Master and Commander is the first of Patrick O’Brian’s now famous Aubrey-Maturin novels, regarded by many as the greatest series of historical novels ever written. It establishes the friendship between Captain Jack Aubrey RN and Stephen Maturin, who becomes his secretive ship’s surgeon and an intelligence agent. It displays the qualities which have put O’Brian far ahead of any of his competitors: his depiction of the detail of life aboard an early 19th century man-of-war, of weapons, food, conversation and ambience, of the landscape and of the sea. O’Brian’s portrayal of each of these is faultless and the sense of period throughout is acute. His power of characterisation is above all masterly. Ric Jerrom reads this classic sea story from Patrick O’Brien.
©1970 The Estate of the late Patrick O’Brien CBE ; ©2014 Audible, Inc.
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The first meeting between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin is humorously inauspicious. At a performance by an Italian quartetto in the music-room of the Governor’s House at Port Mahon on the island of Minorca near Spain, Jack is so enthusiastically enjoying the music, beating the time with his hand and humming “pum-pum-pum,” that Stephen elbows him sharply in the ribs, so that Jack must master his desire to pick up a chair and dash it over the villain's head. Yet after receiving the wonderful news that he’s been promoted to Master and Commander of the Sophie, a small sloop, Jack is in such high spirits that when he runs into Stephen around town he invites him to a sumptuous meal, during which he invites him to become the surgeon of the Sophie. (Whereas other naval historical fiction, like the Horatio Hornblower and Alan Lewrie series, begin at the beginning of their heroes’ naval careers as midshipmen, O’Brien opens his with the promotion of Jack, who has nominally been at sea since nine and factually since twelve, to master and commander, a proto-captain.)
Jack and Stephen differ in so many ways! Jack, an officer in His Majesty’s navy, is tall, robust, tanned, good-natured, and blond-maned, while Stephen, an out-of-work civilian physician-biologist is small, slender, pale, melancholic, and be-wigged (with a weird hair-piece made of wire). Furthermore, Jack tends to speak his mind, often unintentionally offending his interlocutors, is bad at languages (as when he comically confuses “putain” with “patois”), is hot-tempered (which gets him into trouble with authority figures), while the highly educated and intelligent Stephen is more careful in his speech, more philosophical, and is fluent in Catalan and speaks Spanish and French as well. Nevertheless, the two men are roughly the same age (between twenty and thirty), share a love of music (Jack playing the violin, Stephen the cello), and are naturally drawn to one another as boon companions. One of the great pleasures of the novel is beholding their friendship unfold.
Other pleasures involve the exciting scenes of naval action that suddenly pop up, from inconclusive minor skirmishes between pairs of ships to major battles involving multiple ships and shore batteries (for in the year 1800 when the novel takes place England is at war with Spain and France), as well as the occasional brief, vivid, and lyrical descriptions of the world viewed with relish from a ship at sea:
“At almost the same time the sun popped up from behind St. Phillip’s fort; it did, in fact, pop up, flattened like a sideways lemon in the morning haze and drawing its bottom free of the land with a distinct jerk.”
“The sea itself already had a nacreous light that belonged more to the day than the darkness, and this light was reflected in the great convexities of the topsails, giving them the lustre of grey pearls.”
O’Brien also writes many spicy and funny lines, as when some of the Sophie’s men comment on the middle-aged Master’s obvious feeling for Jack: “Old Sodom and Gomorrah is sweet on Goldilocks.” Or as when Stephen looks forward to working on a patient: “It has been a long time since I felt the grind of bone under my saw.” Or as when Jack tells Stephen about the poor food he’ll have to endure till the Sophie can get better supplies: “Salt horse and Old Weevil’s wedding cake for most of the voyage, with four-water grog to wet it.”
There are also poignant lines about the difficulties we face in life, as when the conflicted Lieutenant James Dillon says to his fellow-Irishman Stephen, “We understood one another better before ever I opened my mouth.” Stephen himself has a philosophical turn of mind, and is often observing and then commenting on human and animal nature, as when he tries to explain to the straightforward Jack how a man might be torn between conflicting loyalties, or as when he intently observes the macabre copulation of a praying mantis couple, during which the male mounts the female and grasps her body with his legs, only to have her bite off his head and eat it, leaving his body still copulating, which leads Stephen to tell Jack that at times a woman doesn’t need a man’s head and heart. (The depiction of women in the novel is definitely done from a male point of view!)
And of course there are plenty of nautical details in the novel, about the different ships in the age of sail, and of the different sails, masts, guns, crews, officers, punishments, techniques, procedures, protocols, strategies, food and drink, toilets, sleeping arrangements, and so on involved. Some of them remain opaque to land-lubber me, but many of them become more or less clear thanks to O’Brien’s device of inserting Stephen, a man with “no experience in naval matters,” into Jack’s world, so that he may ask questions and make comments on our behalf, so to speak, as when early in the novel he’s given a tour of the Sophie by a midshipman. Anyway, the nautical details never get in the way of the story, which is full of psychological and physical excitement, humor, relish, and suspense.
Ric Jerrom reads the novel with clarity, feeling, and wit, modifying his voice effectively for the different seamen, whether common or elite, English or foreign, old or young, drunk or sober, pleasant or nasty, and so on. He brings the book vividly to life.
Fans of the Hornblower or Lewrie books should enjoy Master and Commander, as should anyone who likes historical novels featuring compelling characters and authentic settings and exciting action.
The Aubrey-Maturin series is one of my favourite series of historical fiction. The historical backgrounds are well-researched and accurate, the plots intriguing, the writing superb. What's more, the stories are told with some humour, and with real love for the main characters which are thouroughly human and likeable despite (or because of) their faults. And there's plenty of naval warfare action, plus some science thrown in too.
The narrator of this first book in the series is excellent, he strikes exactly the right tone of voice.
I can't wait for the whole series to become available (*unabridged*!).
I enjoyed being immersed in a history work with a detailed focus on tall ship sailing and naval tactics
The Hornblower series because it is the same genre however this work emphasises the social relationships and norms of the time.
Yes excellent reading and acting
Definitely different, but I am not about to compare apples and oranges
Stephen Maturin, he is the man of the enlightenment. He has stood behind ideals and became disillusioned, but he is still able to feel childlike joy.
It was the duo of Aubrey/Maturin (big surprise there) as the chemistry is simply right.
This book is heavy in nautical terms/slang.
If you don't like Age of Sail stories, consider to decrease the story rating by one or two stars.
If you want to read your first Age of Sail story, this can get you hooked, the print book did it for me.
Getting into the nautical life in the 1800's. There was much I haven't understood, but that's OK, I caught as much as I missed. The slow pace of much life under sail surprised me, but it makes sense when they were so reliant upon the wind.
Stephen - sensible, observant, reflective. A foil for the exuberant, shallow and somewhat oblivious Captain.
Under sail in the Mediterranean - a doctor's story
Good book. From listening to previews, I am not sure the narrators of later books of the series have done as a good a job as this one.
Of the books i have listened to this version rates highly
The use by the narrator of character voices provides greater enjoyment to the listerning experience
Aubrey is great fun
"Sit back and enjoy!"
Like so many of the other reviewers, I am a long time fan of the books. I have read all of the series, and many of the books more than once. So I was delighted to see that at least some of the books are now available in their unabridged glory. These are books that, yes, are about the story, gradually unfolding narratives, but they are much more than just that. It is the sheer quality of the writing that brings me back to these books time and time again. The action scenes speak for themsleves - they are intense, and the matter of fact manner in which they are written tells me how life was valued so differently back then. But for me, some of the most memorable moments are unimportant, underplayed scenes that I am sure would not make it into the abridged versions - such as Maturin's quiet 'aha!' to himself when he hears a midshipman saying he has cut himself shaving while at sea.
The highly technical naval scenes (I have just listened to a section about the raising of a new mast) are indeed full of jargon that I assume only the most dedicated of sailors will understand - but then I am reminded that Maturin himself constantly struggles with such jargon, and I am comforted! And rarely does the jargon get in the way of the enjoyment. There are long moments where little occurs, just like a long sea voyage I assume, but I find that these passages enrich my overall enjoyment. The dialogue is beautifully written, and I often find myself wishing that English was still spoken like this!
The narration is superb; Ric Jerrom has a wide range of accents that enliven the book. I highly recommend this book, and I fervently hope that the rest of the series will in time be available. As I write this, only the first 3 in the series are on Audible.
"More Unabrdged Aubrey and Maturin Please"
A quite excellent rendering of this first book in the series; beautifully read and with a great breadth of accents. When can we look forward to "Post Captain" with the same reader?
I was expecting sea battles with the Aceron (excuse spelling) a game of cat and mouse across the seas
The book has a fop as a captain. Not the swash buckling captain from the movie
Disappointed with this book....not my thing.
"Grows on you"
This was my first audio book and I took a little time to get used to the medium.
I found the early in-depth descriptions of the rigging of a ship a little tedious as I had no drawings to refer to and I had read in the past series such as the Captain Bolitho novels which gave a very good grounding. However, as the book rapidly progressed beyond the scene-setting, I really got into the novel. I loved the narration and thought Ric Jerrom applied just the right amount of inflection to the the voices of the characters without going over the top. Listening became so addictive that I had to go out and buy a more comfortable set of earphones.
If I was to make any criticism, I thought that the description of places sometimes lacked a little detail and I found myself having to fill in the details - perhaps a good writing technique??
Overall, an excellent listen and I have already downloaded my next novel.
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