but Stephen is oblivious. This section of the book was my favourite. Here is Stephen at his absent-minded, charmless best:
        ‘Do you hear, Stephen?’ said Jack. ‘There is a gibbon aboard, that is not well.’
        ‘Yes, yes,’ said Stephen, returning to the present. ‘I had the pleasure of meeting her this morning, walking hand in hand with the very young gentleman: it was impossible to tell which was supporting which. A fetching, attractive creature in spite of its deplorable state. I look forward eagerly to dissecting it. […]’
        A chill fell on the conversation, and after a slight pause Jack said, ‘I think, my dear fellow, that the ship’s company would be infinitely more obliged to you, was you to cure it.’ (p. 405)

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