The Ionian Mission
May 14, 2018 8:19 PM - by Patrick O'Brian - Subscribe

In the eighth book of the series, Captain Aubrey's prospects are limited to the Worcester, seventy-four, the wall-sided mouldy rotten old floating coffin pride of the British shipyards. She is ordered to join the blockade at Toulon, back in the Mediterranean where Jack and Stephen first met. Blockade work is hell – Sisyphean tacks – and despite Handel and Hamlet, Aubrey's spirits sink as low as London Bach's old man can take them, for Maturin is often away. (Maturin himself is overmatched by Professor Graham, the unnatural philosopher, who will have none of Stephens' triced gumbril puddings, by and/or large, and will not use a coaster on Diana's gleaming object). Furthermore Jack is under the eyes of his old nemesis, Admiral Harte who will end Jack's career for good and all if Jack bungles the Mediterranean machinations of the disgusting British Empire. All told there are too many rhinoceroses, parsons, Lesbians, Beys, and double-bottomed defecators for Jack's comfort. Spouse-breach is in the air, while on the water lurks the Torgud, firing thirty-six pound marble balls from the monstrous Portuguese cannons in her waist.

    ‘My dear, I am sorry that my face should look at all like an informer’s,’ said Stephen. ‘But tell me now, how can I best confound Professor Graham?’
    ‘Why, as to that,’ said Jack, blowing on his coffee-cup and staring out of the stern-window at the harbour, ‘as to that . . . if you do not choose to call him a pragmatical clinchpoop and kick his breech, which you might think ungenteel, perhaps you could tell him to judge the pudding by its fruit.’
    ‘You mean, prove the tree by its eating.’
    ‘No, no, Stephen, you are quite out: eating a tree would prove nothing. And then you might ask him, had he ever seen many poltroons in the Navy?’
    ‘I am not quite sure what you mean by poltroons.’
    ‘You might describe them as something that cannot be attempted to be tolerated in the Navy – like wombats,’ he added, with a sudden recollection of the creatures Stephen had brought aboard an earlier command. ‘Mean-spirited worthless wretches: cowards, to put it in a word.’
    ‘You are unjust to wombats, Jack; and you were unjust to my three-toed sloth – such illiberal reflections. But leaving wombats to one side, and confining ourselves to your poltroons, Graham might reply that he had seen a good many bullies in the Navy; and for him, perhaps, the two are much the same.’
• Jo Walton's Tor dot com reread.
William Falconer's Universal Dictionary of the Marine pub. 1780., with illustration plates.
Harbors and High Seas, an atlas and geographical companion, though many of the ports in this novel are fictional.
• For more links see the bullet points in the previous post.

There's a relative lot of Pullings, Bonden, etc. in this book, and a few more old names and faces like Davis and Joseph Plaice from Post Captain. I knew I should have started a complete list of every named character...

Sophie Newsletter: Furious that Jack will not have the Blackwater and a North American station. Stays with Jack aboard the Worcester awhile. The quartermaster holds George over the leeward rail to do his business. Mrs. Williams quite taken with Jagiello as "the handsomest man she'd ever beheld, and so beautifully rich."

The Style Section: Diana is the most happy and handsome Stephen has known her to be, living and entertaining in a modern house on Half Moon Street while Stephen stays at the Grapes. She owns a billiards table and plays it well, delighting in the losing hazard. Not happy with Stephen's secrecy, but growing used to the quartering of badgers and dissection of whole orphans when in season. Independently concludes that Andrew Wray is a scrub. Hangs out with Jagiello a lot. Has a pregnancy scare (in Stephen's mind, at least). Doesn't want a second, Catholic, wedding.

Bonden Bulletin: brings the very late Maturin to the Worcester, is a capital smallcraft sailor, babysits Mr. Willet in Port Mahon as Jack looks for Stephen (and finds Mercedes), remember's Stephen's rain cloak for his spying; rescues Stephen after his "swim"; does not recognize Ezekiel Edwards aboard the Torgud behind all them whiskers, remarks "Marble balls my arse," has the last words.

Pullings' Progress: his dreams of "Tom Pullings a commander at last!" die over the course of this book; he anticipates Stephen's watch will take a ducking and require sweet oil, surprises Stephen with truffles (and Mowett's welcoming poem), interviews a trifler, wears himself ragged on the Worcester's skeleton crew, disappointed by Jack's misjudging of the Jemmapes, helps deal with reckless impudent Lt. Somers, revealed to have been turned away by Captain Rowlands for saying bálcony instead of balcóny, is called The Maiden by the Kutaliotes for his mild face and gentle manners, comes to know a certain Annie a mere young person Tom has very small cups of coffee with only sometimes, trips on a ring bolt and falls in melée causing Jack to go HAM.

Babbington Bugle: captains the slab-sided Dutch tub Dryad, is revealed to have an indiscriminate ardor both for the fair those the men of the Royal Navy do not consider "fair" including angular maidens of forty and Admiral Harte's daughter Fanny (who is to be wed to Jack's other nemesis, Alexander Wray); conspires to have as many women aboard as possible despite the disapproving telescopic eye of Jack Aubrey.

Which It's Killick: "a coarse, plain, ugly seaman, still quite unpolished in spite of his years of office, but a very old shipmate and therefore entitled to be familiar in an empty wardroom," revealed to have magic ability to clean his face early in the morning, not a fan of Jack and Stephen's tweedly-deedly tweedly-deedly, causes Jack to reflect on moral superiority, his triumphant fifth egg is tossed privately down the quarter-gallery scuttle, whines angrily at Jack dipping his sleeve in foreign mess, is unhappy to be back aboard the cramped Surprise with her acres of fucking brass and no light to sew by.
Now when the fiddle sang at all it sang alone: but since Stephen’s departure he had rarely been in a mood for music and in any case the partita that he was now engaged upon, one of the manuscript works that he had bought in London, grew more and more strange the deeper he went into it. The opening movements were full of technical difficulties and he doubted he would ever be able to do them anything like justice, but it was the great chaconne which followed that really disturbed him. On the face of it the statements made in the beginning were clear enough: their closely-argued variations, though complex, could certainly be followed with full acceptation, and they were not particularly hard to play; yet at one point, after a curiously insistent repetition of the second theme, the rhythm changed and with it the whole logic of the discourse. There was something dangerous about what followed, something not unlike the edge of madness or at least of a nightmare; and although Jack recognized that the whole sonata and particularly the chaconne was a most impressive composition he felt that if he were to go on playing it with all his heart it might lead him to very strange regions indeed.
posted by fleacircus (17 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Tag yourself I'm pragmatical clinchpoop.
posted by fleacircus at 8:30 PM on May 14, 2018

this book features my favourite description of any person in any scene in all the series: "How I wish you had seen Bonden's face, just like a maiden aunt made to hold a lighted squib"
posted by poffin boffin at 10:05 PM on May 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

This book has a lot of great moments. It was hard to stop stuffing things into the post. I didn't even get around to the firework gunpowder or the mumps castration scare.

Or how the Handel singers are right in the middle of the chorus at the same moment the French finally come out of Toulon, and the bosun and his mate who have fucking loathed Handel all this time apparently get to set about them shouting and starting them.
posted by fleacircus at 12:05 AM on May 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

fleacircus, your summaries are a joy to read. Thank you.
posted by idb at 12:48 PM on May 15, 2018 [5 favorites]

I found this one a bit frustrating in how it delays the big action to the very end of the book. The one small prize Bonhomme Richard apart it felt like there are a lot of near misses in this one: the strict-neutrality standoff at Medina, the long fruitless chase by the squadron. I guess in a way that makes it successful in conveying the frustrations of the Worcester/Surprise crew; and of Jack who does seem positively itchy for action at the end.

Interesting how much the focus has changed. At the start of the series the setup is pretty much Stephen tagging along on Jack's derring-do actions, but at this point it has totally flipped over to being mostly Jack ferrying Stephen on political/intelligence missions. And Jack himself is becoming more politically savvy: he very carefully avoids Harte's attempt to undermine him, and he's engaged in the negotiations with the three Beys -- although he does display his never-mind-maneuvers impatience for action when he impulsively commits to Sciahon without consulting Graham.

Do we ever find out what happened at Kutali? I could've sworn I'd read a description of the guns traversing the ropeway on a previous reread, but that doesn't happen in this book -- a lot of description of the ropeway being built, but at the end Jack has to abandon it (and his precious cables) to go out to chase Mustapha.

unhappy to be back aboard the cramped Surprise with her acres of fucking brass and no light to sew by

There is a lot of prime Killick whining in this one! I like how he was so annoyed by the changes to Surprise.

Marble balls my arse

Which paid off some asides in previous books that suggest that the different shot sizes make cannons not particularly interchangeable. Also, the little mental picture it paints of Mustapha; that he simply must have these compensating-for-something big guns even though they're totally impractical.

faces like Davis

I like how Jack is basically "oh no, not him again" when Davis shows up; but that once Davis is on the crew he looks out for him, ensuring that he doesn't get flogged for his poor seamanship because he's a useful brute in a hand-to-hand fight; and that at the end of the book Davis is right at the front alongside Jack when they board the Turkish ships.

fleacircus, your summaries are a joy to read.

Seconded; you really outdid yourself in this one.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 11:46 AM on May 21, 2018

they end up back in kutali at a later point for something else which i am not immediately recalling; however i very clearly remember jack's usual linguistic foolishness leading the local religious patriarch to believe that pullings was killed and not made post.
posted by poffin boffin at 11:48 AM on May 21, 2018

Davis has gone from a dangerous mutineer Polychrest in Post Captain to a comic relief character.

he very carefully avoids Harte's attempt to undermine him

Yeah I love it when Harte asks him if he has understood all the orders and Jack is like, "I'm not sure but I know I'll get them clear when I've read them a few times." In general it's always funny when Aubrey is with the various admirals and he has a turn as a cheeky but agreeable subordinate.

Seconded; you really outdid yourself in this one.

Yeah it got a bit much and I will need to scale back, but I liked this book and it had a ton of the Surprises back.

> Do we ever find out what happened at Kutali?
they end up back in kutali at a later point for something else which i am not immediately recalling

Next book!
posted by fleacircus at 6:33 PM on May 21, 2018

"My dear, I am sorry that my face should look at all like an informer's" is peak sassy Maturin. I hope I get a chance to use that line sometime.

I have a copy of Harbors and High Seas (picked it up at a used book store years ago, before I ever read past book five). It's pretty darn useful, but since it includes the paths of the ships on all the maps, it can be a bit spoilery for first time readers - and, frustratingly, the maps always seem to leave out at least one or two locations which are named in the text. Usually they're not important locations, but if one of the novels says "the ship cruised past Ballsington on a light topsail breeze" then the damn map ought to have Ballsington labelled, even if it's never mentioned again.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:06 AM on May 22, 2018

Stephen also refuses to name any names when he warns Jack of the impending mutiny on the Polychrest; very much a shining line for him.

Double-bottomed defecator; used in production of cane sugar, apparently.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 12:24 PM on May 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

Popping in mid-listen with some comments. I can’t emphasize enough what a delight it is to listen to Vance’s performance of the audiobooks; Killick’s voice is perfect. Maturin replies to Jack’s suggestion that he make some classical allusions about just with an ‘I could not.’ In exactly the same tone cadence as he replied to Diana's suggestion that he intervene with Jack’s flirtation in The Surgeon’s Mate.

This is also the book where Jack’s constant introduction of Maturin as his particular friend starts to feel a little marked.

I am always impressed by POB’s depth and breadth of period vocabulary. But there’s one word that he seems to misuse occasionally - the descriptive ‘gentlemanly’ or ‘gentleman’. I’ve noticed it several times being used in the modern sense of courtly or well-mannered or someone who has good breeding. But it was my understanding that at the time, a gentleman was someone who didn’t have to work for a living because they owned an estate, and the newer meaning hadn’t evolved yet.

Also, Babbington’s correspondence with Miss Fanny Harte would have been extremely improper unless they were engaged. This is one of the reasons why Marianne’s letters to Willoughby are so shocking in S &S.
posted by bq at 10:23 AM on May 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

In this one I don't think POB is using "gentleman" thoughtlessly, at least. He talks about it in the context of naval history w/ the increasing need to pass for gentleman as a change in the RN so it seems like something he'd be more likely to get right. Even then when Jack uses the word like he is wary of the meaning.

I read Persuasion recently, lessee... It was published in 1818 and there's a lot of "quite the gentleman" and "a perfect gentleman" in terms of manners and behavior -- but then also at one point Anne's very status-conscious dad says, "You misled me by the term gentleman. I thought you were speaking of some man of property". Teach the controversy!
posted by fleacircus at 7:17 AM on May 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

Wikipedia has a really interesting rundown of this, actually:

In the 5th edition of the of the Encyclopædia Britannica (1815), "a gentleman is one, who without any title, bears a coat of arms, or whose ancestors have been freemen." In the 7th edition (1845) it still implies a definite social status: "All above the rank of yeomen." In the 8th edition (1856), this is still its "most extended sense"; "in a more limited sense" it is defined in the same words as those quoted above from the 5th edition; but the writer adds, "By courtesy this title is generally accorded to all persons above the rank of common tradesmen when their manners are indicative of a certain amount of refinement and intelligence."

So in the period these books are set, the term wouldn't have applied to just any old guy, but possession of an estate doesn't seem to have been a necessary factor - you just had to have the right heredity.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:57 AM on May 21, 2019

I wish I could see a ictionary entry from 1800. I did find this nice essay about the issue:

which of course, references the killer set-down "had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner."
posted by bq at 9:52 AM on May 21, 2019

I found in this 1790 dictionary, eventually, these definitions which seem to indicate the non-strict definitions were floating around by Aubrey/Maturin times.
posted by fleacircus at 1:02 AM on May 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

posted by bq at 8:50 AM on May 22, 2019

I’m feeling a little like tehhund as I enjoy my first read of the series and come here immediately and excitedly after each book!

I came to them via Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books — loved that series to bits and figured, well, maybe I’ll enjoy the version without the dragons.

I laughed out loud at a few moments in this book. The fireworks, the puddings spliced on the larboard trice gumbrils, mumps, and their discovery of Bach.

On to the next!
posted by sixswitch at 8:49 PM on August 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

I’m rereading the series and just got up to this one. All I can say is that any future screen adaptation of the series simply MUST include the fireworks gunpowder sequence. I’d forgotten how hilarious it is.
posted by the duck by the oboe at 9:50 PM on January 25, 2022

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