Post Captain
April 3, 2018 8:32 PM - by Patrick O'Brian - Subscribe

In this second novel of the twenty book series, Commander Aubrey and Doctor Maturin vie with tipstaff and distaff, missing stays and making shocking leeway aboard the vile Polychrest, the Carpenter's Mistake, in the service of the disgusting British Empire of the early 1800s. Introducing Diana Villiers (extreme goth jock) and Sophia Williams (soft prep nerd??) to the series. Special appearance by the Misses Lamb.

‘I have worn you down a trifle, my spark,’ thought Admiral Harte, looking at him with satisfaction.
Smattering of resources and supplementary material:
posted by fleacircus (45 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
When I re-read this series, I usually skip Post Captain. It introduces some important characters, but book three is where the books truly kick off.
posted by migurski at 10:47 PM on April 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

After thoroughly loving Master and Commander, I quit during this book - something I very rarely do - and didn't continue the series. It was such a dramatic tonal shift. Story shift. Setting shift. Character shift. Everything was different, like I was reading something entirely disconnected from what came before it. While I'm sure this was intentional, at least in part, in order to not only setup future stories and develop new characters, but also to show the vast difference in lifestyle between sea and land for a sailor of the time, I simply couldn't slog my way through it.
posted by 2ht at 4:18 AM on April 4, 2018

I remember when I first read this book, and I got to Maturin's "bloated puppy" speech in chapter fourteen, I just had to put the book down and swear.

I love the depths of misery in this book, and I love the absurd awfulness of the Polychrest itself as a parallel to the absurd cruelty of fate that get inflicted on the characters. It's not a happy book, and that will produce an aversion. Maturin and Aubrey are ugly, unlucky, and foolish in this book. The denouement is long; the Lively isn't lively.

But also it's the book where Jack sneaks through France disguised as a bear and Stephen wears an outfit that "‘partakes of the nature both of the Guernsey frock and of the free and easy pantaloon." There's bees and Misses Lamb. Killick comes into focus. The gunners-eye-view battle on the Indiaman is amazing. There's lots of good moments and good lines.

I wish this book was named The Vile Polychrest. In a way each book is about a ship, and if you lined all the books up you'd see all these pretty ships, but then you'd notice the Polychrest, a misbegotten unseaworthy thing, sticking close to land, horrible land. And that fits this book perfectly. I don't know if it's the worst book of the series or the best.

One thing I noticed this time around is how unreliable Stephen's observations are. His faculties completely fail him in this book. It's signposted sometimes, but it's happening all the time. He seems unaware that he has in a way rejected Diana. He's quite convinced that Jack is a hollowed out shell of a man, and he never misses a chance to tell Sophia that. Sophia begs him to propose to Diana, and he doesn't, but later he begs Sophia to propose to Jack. He challenges her courage, but where was his own courage? Then Sophia does make the positive move, and the book ends toasting her rightly because she saves these fools from themselves.
posted by fleacircus at 5:06 AM on April 4, 2018 [4 favorites]

I nearly quit during the extended country house sequence that opens the book. I wondered why the jolly naval adventure I had expected had transmuted into knock-off Austen. Thankfully that's over with relatively quickly, the demands of the service being what they are.
posted by Happy Dave at 10:43 AM on April 4, 2018

I agree with migurski, this is one of the hardest reads in the series, but it is followed by the delightful HMS Surprise. I feel like O'Brian was still finding his literary sea-legs in this one, but it is still worth reading.
posted by ubiquity at 11:17 AM on April 4, 2018

My 16yo avid reader asked me to get him a bunch of books. He wanted to get out of his fantasy-sci-fi niche, andparticularly wanted books not by old white guys, so I gave him Fun Home, and Their Eyes Were Watching God, and The Bluest Eye, and Parable of the Sower, and Things Fall Apart, and The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, and A Room of One's Own. But I couldn't resist slipping Master & Commander in there, because this series is one of my favorites and I have read it many times.

A couple of weeks ago he says to me, "That Master & Commander is a weird book. I don't understand every third word."

Me: "Well, it's not everybody's cup of tea. You can just put it back into the library bag if you're not going to finish it."

Him: "What? No. I'm really enjoying it."

Post Captain is a hard slog. But then I practically have an anxiety attack every time the fellas end up on land, because Jack is so completely hapless and Stephen is so helpless to protect him. And, like fleacircus, there are moments I love in it. I can never bring myself to skip even parts of the books when I re-read them. At least, I haven't been able to so far.
posted by Orlop at 11:38 AM on April 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

A few unrelated people recommended Post Captain to me as my first entry into the series--I suspect they were mistakenly concerned about the nautical language putting me off (it doesn't--I had read and re-read all the Hornblower books a million times since like age 10, and also I've had a lot of practice at taking the sense even when I can't quite define the specifics), and they knew I enjoy Jane Austen.

So I gave it a whirl--and unfortunatly did not attach. I think for many of the reasons others have mentioned above: front-loaded with lots of landlocked courting/marriage concerns, incompetence, Jack and Stephen set at odds partway through and it only gets worse and worse, love triangle (I hate those so much), and Diana, whom I have mostly never taken to. So I sighed regretfully and put it on the shelf. I occasionally gave it a hopeful re-read, just in case, but no, I never truly enjoyed it or wanted to continue.

Eventually, however, I remembered to go back and try Master & Commander, figuring, well, you never know, maybe a running start... And that one totally grabbed me, thank goodness, hooked me in but good. Plus, now that I had the tone, language, and central Aubrey/Maturin relationship solidly in my mind and under my belt, I could re-read Post Captain and finally see all the good stuff between the tedious/irritating stuff. Stephen's woollen garment! The bees! (Jack's references to various types of Stephen's creatures as 'reptiles' is an ongoing delight of mine.) Poor Jack all feverish in his filthy bearskin, and Stephen's hurt/comfort castle!

Not to mention the establishment of another of Jack & Stephen's dynamics, which is Jack as an energetic cleaner & tidyer, and Stephen as a lazy sloven. The scene when we first see them sharing the little cottage is so good:

In Jack's opinion Stephen was little better than a slut: his papers, odd bits of dry, garlic'd bread, his razors and small-clothes lay on and about his private table in a miserable squalor; and from the appearance of the grizzled wig that was now acting as a tea-cosy for his milk-saucepan, it was clear that he had breakfasted on marmalade. Jack took off his coat, covered his waistcoat and breeches with an apron, and carried the dishes into the scullery. 'My plate and saucer will serve again,' said Stephen. 'I have blown upon them. I do wish, Jack,' he cried, 'that you would leave that milk-saucepan alone. It is perfectly clean. What more sanitary, what more wholesome, than scalded milk? Will I dry up?' he called through the open door.

'No, no,' cried Jack, who had seen him do so.

I mean, even books and books later, when they are sharing an honest-to-goodness French prison cell rather than an idyllic cottage, Jack makes them stack the shabby furniture every day so he can wash the whole floor, even to the point that it discourages the resident mouse. ♥ JACK, COME HELP ME WITH MY KITCHEN LINOLEUM.
posted by theatro at 4:38 PM on April 4, 2018 [5 favorites]

Stephen's hurt/comfort castle


A nice Gross Maturin moment moment in M&C is where he uses a dirty autopsy knife to cut beef, only wiping it on the corner of the sheet first.
posted by fleacircus at 4:54 PM on April 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

Aaaaaaaa so gross! Hilarious--like, he's already given it a wipe on the corpse's sheet and ONLY THEN is like 'oh hey btw what was the cause of death?' But it's purely a point of curiosity, because whatsisname is already carving the beef.

Stephen is a good and devoted doctor, but I admit I would not be thrilled to be his patient unless I had been able to dip him in a vat of carbolic first. However, without being specific enough to spoil, I will say that later in the series he does care enough to get all hygienic when seriously infectious shit hits the fan...though it's for the benefit of others (especially Jack), not himself. Stephen's immune system must be made of solid titanium.
posted by theatro at 5:35 PM on April 4, 2018

idk i didn't actually find a single moment of any of the books to be a difficult read? they are all so delightful and fascinating in their own ways, some of which are admittedly very different than others.



i love the introduction to sophie and diana, and the vile grasping climber mrs williams.
posted by poffin boffin at 7:59 AM on April 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

Oh yes! This is the one where the Cur Tailed remark is introduced, and it just keeps on keepin on. Plus the super pathetic thief is the best and most super pathetic.

I don't have my copy on me at the moment to check--is this the book where Stephen describes Mrs Williams as something like 'the most [something] beast to ever urge her thick, squat bulk over the face of the protesting earth'? Because: DAAAAMN. Excellent.

Also, here's that article I was remembering, about how the Aubrey/Maturin books should be a premium TV series:
posted by theatro at 8:26 AM on April 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

I would love it but so many people I have seen agree with this idea have floated the idea that bumperdink crumplepants should play some role in it and I would rather have the memory of the full series professionally expunged from my consciousness than have to look at him befouling a treasured series.
posted by poffin boffin at 11:51 AM on April 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Oh My God. I hadn't heard that suggestion, and now I am distressed.

But who on earth do they think he could play?! He's certainly neither Jack nor Stephen in any way (and I am someone who was flexible enough to think Bettany did a good job in the movie, so it isn't that I'm a hard-ass on this score.). Too old and too brittle in persona for any of the subsidiary officers--Pullings, Mowett, et. al. Not at all suitable for any of the petty officers or sailors. None of the big brawny handsomeness of the rich men Diana runs away to live on. Are they thinking, like-- Andrew Wray? Posh, evil, alienating?? He'd never take such a minor role, one hopes and prays.
posted by theatro at 1:19 PM on April 5, 2018

THEY WANT HIM FOR JACK FUCKING AUBREY which is a horror i am unwilling to even contemplate. imagine him in some dreadful lucius malfoy wig. oh my god

i do think that gangly spiderman youth could be a terribly earnest tom pullings though. tom holland?
posted by poffin boffin at 1:41 PM on April 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Honestly I could see him as Maturin because Maturin should be a weedy ill looking chap and not like Bettany's flustered cool Biology PhD candidate with no mental depth to his face whatsoever ... but Aubrey? Holy shit no never.

When I was reading this I instantly imagined Tom Strong for Canning and it wouldn't budge.
posted by fleacircus at 2:09 PM on April 5, 2018 could see Benedict Maturin. Benedict Cumberbatch. As Maturin. YOU COULD SEE BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH AS MATURIN.

...My name is Theatro, sir, and you may find me any morning at the Crown. GOOD DAY.
posted by theatro at 5:40 PM on April 5, 2018 [5 favorites]

I don't remember if Jack ever appreciates, in hindsight, that if they'd had that duel in Port Mahon, Stephen would have totally murdered him.

Skipping through the book again, I forgot about the part where Maturin basically tries to kill himself on the Goodwin Sands.

I also love Mr. Parslow's whole arc:
1. Being a tiny idiot child.
2. Sassing back to Jack and making the whole ship go O_O
3. Getting whipped (or I guess "started") for that.
4. Sassing back to Maturin and getting kicked down a ladder by Babbington
5. Hopping aboard the boat to cut out the Fanciulla
6. Killing a dude on the Fianculla and being proud of it.
7. Jack wishing he'd died in the action to make the newspaper account more dramatic lol.
posted by fleacircus at 8:54 PM on April 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

(question: is there a way to do the previous episode -- next episode link thing at the end of each book post like with tv shows?)
posted by poffin boffin at 7:02 AM on April 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

Yeah, Post Captain is a real drop after Far Side. I try and slog through it, but as has been already said the duo is at their weakest on land, and they spend a shitton of this book on land.
posted by Sphinx at 5:26 PM on April 6, 2018

I wonder if Tom Hiddleston could manage a Maturin. He's got the eyes and they could probably ugly him up enough for it.
posted by small_ruminant at 6:33 PM on April 6, 2018

And I wonder if Tom Hardy could pull off playing Aubrey. He's not how I imagine him, but he's a good chameleon and he's big though not exactly huge.
posted by small_ruminant at 6:36 PM on April 6, 2018

Tom Hardy could probably do anything, but I've only ever see him to sullen brooding loners? Aubrey should be played by an actor whose smile makes you want to smile. I feel like when Tom Hardy smiles it's more just suspicious.
posted by fleacircus at 11:05 PM on April 6, 2018

(question: is there a way to do the previous episode -- next episode link thing at the end of each book post like with tv shows?)

I asked over here
posted by fleacircus at 11:15 PM on April 6, 2018

the majority of tom hardy's work since inception has been a lot of weird intense grunting and mumbled speech in weird voices and i just no longer see him as anything but a weird intense grunter.
posted by poffin boffin at 6:59 AM on April 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

so like maybe awkward davies, esp for the scene in treason's harbour where he gets into a fistfight with a bear
posted by poffin boffin at 7:25 AM on April 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

mumbled speech in weird voices

Is Alfie Solomons included in this? I love that character. But okay, maybe Aubrey should be the Thor actor? I haven't seen him in anything but Thor and Ghostbusters.

I can't quite see Tom Hardy as Awkward Davies but I think of Davies as really big for some reason.
posted by small_ruminant at 8:07 AM on April 7, 2018

was that peaky blinders? i couldn't get into that, unfortunately.
posted by poffin boffin at 8:13 AM on April 7, 2018

I just youtube the Alfie Solomons parts. Unfortunately for me they get pulled down really quickly.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:40 AM on April 7, 2018

Hardy reminds me of Sean Bean a lot in that they are both sketchy uncles, not dads, and that's why I didn't like Bean for Ned Stark and don't see Hardy as Aubrey. (Bean was a bad book Boromir, who IMHO shoulda been like a Winklevoss, but it's not too bad because sketchy works for Boromir too, sure.) (Armie Hammer as Aubrey? ha)
posted by fleacircus at 11:35 AM on April 7, 2018

oh my god i forgot this was the book where stephen shows up in his ridiculous wool leotard WITH A FUCKING ENORMOUS JAR OF BEES
posted by poffin boffin at 4:27 PM on April 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

posted by poffin boffin at 4:30 PM on April 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

If you can't handle me at my leotard & sixty thousand bees, you don't deserve me at my putting in a good word for you with Sir Joseph Blaine & sewing your ears back on.
posted by fleacircus at 10:48 PM on April 7, 2018 [14 favorites]

Third book posted, though you can also just click on the previous/next club links below, now.

I don't have my copy on me at the moment to check--is this the book where Stephen describes Mrs Williams as something like 'the most [something] beast to ever urge her thick, squat bulk over the face of the protesting earth'? Because: DAAAAMN. Excellent.

As it turns out, that's the next book.
posted by fleacircus at 2:38 AM on April 10, 2018

I've always thought of Post Captain as a counterpoint to Jane Austen's Persuasion. Both books describe the collision between two classes—naval officers, ashore after a long war afloat (some flush with prize money) and the English aristocracy (some desperate for money)—and the delicate negotiations by which the wealth of the one purchases the daughters of the other, while both pretend that nothing so vulgar as a commercial transaction is underway. And both books have a similar melancholy mood, with the characters making mistakes and regretting missed chances.

There are some memorable comic moments—the bear costume and Stephen's rational dress have been mentioned, but I like Mr Scriven's description of life on Grub Street:
"I had to live for a month on The Case of the Druids impartially considered, a little piece in the Ladies' Repository, and the druids did not run to more than bread and milk."
Also the scene where Diana asks Jack for his opinion of a painting:
Then a small vessel in the lower left-hand corner caught his eye, something in the nature of a pink; she was beating up for the harbour, but it was obvious from the direction of the lady's clothes that the pink would be taken aback the moment she rounded the headland. "As soon as she catches the land-breeze she will be in trouble," he said. "She will never stay, not with those unhandy lateens, and there is no room to wear; so there she is on a lee-shore. Poor fellows. I am afraid there is no hope for them" — "That is exactly what Maturin told me you would say."
Diana Villiers is a great character. She perpetually finds herself trapped by expectation and convention and circumstance and always struggles to escape and find some kind of autonomy:
She came back to England with a wardrobe of tropical clothes, a certain knowledge of the world, and almost nothing else. She came back, in effect, to the schoolroom, or something very like it. For she at once realized that her aunt meant to clamp down on her, to allow her no chance of queering her daughters' pitch; and as she had no money and nowhere else to go she determined to fit into this small slow world of the English countryside, with its fixed notions and its strange morality.
Like her or not, her struggle always drives the story forward.
posted by cyanistes at 10:57 AM on April 15, 2018 [5 favorites]

Stephen: alas, Diana will only consider marrying a man with money, and I have none!

The Admiralty: as thanks for your spy work, would you like just absolutely oodles of money?

Stephen: say, look at that marvelous beetle
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:32 AM on April 19, 2018 [5 favorites]

[...] the collision between two classes—naval officers, ashore after a long war afloat (some flush with prize money) and the English aristocracy (some desperate for money)—and the delicate negotiations by which the wealth of the one purchases the daughters of the other, while both pretend that nothing so vulgar as a commercial transaction is underway.

It is very much this; and it's very noticeable how differently Jack and Stephen are received before and after Jack's prize-agent goes broke. Before it, with Jack perceived as well-off, Mrs. Williams is more than willing to overlook Admiral Haddock's warnings that Jack is maybe "not quite the thing"; including this lovely moment:
'And then I fear he may not attend to the fifth commandment quite as he should.' The girls' faces took on an inward look as they privately ran over the Decalogue: in order of intelligence a little frown appeared on each as its owner reached the part about Sunday travelling, and then cleared as they carried on to the commandment the Admiral had certainly intended.
I too find Diana frustrating and sometimes annoyingly cruel to Stephen; but counter to that should we maybe consider that Stephen simply isn't very good at romantic relationships? We know from M&C that his previous relationship ended badly, with him deeply wounded. He has a crush on Diana; he's drawn to her as an intellectual equal; but he's unable to see that they're very different temperamentally and (as fleacircus notes in the next book's post) his pursuit is never direct, always oblique I'll-be-a-friend-and-eventually-she'll-notice-me. This moment on the Sussex Downs is agonizing:
'Why have you come so far out of your way?'
'The dew-ponds, the wheatears, the pleasure of driving over grass.'
'What a dogged brute you are, Maturin, upon my honour,' said Diana. 'I shall lay out for no more compliments.'
'No, but in all sadness,' said Stephen, 'I like sitting in a chaise with you; above all when you are like this. I could wish this road might go on for ever.'
There was a pause; the chaise was filled with waiting; but he did not go on.
This is really the book in which Jack's eyes are opened to Stephen's abilities. At the start of the book he assures Christy-Palliere very sincerely that no, Stephen couldn't possibly be a spy, he's "the simplest person in the world". Midway though the book he discovers that Stephen's very handy with both sword and pistol; late in the book Stephen's true work for the Admiralty is revealed.

Also: Jack is kind of a mess in this book. He is so distracted a captain that the crew of the Polychrest almost mutiny; he runs the Polychrest aground in the raid on Chaulieu, and even though they do manage to pull it off it sinks shortly afterwards; his dalliances in Portsmouth are reaching the ear of the Admiralty. It's partly by luck and mostly by Stephen's actions that he survives with his career not only intact but glowing: Stephen warns him of the mutiny, Stephen gets him into the action against the treasure fleet, and most significantly Stephen resolves the Diana problem by basically throwing Sophia at him.

The woolen garment: "his general appearance was something between that of an attenuated ape and a meagre heart"; "partakes of the nature both of the Guernsey frock and of the free and easy pantaloon."
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 12:27 PM on April 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

it's very noticeable how differently Jack and Stephen are received before and after Jack's prize-agent goes broke

Yeah! There's a line I love that's like, "The people of Champflower were willing to believe in any amount of vague wealth, but had poverty measured within a farthing or two."

he runs the Polychrest aground in the raid on Chaulieu

I thought this was more the master's fault, but even then forgivable because the mission is bad in the first place. I love the scene where Harte is giving Jack the mission and Jack is just completely done; he makes some objection out of formality, and Harte starts to get pissy and defensive and Jack's like, "Yeah yeah, as I said, formality."

The error in Chaulieu is thematic too; the Polychrest is a ship that doesn't know which way it's going. At Chaulieu it runs aground by mistaking one identical thing for another, so heading down the wrong channel, etc., all like Jack is torn between Sophia and Diana.

In the raid, I do also like when Jack shouts "Polychrest!" as a battlecry, just all the shittiness of the whole book coming to the moment of redemption or destruction.
posted by fleacircus at 11:17 AM on April 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

In the past I have described this book as a Jane Austen pastiche. It definitely shares the interest in marriages and the Regency era setting, however it mostly lacks Austen’s wit and thematic focus. (Only by comparison to Austen could O’Brien be lacking in wit).

A thing that always disappoints me in Austen is how little the various enormous wars happening at the time seem to intrude into her narrative. The heroine in Persuasion of course marries a Royal Navy captain, and there are army officers aplenty, but the wars themselves and the risk to life and limb that so many of the men are exposed to are seldom mentioned.
posted by chrchr at 2:51 PM on May 6, 2018

Also I will add that “thou looks’t like Antichrist in that lewd hat.”
posted by chrchr at 3:12 PM on May 6, 2018

I'm listening to the audiobooks, which are very good, yet slow going.

Someone made the HMS Polychrest in minecraft, this is fun.

"polychrest (plural polychrests)

(medicine) A medicine that serves for many uses, or that cures many diseases."
posted by bq at 3:38 PM on July 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

I wonder if he read Heyer for research
posted by bq at 8:11 PM on July 10, 2018

OK, I have finally finished this audiobook with less than 24 hours left in my loan. I don't know how you people are plowing through this series so quickly!

I can't figure out whether it's Stephen Maturin who doesn't really like women very much or the author, but one of them is guilty of it.
posted by bq at 2:26 PM on July 18, 2018

It was the best of times, it was the m'ladiest of times.

Both, I'd say. I mean I think there is some conscious portrayal of Stephen as being particularly awkward and overthinking things, and O'Brian does try to throw in some women with more plot agency... but nevertheless he did choose to write these books about big boxes full of dudes floating as far away from women as they possibly can.
posted by fleacircus at 5:16 PM on July 18, 2018

On another re-read, it strikes me how Stephen isn’t at good at spying as he thinks at this point: watching the Toulon harbour through a telescope in plain view and in broad daylight, dressed all in black; blaming his deep Spanish tan on a trip to rainy Ireland. It is more the naïveté and manners of the Navy folk that allows it to not be considered.
posted by cardboard at 8:31 AM on October 2, 2022 [1 favorite]

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