The Reverse of the Medal
June 8, 2018 12:07 AM - by Patrick O'Brian - Subscribe

In the eleventh book in the Aubrey-Maturin series, Sir William admires Spotted Dick, Jack's known to have sired a papisher, Captain Goole's tripe heist grudge never dies, and the Surprise – sailing as she does with the most admirable celerity with some particular arrangement of the bowlines – is set after the Spartan on her final voyage home to the heart of the disgusting British Empire. There await: thief-takers, pickpockets, publishers, sharp nobs, pork pies, leathern conveyances, the celestial toby, laughing cuckoos, medium-sized jelly-bags, Fanny Wray's nautical boudoir, Covent Garden hummums, burned Grapes, quiet combes, rotten boroughs, Deadly Never Greens, crushed duodecimpunctati, and the doom of empires: lawyers.

    ‘Christ’s blood in heaven, you ignorant incompetent whey-faced nestlecock,’ said Stephen in a low venomous tone, leaning forward, ‘do you think I am a hired spy, an informer? That I have a master, a paymaster, for God’s love?’ To all his present bitterness there was added the spectacle of an efficient intelligence-service threatening ruin, and his own dedicated, highly-skilled form of warfare gone. ‘You little silly man,’ he said.
    Lewis strained back in his chair, looking shocked and stupid: the look on Stephen’s face appalled him. He said, ‘Calm yourself, my dear sir, calm yourself.’
    Stephen’s hand shot across the desk, seized Lewis’s nose, shook it so furiously from side to side so fast that the hair-powder flew, then wrung it left and right, right and left; he flung the standish into the fire, wiped his bloody hand on Lewis’s neck-cloth, said ‘If you wish to find me, sir, I am at Black’s,’ and walked out.
• Jo Walton's tor.com reread.
• For more links see the post for The Surgeon's Mate.
• Lotta cuck in this one.
• An online Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue from 1811, or 1736, or 1725, or 1698... Not exactly useful but amusing.

Sophie will have no truck, no truck whatsoever with anything in the roving line, has seen the girls through chickenpox and sailing with Heneage Dundas, is generally perfect if briefly despairing. Diana is off to Sweden with the tall beautiful golden-haired Lithuanian ass Jagiello; she is remembered as a tigress who loves an auction, perhaps incorrectly thinks she is not really married to Stephen. Ashgrove Cottage gutted and cleaned out, two hundred years of patina scraped from its flagstones and washed into the asparagus bed. The children and Mrs. Williams are in Ireland because Frances is having a baby.

Pullings has barely escaped the Spartan in the Danaë, oversees purchase of Surprise, he's so great you guys. Mowett has a pleasant young open face, and is published, needing only to pay the costs of printing, paper, advertising, a small fee for the press, and for which he shall receive half the profits! Padeen is a gentle Munsterman with a great stutter and small knowledge of any other language. Babbington has the Tartarus, loves Fanny and might buy off Wray, is remembered by General Aubrey as a young whoremaster of a lieutenant. Killick and his mate trip over Pullings all trying to get a look at Sam, pours coffee into villainous little tin mugs, is known to Mrs. Comfort at the Jericho inn. Bonden has a goatish brother Bob, an Irresistible sail-maker's mate; Bonden is captain of number two starboard chaser Wilful Murder, scores fourteen runs against the Tartaruses, faces down a pale and weedy crew of stock-jobbers' bruisers while Davis simply tells Wrays bruisers to bugger off. Awkward Davies is Davies not Davis in this book, sinks the cutter thinking he can pull the Surprise from it and costs everyone a prize. No sign of Fat-Arse Jenks.

The youngsters are reviewed:
‘They are decent youngsters,’ he said. ‘They are reasonably well based in simple navigation, and they have a tolerable notion of seamanship, particularly Calamy and Williamson, who are such old hands. And with all this Latin and Greek – why, their own families would hardly recognize them.’ This was no doubt true, for in addition to the Latin and Greek they had learnt much about the nature of the high southern latitudes, extreme cold, short commons, and the early stages of scurvy. In the course of learning Boyle had had three ribs stove in; Calamy had gone bald, and although he now had some downy hair it was not very beautiful; Williamson had lost some toes and the tips of both ears from frost-bite; Howard seemed permanently stunted, and want of teeth made him look very old, while Blakeney and Webber had suddenly shot up, all awkwardness, ankles, wrists and broken voices. They were also familiar with violent death, adultery and self-murder; but the knowledge did not seem to oppress them; they remained vapid, cheerful, very apt to race about the higher rigging like apes at play, to lie late in bed in the morning, and to neglect their duty at the least hint of fun elsewhere.
Martin likes cricket, is in need of a wedding registry, accepts a teapot from Stephen, should have written about True Weevils but set himself up for a career of indulging in the luxury of telling his betters of their faults. Sir Joseph Blaine has some part of his groove back, but has decided marriage is a bad idea given how miserable his married friends are.

Notable animals:
- An old fat badger.
- Waddon's foaming farting horse.
- Moses the short-legged short-sighed, deaf, meek horse of uncertain age.
- Goshawk with a silver bell on her leg.

Jack "cur-tailed" joke re-telling count: 2

Maturin on: treadmill runways spooming
Martin said he supposed that the engine, pumping with such force upon the sails, striking them from behind, as it were, must urge the boat along, and so increase its speed.
    ‘There cannot be the least doubt of it,’ said Stephen.
‘When virtue spooms before a prosperous gale
My heaving wishes help to fill the sail
says Dryden, that prince of poets, and the dear knows we spoom in the most virtuous manner. I suggest we all go and blow into the mainsail; or that some blow while others tie a rope to the back of the ship and pull forwards as hard as ever can be, ha, ha, ha!’ He cackled for a short while at his own wit, and in doing so (the exercise being unusual with him) choked on a crumb.
posted by fleacircus (13 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I really like Stephen's walk in the woods. It felt a lot like a little depression spike, with heightened senses and appreciation while otherwise feeling like a robot. Stephen's mind reboots, he remembers he still likes animals, music, and wants to tell Jack about it. Then he's forced to endure cricket.

I also really like the chase of the Spartan even though there's no fighting in it (though the fuck-you cannon fire is still good). Both ships going so full-tilt that they were looking for "cats paws" of wind to gain an edge. The ending of the chase is perfect too, where they start losing the ship in the rain and night, and Jack just has a dead-reckoning insight that there is *barely* enough sea room and time to catch the ship, but then they get caught by the Channel fleet and it's like the whistle blowing; time's up.

I guess Awkward Davies is obviously the same person as Awkward Davis from the last book, who is the Davis who sprang into focus awesomely in book eight. He might also be Tom Davis the old Sophie, who might or might not be the same as the near-mutineer Davis on the Polychrest. There was also an Awkward Moses in book seven. I feel that there has been some tertiary character synthesis going on.
posted by fleacircus at 8:48 AM on June 8


yes davies and davis are the same awkward guy. the one with the E is i believe a welsh spelling but they are pronounced the same.

i still don't know what a jelly-bag is, medium sized or otherwise.
posted by poffin boffin at 9:48 AM on June 8


I'm glad you picked the nose-pulling; it's glorious.

I really like Stephen's walk in the woods. It felt a lot like a little depression spike, with heightened senses and appreciation while otherwise feeling like a robot. Stephen's mind reboots, he remembers he still likes animals, music, and wants to tell Jack about it. Then he's forced to endure cricket.

Yes. I'm just past this point and damn, Stephen is so low in this book; a reminder of his state of mind just before he met Jack.

Stephen's mood crashes when he approaches Jack's land, where the beauty of the woods gives way to the ugliness of the mining works, the pest-infested gardens, and the ever-increasing patchwork of building onto the cottage. Part of it's certainly "oh god and now I have to be out of nature and amongst people again" but it does also feel like Stephen is viscerally pained by what Jack -- for all his good intentions -- has done to the place.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 1:03 PM on June 8


It appears I'm one of the slower readers which works out I guess.

I read it as the weight of the world returning to him. Like 1) The world is shit. 2) Actually there's good things in the world. 3) There's still all this shit though.
posted by fleacircus at 3:07 PM on June 8


yeah i just finished #20 aka the one with the huge spoiler right there in the title
posted by poffin boffin at 4:21 PM on June 8


Jo Walton is absolutely right: the pillory scene is perfection, and I've yet to get through it with dry eyes.
posted by Zonker at 6:38 PM on June 8 [1 favorite]


Yeahhhh I cried too. I am an extreme sucker for the moment of mercy.
posted by fleacircus at 7:22 PM on June 8


I definitely cried at that, but I also cried when, after several thousand miles of Jack's panicked fear about whether Sophie had realized who Sam was and what she would say and whether she would ever forgive him... she just goes, "I would very much like the children to know him." THERE I'M CRYING AGAIN OOPS
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:35 AM on June 9 [3 favorites]


Really this whole book is made up of several different instances of 'hundreds of pages of hideous creeping dread' -> 'outcome that really could have been a hell of a lot worse'. Which is brilliant! It makes what could have been a depressing slog of a book into something kinda triumphant.
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:39 AM on June 9


It's also funny how Jack is kinda trying to avoid going home subconsciously, at least without Stephen, until Stephen is like, "GO."
posted by fleacircus at 6:24 PM on June 9


This book has O’Brian’s only blatant natural history blooper that I’ve noticed (allowing for a certain amount of whimsy around the drinking habits of sloths), when Stephen sees a Middle-Spotted Woodpecker in England. Possibly he was using Thomas Bewick’s History of British Birds as a period reference, which incorrectly includes it (and would also be the source for old-fashioned names like Lesser Pettichaps). Or maybe the clued-in reader is expected to understand that Maturin and Martin have misidentified a juvenile Greater-Spotted Woodpecker.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 2:39 PM on June 16 [1 favorite]


Clearing the bookmarks from my copy before it goes back to the library: the scenes of Stephen walking to the Marshalsea are full of amazingly long run-on sentences. Suggestive of Stephen's inner state?
      He repeated his direction and his remark at their parting; but he had mistaken his man. As Stephen had observed, penurious habits die hard, and instead of taking a chair or a coach he walked: when he arrived at the Surrey side he was unhappily inspired to ask the way to Dirty Lane rather than the perfectly obvious Marshalsea. A friendly native told him, and even set him on his way, assuring him that he should reach Dirty Lane if he followed his nose for another two minutes, no more: two minutes by the clock. So he did, too; but it was the wrong Dirty Lane, there being at least two in Southwark, and from this point he hurried along empty streets inhabited by strangers, often looking at his watch and proceeding at a gasping half-trot until he came to Melancholy Walk, where another, even kindlier native, speaking a dialect of which Stephen could catch only one word in three, told him that he was going directly away from the Marshalsea, that if he carried on in that direction he would eventually reach Lambeth and then Americay, that he had no doubt been taking the air in the Liberties, which included these here St George's Fields — pointing to a stretch of scrofulous earth with sparse weeds standing in it here and there — and had grown confused in his intellects; that he certainly wanted to get back to his kip before lock-up, and he had best be led there the quickest way, rather than be left to wander in the dusk ‘for there were a great many forking thieves about in those parts, and a single gent might never be seen again: pork pies were assured of a ready sale in the Marshalsea and the King's Bench prison, no way off; and the cost of the pastry was trifling, given the vicinity of the flour wharves down the way.’
      In the event Stephen was only a few minutes late, and a number of small fees, amounting to no more than the coach-hire, brought him through the debtors' side to what might be considered the true heart of the prison, the building in which the sailors were confined: for the Marshalsea had always been the Navy's prison, and here those who escaped hanging for striking their superiors served their sentence, together with officers who had run their ship aground for want of attention, those whose accounts were hopelessly entangled and deficient, those who had been detected taking things from prizes before those prizes were legally condemned, those who had been fined for a number of offences and who could not pay, some who had gone mad, and some who were guilty of contempt of any admiralty or vice-admiralty court, of the Lord Steward or of any such officers of the Board of Green Cloth as the Coroner of the Verge.
The aside of the "number of small fees" that makes Stephen's penny-pinching worthless. And the dark hint about the nature of the pies sticks in his mind:
‘These are from a local man,’ he said, turning the sausages on their fork, ‘and the are famous. So are his pork pies: should you like a slice? It is already cut.’
      ‘I believe not, thank you’ said Stephen, looking intently at the contnts of the pie. ‘I dined not long ago with a friend.’
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 8:35 AM on July 7


Yeah I guess O'Brian is putting that rumor in before Dickens or penny dreadfuls popularized it. Of course, Stephen is a guy who buys corpses, and he's seen a little bit of cannibalism already. And the economics make sense, so not hard for him to believe.
posted by fleacircus at 12:24 PM on July 7


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