H.M.S. Surprise
April 10, 2018 2:36 AM - by Patrick O'Brian - Subscribe

In this third book of the twenty book series, hands are maimed, vampires abjured, sloths debauched, the shit and blood of boobies drunk, albatrosses sighted, cables drawn taut to squirting, Dil's three wishes granted, loins admired, tigers overlapped, satisfaction demanded, mangosteens fetched, turtles discovered, logs run off the reel, wheels disintegrated and hearts literally exposed as Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin take the Surprise to the far flung Indian Ocean ports of the disgusting British Empire.

‘Coat torn in five places – cutlash slash in the forearm which how can I ever darn that? Bullet ’ole all singed, never get the powder-marks out. Breeches all a-hoo, and all this nasty blood everywhere, like you’d been a-wallowing in a lay-stall, sir. What Miss would say, I don’t know, sir. God strike me blind. Epaulette ’acked, fair ’acked to pieces. (Jesus, what a life.)’
posted by fleacircus (17 comments total)
 
Dil. Heartbreaking.
posted by idb at 4:17 AM on April 10 [2 favorites]


SLOTH DEBAUCHERY
posted by poffin boffin at 8:02 AM on April 10 [2 favorites]


ALSO oh how i love the scene where he's taking stephen into the foretop and the hands are DICING with forbidden illegal dice and jack's just like nope, i saw nothing, and furthermore stephen you cannot compel this man to open his mouth on a sUNDAY for the love of god.
posted by poffin boffin at 8:17 AM on April 10 [3 favorites]


Further also: I am still after many years very ambivalent about how O'Brian portrays Diana; the sheer number of readers who I have seen express varying levels of extreme dislike for her makes it fairly clear to me that it is not generally perceived as a sympathetic portrayal. But I do think it is an extremely realistic portrayal of what attractive young penniless widows had to deal with in those days, how pragmatically resigned she was to the fact that she could only ever aspire to being some man's kept mistress. She was rarely open with her bitterness about the situation and I feel like that might make people think less of her somehow, that she's perceived as this cold mercenary woman, when in fact one of the first things we learn about her is that she married badly, "beneath her" even, simply for love.
posted by poffin boffin at 8:27 AM on April 10 [7 favorites]


Things are tilted against Diana. Besides that she rejects everyone's beloved Maturin, I don't think the narrative ever visits her point of view, and Stephen's narrative goes into brokebrain mode whenever a molecule of her perfume touches his nose. Not much is provided to make her sympathetic.

OTOH the books say over and over how she is spirited, courageous, beyond the concept of love. She's carefree and dangerous, sort of beyond the concept of love, doesn't suffer fools and cowards very well. She's sort of a femme fatale.. She's a little bit Veronica in Heathers.

Stephen knows all that and falls in love anyway. Then he courts her in very square, pathetic ways. "If I had a little more money, she would marry me." "If I lurk in the friend zone for ten years, she'll get older and ugly and then I'll be a good match; this is a brilliant plan."

Maturin can't admit that he's a giant boring nerd and that's not what Diana's looking for. Sophia kinda knows this, she's like, "Even if they had got married Diana never would have made him happy." But what about Diana's happiness? Diana wants to be important, she wants a life of consequence to match her jock-ness as much as Jack does, but the only way she can do that is through a husband. Stephen can't provide that at all. He doesn't have wealth, status, ambition, etc. Diana wants to be going places but Stephen is merely tagging along with Jack.

(It's not like Canning makes Diana happy either, though she probably had a better shot at it. But Diana may not be very good at providing her own happiness. Who is, though?)

It happens again with Dil in miniature. Maturin recognizes someone he wants to care for and love and protect and appreciate. She's doomed by her gender, and he wants to help her find the place in the world where her spirit can thrive.. but he doesn't know how to do that. He doesn't have anything to offer her either. He tries, and she's happy for a minute, and then she's dead.
posted by fleacircus at 4:12 PM on April 10 [1 favorite]


Diana is like Werner Herzog's ideal woman.

Anyway, I really liked the denouement, the slow movement to the inevitable end of something that didn't really come off successfully or satisfactorily... The ring being visible through the paper of Diana's letter to Stephen is a top shelf drama moment.

I don't know enough about classical music to find the Boccherini pieces they ever mention in the book, but I was listening to some while reading the ending. (Not the peppy one from the film.) Also though this Rachel's song.
posted by fleacircus at 5:17 PM on April 10


"Maturin can't admit that he's a giant boring nerd" - if only he was a dashing multilingual spy, a world traveler deadly with sword and pistol, erudite and secretly wealthy ;-)

I was sad that the books finished when they did. I saw him ultimately marrying Christine Wood as someone more like him than the attraction of Diana as so many things he is not.
posted by idb at 6:24 PM on April 10


if only he was a dashing...

Sure if by dashing, you mean dashing around around on a donkey wearing a horrible wig and filthy clothes, talking about dew ponds and true gynandromorphs.
posted by fleacircus at 7:31 PM on April 10 [1 favorite]


Diana was ahead of her time--with a personality and intelligence that would have had to thread a very fine needle to fir comfortably in the early nineteenth century British Empire. And unlike Christine Wood, she couldn't manage that extraordinarily delicate balance.
posted by pykrete jungle at 8:42 PM on April 10


I think my reasons for never quite taking to Diana are primarily meta--i.e., mostly being unhappy with the ways O'Brian used the character narratively (especially later, when he repeats certain melodramatic plot structures & emotional beats with her over and over, it's exhausting and ends up flattening her into object/caricature), rather than me disliking her as a person within the world of the novels. Because I agree she's ahead of her time, and really a tragic figure--it's impossible for her to find a niche that suits her courage, aggression, ambition, temper, suffering no fools, etc., simply because she's a woman in a toxically patriarchal world. If she were a man, she'd be allowed the room she needs/wants for kicking ass and taking names, instead of having to cultivate dudes to sleep with for money. She's frankly trapped.

I also am never crazy about the way the narrative embraces Stephen's Nice Guy (tm) approach. He desires her and admires her, therefore he will and should never ever ever take no for an answer, because if he just keeps popping up and hanging around and chasing her then surely he'll wear her down. Speaking of toxically patriarchal...
posted by theatro at 8:46 AM on April 11


The torture-rescue sequence in Mahon is really iconic for the series, and foundational for Stephen. I absolutely love it--it starts out with Jack relaxed and casual about Stephen being ashore without him, and ends up teaching Jack NEVER TO DO THAT AGAIN. It's like aversion therapy, to remind him it's always better to worry about Stephen.

The uses of implication and connotation rather than description, regarding the machine and what has been done to Stephen, are chillingly good.

This book also has an important retcon--or, maybe that's not precisely the right term, but it feels like the forceful nudge of an authorial hand to correct a plot hole in Aubrey's initial development. Before this book, we were told that Jack was a mathematical dumbbell and yet somehow an inexplicable genius both in sails and navigation. I mean, you can have those both be true if you want, but it makes the character more of a fantasy hero somehow, and O'Brian seems clearly wedded to realism whenever possible (see, for instance, the forewords he writes about which actual historical naval battles/events he has slightly-adapted for his stories). So in HMS Surprise, he has Jack fall suddenly and violently in love with mathematics, especially spherical trigonometry, and not only teach himself everything, but also sit in on the midshipmen's lessons with the schoolmaster. From this point on, he's excellent at both the intricacies of sail mechanics and navigational computations, not just by nature but also by education, and is rigorous at teaching the youngsters.
posted by theatro at 1:23 PM on April 12


That's an interesting point - do you think O'Brien looked at the progression up the ranks and thought 'He's not going to get far if he doesn't get right with the numbers side of things'?
posted by Happy Dave at 7:26 AM on April 13


I think it was more "this character is an extremely technically skilled sailor and navigator, and in order to be so skilled, using the tools of his time, he would need to have a high level of mathematical understanding." He was already presented as having these skills in the earliest books. Anyone reading the books with more than a layman's understanding of sailing and navigation in that time period would know this, and be bothered by the dichotomy, and that seems to be something which would be important to O'Brian.
posted by poffin boffin at 8:25 AM on April 13


it would be like having stephen presented as a highly skilled polyglot and then have him NOT take note of jack's ridiculous habit of stringing together half-correct, half-nonsense words from various languages while acting like he's speaking understandable spanish or french. instead, jack's linguistic silliness is a source of frequent private entertainment for stephen, who looks at it with a mixture of fondness and irritation.

("vino coldo" was my personal fave i think)
posted by poffin boffin at 8:29 AM on April 13


I’m so glad you’re all talking about these books, I think they are my faves. Though I am inexplicably close-mouthed about them I am enjoying others’ comments- thank you!
posted by aesop at 6:34 AM on April 14 [2 favorites]


The uses of implication and connotation rather than description, regarding the machine and what has been done to Stephen, are chillingly good.

This is spot-on, and it's an instance of a general technique that O'Brian employs whereby critical scenes are omitted from the narrative, forcing the reader to imaginatively reconstruct them based on hints and sequelae. In H.M.S. Surprise these ellipses are not limited to Stephen's torture by the French in Minorca, but also include:
  • Who betrayed Stephen to the French? The only hint we have here is Stephen's "This is the only name here I am afraid of. He is, as you know, a paederast. Not that I have anything against paederasty myself, but it is common knowledge that paederasts are subject to pressures that do not apply to other men." From events in the later novels in the series, we can deduce that this must be Andrew Wray.
  • The killing of Dutourd by the Chinese pirates: "In the pause Dutourd whipped around, dashed out the lamp and leapt out of the window. 'While trying to escape,' said Stephen, when Java Dick came up to report."
  • What Jack and Sophie said to each other in the coach at Wolmer Cross.
  • The nature of Nicolls' disagreement with his wife.
  • The death of Nicolls at St Paul's Rocks.
  • The death of Dil.
Other memorable scenes in the novel include Sophie's resolute courage in the face of relentless pressure from her mother to marry the anodyne Charles Hincksey:
Mrs Williams's fear and detestation of debt was wholly genuine, and this gave her argument a strength and truth far beyond her ordinary reach; in her quiet, settled part of the country imprisonment—imprisonment!—for debt did not happen, and the shocking tales she heard from outlying regions or from the dissolute, giddy metropolis concerned only raffish adventurers or worse; though her whole childhood had been tinged by whispered apocalyptic accounts of people so abandoned by God as to have lost their capital in the South Sea. By her own efforts Mrs Williams, like all the people she knew, might have earned fivepence a day at weeding or plain sewing, though some of the gentlemen might have done a little better at haysel and harvest; the accumulation of a hundred pounds was utterly beyond their powers, that of ten thousand beyond their imagination; and they worshipped capital with an unshakeable, uncomprehending, steady devotion, not devoid of superstitious practices.
and Stephen's operation on himself to extract the bullet:
"You will have to raise the rib, M'Alister," said Stephen. "Take a good grip with the square retractor. Up: harder, harder. Snip the cartilage." The metallic clash of instruments: directions: perpetual quick swabbing: an impression of brutal force, beyond anything he had conceived. It went on and on and on. "Now, Jack, a steady downward pressure. Good. Keep it so. Give me the davier. Swab, M'Alister. Press, Jack, press."
posted by cyanistes at 12:29 PM on April 15 [2 favorites]


Things also get a bit elided in PC when Jack creeps on Diana's house and spies her with Canning.

I like the comically abrupt resolutions, like with the rescue attempt here. "Oh no, what are they going to do about Dutourd, and how will they lure the colonel to the mansion and resolve the final loose end? .... Oh. I guess they just throw themselves on the Livelies. Okay." It's like the DM needed to wrap things up super fast.

Something similar happens in the next book at Réunion. It also reminds me of the death of White Boy Bob from Out of Sight^.
posted by fleacircus at 1:55 PM on April 15


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