‘Master and Commander’ is the first of a twenty-part book series, published in 1969, by Patrick O’Brian. O’Brian, born 1914, was a successful biographer for most of his life (he wrote a definitive, if sleep-inducing, book on Picasso) before discovering his true love: writing about dudes on boats, at the age of fifty-five.
The first novel, ‘Master and Commander’, was rejected by his longtime UK publisher for being too full of jargon (a fair criticism, as you will see). It was picked up by a US publisher in 1969, where it sold middlingly, before falling out of print for fifteen years or so. He persevered, writing ten more books in the series, through that madness which possesses us, before a publisher reluctantly decided to give them another shot. When they were republished, they exploded in popularity with people who also like dudes on boats, spawning a devoted following (the books are still in most bookstores), and a surprisingly good Russel Crowe movie. O’Brian found commercial success, at age 70.
My question is why? What makes people fall in love with this series, or any series? While the world of the Napoleonic Wars is remarkably well-realized, and the action is excellent, I think most would agree that it comes down to its strong main characters.
Here is an excerpt from Chapter One (apologies, I could only find an excerpt on Amazon). Let’s read up until the scene where Jack speaks to Commandant Harte, which is the scene that ends with the line, “Was it you at the Governor’s, then?”
See the sample here: https://www.amazon.com/Master-Commander-Aubrey-Maturin-Novels-ebook/dp/B006C3Q6GG
- The books rely on us wanting Jack to succeed. How does O’Brian attempt to make us like, or at least empathize with Jack?
- Dropping the reader into this world reminds me of science-fiction novels, where the early chapters are spent attempting to understand the new rules and language of the world. How does O’Brian use the character’s point-of-view to inform us both about the character, and the world he inhabits?
- Similarly, what do you think of the slow pace of the opening? Does it help flesh out the world, before the action scenes, or would it’ve been better served by opening with a bang? Does the book feel old-fashioned?
- O’Brian’s limited third-person style is heavily informed by the character’s voice. Later, we will get scenes, and even whole books, from the point of view of Maturin. See this short excerpt from much later in the book: https://www.sheilaomalley.com/?p=7976. Great characters must have a consistent point of view and distinct voice: what techniques do you notice O’Brian doing? Are they effective?