Desolation Island
April 21, 2018 4:28 PM - by Patrick O'Brian - Subscribe

In the fifth book of the series, Captain Aubrey proves to be the best judge of a horse in the Navy, and is soon at sea again in the horrible old Leopard. Her ignoble mission is the transportation of convicts to a penal colony of the disgusting British Empire. To Jack's dismay, four women number among the convicts; one of them is the spy Louisa Wogan, an American echo of Diana, upon whom Maturin is to ply his trade. Down to roaring forties the Leopard must go, where the powerful Waakzaamheid keeps a stern vigil, and all things must come together or crash to bits among the cabbages and tardigrades of Desolation Island.

‘As I keep telling Sophie, the Lowthers did not have to understand coal when it was found on their land: all they had to do was to listen to experts, see that proper measures were taken, and then set up a coach and six, become the richest family in the north, with God knows how many members in Parliament and one of them now a lord of the Admiralty at this very minute – but no, she cannot abide poor Kimber, though he is a very civil, obliging little man: calls him a projector. We went to the play last time we were in town, and there was a fellow there, on the stage, that said he could not tell how it was, but every time he and his wife disagreed, it so happened that she was invariably in the wrong: and although everybody simpered and clapped, I thought he put it very well, and I whispered “Coal” in Sophie’s ear; but she was laughing so hearty she did not catch it.’
Jo Walton's reread. "Where the series gets really brilliant."
Desolation Islands aka the Kerguelen Islands. It looks pretty desolate, but the movie theater in Port-aux Français is well reviewed.
• For general links see the Post Captain post.

Bonden Bulletin: "When we're ashore, sometimes we're a little at sea, if you understand me sir." Settles the hash of the Asa Foulkes. Spends a lot of time ferrying Stephen around and is with him to watch Wogan and Herapath's escape.

Pullings' Progress: Still tubular, but also "now in the full tide of his life, and swimming well." Admirable, commanding, amazing. Laid low by the gaol-fever.

Babbington Bugle: Horny for Louisa Wogan like everyone else. Revealed to be five foot six, missing many teeth. Accompanied by a Newfie (Pollux) that Jack trips over every time and who saves Stephen's life when his water wings malfunction.

Which It's Killick: Purchases a wife, legal. "...An ugly slab-sided middle-aged man rendered more awkward than usual by his present bashfulness, the young woman a snapping black-eyed piece, a perfect sailor’s delight." He discovers a new joy in life when he learns to fire a cannon, but he does not get to do so in action.

Maturin on: Judges
Sure, it is weak and illiberal to speak slightingly of any considerable body of men; yet it so happens that the only judges I have known have been froward companions, and it occurs to me that not only are they subjected to the evil influence of authority but also to that of righteous indignation, which is even more deleterious. Those who judge and sentence criminals address them with an unbridled, vindictive righteousness that would be excessive in an archangel and that is indecent to the highest degree in one sinner speaking to another, and he defenceless. Righteous indignation every day, and publicly applauded! I remember an acquaintance of mine literally foaming – there was a line of white between his lips – as he condemned a wretched youth to transportation for carnal knowledge of a fine bold up-standing wench: yet this same man was himself a smell-smock, a cold, determined lecher, a voluptuary, a libertine, a discreet frequenter of Mother Abbot’s establishment in Dover Street; while another, in whose house I have drunk uncustomed wine, tea, and brandy, told a smuggler, with great vehemence, that society must be protected from such wicked men as he and his accomplices.
posted by fleacircus (9 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I also loved the inspection of the daughters when they talk for the first time. "‘Because Fanny put on mine; and she fetched me a swipe with her slipper, the — swab,’ said Charlotte, with barely contained passion." (— = fucking?) Jack's reaction, where he merely turns to see if Sophie and Mrs. Williams noticed, is hilarious, and if you're going to cast Jack Aubrey he has to be able to do that look.. Another good Aubrey moment is when Lt. Grant is reporting thatthe men are reaching the point where they would not obey orders, and Aubrey asks with a smile, "Would you still obey orders Mr. Grant?"

This book has more structure than some of the others, and also stays away from fleet actions, which I think is why it is more enjoyable to more people. There is a clear kind of thematic long decrescendo as things peel away and resolve themselves one by one until the Leopard is almost a boat and the mission all hangs on Herapath, Wogan, and Maturin in the crucial moments. (Jack is content to sit to one side playing his survival crafting game.)

The chase with the Waakzaanheid was my favorite of the ship actions in my first read and so I savored the fuck out of it this time. In the last three books O'Brian has given lots of descriptions of stormy seas and their perils -- what a following sea is, the danger of breaching to -- to really create a terrain upon which ships can do things, and the chase scene in this book really cashes in on it.
posted by fleacircus at 2:58 AM on April 22, 2018 [5 favorites]

sometimes i go back just to read that one passage on the sinking of the dutch ship. it's fucking brutal.
posted by poffin boffin at 8:16 AM on April 22, 2018 [5 favorites]

Totally agreed on the amazingness of the sequence with the Waakzaamheid!

I think this is my favorite book of the series. Just no dead weight to it--I very recently re-listened to the audiobook (Patrick Tull) of this book alone just to resubmerge myself and enjoy. It's funny, it's serious, it's action-packed, it's full of emotions, it's got so many life or death dramatic sequences just one after the other, relentless in the best way.

I mean, I keep remembering, like, "hahaha, the twins and their big hearty sailor nursemaid" and "oh god the gaol fever, and Stephen's assistant, taking notes all the way down--" and "THE WAAKZAAMHEID ARGH", and the espionage tricks where Stephen is basically taking candy from babies, and the sinking (and Jack reminding Stephen to wrap up warm in the open boat since they will surely take him along) and the chaos and Jack holding things together basically with his will and his teeth, and the hopes dashed, and the bare escape-- and then I'm like, All of those things are in this one book. Whew.
posted by theatro at 5:57 PM on April 22, 2018

I'm reading it YET AGAIN and it's like... really it's a fairly dry description of a long chase: the tension builds very very well but there's none of the wild flailing drama! disaster! terror on the high seas! you'd see if it was in a film. There's concern, unease, but no outright panic, just an air of determination and above all, extreme competence, which makes Lt Grant's obvious fear, confusion, and overall incompetence, not just compared to Jack and the officers but also to the rest of the old Surprises and other able seamen, even more plain (and irritating).

The most affecting part is of course the very end of the chapter, again because of the absence of ridiculously drawn out slow motion hollywood drama; it's maybe 5 seconds, tops.
The Leopard reached the crest. Green water blinded him. It cleared, and through the bloody haze running from his cloth he saw the vast breaking wave with the Waakzaamheid broadside on its curl, on her beam-ends, broached to. An enormous, momentary turmoil of black hull and white water, flying spars, rigging that streamed wild for a second, and then nothing at all but the great hill of green-grey with foam racing upon it.

'My God, oh my God,' he said. 'Six hundred men.'

i love it so much help
posted by poffin boffin at 12:26 PM on April 29, 2018 [5 favorites]

Yep just GONE.

According to Google "waakzaamheid" is Dutch for "vigilance" which I punned on in the post but I didn't realize until yesterday was kind of the antidote to Surprise, I think probably that is on purpose. (I know that's not the ship in this book.)

When I read it this time I enjoyed the sense of doom in the buildup, which comes from Jack kind of fucking up the whole time. He taunts the (much superior, but slightly slower) Dutch ship when he doesn't need to. The couple tricks he can think of just don't work and just make Jack look silly. The Leopard is saved from being boarded by a lucky breeze. Jack thinks complacently that the Dutch ship won't keep chasing them, and he just goes on his course, which is the most obvious and only course, so it doesn't seem magical or surprising that the Dutch ship tracks them, really.

It's kind of like being chased by a monster. It even has the thing where they think they get away but then suddenly the monster is RIGHT THERE.

The shitty movie version would have Stephen on deck saying something about albatrosses, then in mid-sentence the Dutch ship t-bone's 'em from out of nowhere.
posted by fleacircus at 2:04 PM on April 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

This book has more structure than some of the others, and also stays away from fleet actions, which I think is why it is more enjoyable to more people. There is a clear kind of thematic long decrescendo as things peel away and resolve themselves one by one until the Leopard is almost a boat and the mission all hangs on Herapath, Wogan, and Maturin in the crucial moments.

I really enjoyed this one too. To me it felt like the book meandered a little for more than half its length, in a hey-ho-we're-off-on-a-voyage domestic-life-aboard kind of way, until the Waakzaanheid shows up. And then it snaps into focus and delivers a series of incredible tense sequences: the chase; the leak, the endless pumping, and what is basically a negotiated mutiny; the desperate run into the bay; the will-they-or-won't-they spycraft.

A hell of a ride. One of his best endings, too. I feel like O'Brian often doesn't quite know where to end a book and so the ending is either startlingly abrupt or overly dragged-out. This ends perfectly on Stephen's quiet triumph:
The boat came nearer still, passed within whispering distance, and the moon shone on their faces, delighted, ingenious, and absurdly young. It passed on; swung into the black shadow of the whaler's side. Some low cries from the La Fayette — 'Get a good hold on the lines, ma'am, and mind your petticoats — easy, all, as she rises' — and then, as the brig swung to the breeze and gathered away, Mrs Wogan's laugh, floating clear across the water, very cheerful and amused, more amused than ever, so amused that both Stephen and Bonden chuckled aloud; and now, for the first time, it had a fine triumphant ring.
but that "fine triumphant ring" also sounds a note of caution: has Stephen in fact been played by Mrs Wogan? For there's also this moment a few pages before that suggests she knows, or has guessed, a little of what kind of work Stephen does:
Suddenly, and a propos of nothing, Mrs Wogan said, "I know you are a friend of America — Mr Herapath tells me that the whalers sing your praises, and I am sure they should — and when you are next in London I wish you would go to see a friend of mine, a most interesting, intelligent man: Charles Pole. He has a place under government, in the Foreign Office, but he is not the ordinary dull kind of official; and his mother came from Baltimore.' She was looking at him very hard now, not only with affection but with a particular significance.
I don't remember how Mrs Wogan's plot plays out in subsequent books, but I like how these two lines — "significance" and "triumphant" — lay in just a little bit of doubt, a little suspicion that maybe Stephen's being a little too over-confident here.

Laudanum-watch: so between the end of last book and the beginning of this, Stephen's position has shifted from "I use it but I can handle it" to "I use it and I have a problem": he suspects it has clouded his judgment in both his public and private careers. He goes cold turkey at the start of the voyage; but still, when he examines the convicts' surgeon's stores:
The Home Office pinned its faith more upon rhubarb, grey powder, and hartshorn than did the Sick and Hurt, upon Lucatellus's balsam, polypody of the oak, and, to Stephen's surprise, the alcoholic tincture of laudanum. Three Winchester quarts of it. 'Vade retro,' he cried, seizing the nearest and opening the scuttle: but after the first had gone he paused and in reasonable, false, considering voice he observed that what was left should be preserved for the use of his patients; there were many contingencies in which the tincture might be of essential consequence to them.
And then this and OH STEPHEN NO:
    'Do tell me, Mr Herapath, that having broke the habit you were able to return to a moderate, and pleasurable, use of the drug?'
    'Yes, sir.'
    'And in the intervals, did you not crave? The craving did not return?'
    'No, sir, after the clean break it did not. The opium was my old accustomed friend again. I could address myself to it when I chose, or refrain.'


    In his diary he wrote: 'I was most struck by what M. Herapath told me, about his resumption of the drug. He is a most intelligent and, I am persuaded, a most truthful man, and I believe I may follow his example.'
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 7:28 AM on May 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

I am listening to these, and overall it has been a great experience. But I’m afraid that for mrs. Wogan the reader chose an extremely annoying Southern (US) accent.
posted by bq at 10:01 AM on February 7, 2019

I can't remember what the book says about Wogan but the "WikiPOBia says she could "pass for English" but I'm not sure if that's about her speech as much as how she looks across a crowded ballroom.
posted by fleacircus at 6:01 PM on February 7, 2019

Reread the the final Waakzatamheid paragraph with an eye to the alliteration and internal rhyme. Bloody genius.
posted by conscious matter at 2:06 AM on July 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

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