Monday, 27 February 2012

The Wooden World

I suppose I was always going to join the navy, or do something equally silly in that vein at the very least.  Having been brought up on a diet of Rider Haggard and GA Henty it seemed the most natural thing in the world to go and take the shilling when the time came.  The taste for adventure stories has never really left me, but I keep returning to the sea in fiction, even though I no longer spend my life on it.

I still think that Arthur Ransome has a lot to answer for - how else does one explain this desire to go to sea when being brought up about as far from it as you can be in the UK?  Peter Duck was good, but I was always a big fan of Missee Lee personally.  Hornblower has always left me cold - the battles are good but the whole thing is a little too one-dimensional; Hornblower himself just a little too perfect.  As a child you can identify with his courage and devotion, but at the same time the action never really rises above what the BBFC would no doubt these days classsify as "mild peril.."

Captain Marryatt made a big impression on me when I was ten or so - I could never quite get to grips with The Children of the New Forest, but Mr Midshipman Easy was another story entirely.  Here at last was Hornblower action with character development, and I remember being heartily sorry that it is a standalone book, and that I wasn't going to discover the further adventures of Mr Easy in due course.

Which, of course, leads naturally enough to Patrick O'Brian.  I came to him incredibly late, just a couple of years ago via the second hand bookshop in Burnham Market, but managed to read the whole canon in 2 years.  O'Brian tends to split people down the middle a little bit like Marmite; between those who can't see past the first bit of nautical slang and those for whom he represents near perfection in a writer.  Personally, I think there is a strong case to be made that he is the finest British writer of the 20th century - if the terribly snobbish end of the critical spectrum hadn't ghettoised him for the heinous crime of writing "historical fiction," then he probably would have been recognised as such in his own lifetime.

Indeed, even if we take the literary world's estimation of historical fiction at its face value, then O'Brian is clearly the leader of the field.  One someimes pulls up short when buried deep in the early nineteenth century with the realisation that O'Brian is a contemporary of the 20th century world, not Jane Austen, such is the perfect pitch he reaches in recreating/creating his vanished world.  Anachronisms are conspicuous by their absence, and the whole strata of the eighteenth and nineteen century Royal Navy, and the social round ashore, is perfectly delineated.

Quite apart from anything else, the sequence is a study of a friendship, in some ways an unlikely one, between a seafaring man and a government agent with a sideline in botany.  Over the course of the the novels we see what are initially lightly drawn characters become fully realised, until a point is reached at which it is genuinely difficult to believe that all of this is the product of one man's mind, and we have to remind ourselves that O'Brian is a novelist and not a particularly lucky Boswell who has stumbled upon the cached letters of two real gentlemen.

Aside from achieving a fully realised picture of the Georgian navy, O'Brian frequently employs certain narrative devices which set him apart from his genre near rivals.  Action is described sparingly, and frequently not at all - and is rendered all the more powerful for it.  My favourite novel, Treason's Harbour, describes perfectly the claustrophobic enclosed world of the senior officers waiting in Malta for news, rather than great fleet actions.  Similarly, O'Brian spends a good portion of Desolation Island setting up a pursuit between HMS Leopard and the Dutch Waakzaamheid, only for the incident to be over in a sentence - real blink and you'll miss it stuff which is all the more devastating for it.

The Aubrey-Maturin saga is one of the greatest achievements of British fiction, and deserves a little more respect than that grudgingly granted to other tellers of superior sea tales.  Many have tried to emulate O'Brian since, but Sharpe didn't really work at sea.  The only one to have come really close is Alan Mallinson, whose Hervey novels are perhaps best viewed as sub-Aubrey on land, but who did send him to sea in Man of War, with pretty decent results.  Ultimately though, I don't think that we need another O'Brian - there are more than enough books in the sequence to repay re-reading over a long period, and Jack Aubrey does make a fine shipmate.

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