The Thirteen-Gun Salute
July 4, 2018 10:21 AM - by Patrick O'Brian - Subscribe

In the thirteenth book of the series the disgusting British Empire is at it again, cutting capers on Tom Tiddler's ground: bidding her agent Dr. Stephen Maturin and catspaw Captain Jack Aubrey to the South China Sea, where Aubrey may opine on Solomon's thousand porcupines while Maturin follows a spurned orang-utang up thousand steps to be charged by unicorns; where from the glorious sweep of a stern window is viewed a sky half purple, and not a colony of nondescript boobies after all; where there's no hope for a pinnace be she carvel- or clinker-built; where a fowling-piece mars Ganymede, and the traitor Wray's spleen is at last to be vented; where hope rests on Diane's quarter as Jack's seventeen stone bends her main royal to the alarm of Spotted Dick; and where at last Stephen returns a pugil in piquet for all the poops and garstrakes he's endured.

    Jack nodded, turned towards Ashgrove Cottage and hailed ‘The house, ahoy. Ho, Killick, there,’ in a voice that would quite certainly reach across the intervening two hundred yards.
    He need not have called out so loud, for after a decent pause Killick stepped from behind the hedge, where he had been listening. How such an awkward, slab-sided creature could have got along by that sparse and dwarvish hedge undetected Stephen could not tell. This newly-planned bowling-green had seemed an ideal place for confidential remarks, the best apart from the inconveniently remote open down; Stephen had chosen it deliberately, but although he was experienced in these things he was not infallible, and once again Killick had done him brown. He consoled himself with reflecting that the steward’s eavesdropping was perfectly disinterested – the true miser’s love for coins as coins, not as a means of exchange – and that his loyalty to Jack’s interests (as perceived by Killick) was beyond all question.
    ‘Killick,’ said Aubrey, ‘sea-chest for tomorrow at dawn; and pass the word for Bonden.’
    ‘Sea-chest for tomorrow at dawn it is, sir; and Bonden to report to the skittle-alley,’ replied Killick without any change whatsoever in his wooden expression; but when he had gone a little way he stopped, crept back to the hedge again and peered at them for a while through the branches. There were no bowling-greens in the remote estuarine hamlet where Preserved Killick had been born, but there was, there always had been, a skittle-alley; and this was the term he used – used with a steady obstinacy typical of his dogged, thoroughly awkward nature.
• Jo Walton's Tor dot com re-read. She likes it. Something something little ditty-bag something something Jack and the Dianes.
• It's revealed in passing that Desolation Island is not the Kerguelen Islands, though surely it was. It was Port Christmas. Now shifted into fictional overlay.
• The post for The Surgeon's Mate has a lot more links.
• Though a good a time as any to link to Aubreyisms collected by an Aubrey-Maturin reading list, who no doubt in the nature of the Web 0.0 did it all better decades ago.

Fox is described as "a tall slim man, well dressed in the modern way – short unpowdered hair, black coat, white neck-cloth and waistcoat, shoes and breeches with plain buckles – rather good-looking, self-possessed, perhaps forty." A good chunk of the book concerns his character and his flaws. There is some echoing of early books and with the glaring Sophia:Sophie::Diana:Diane thing going on it almost felt like this wanted to be the last book somehow.

At home, Mrs. Williams is reduced to a pitiable figure, hesitant, fearful of giving offense, painfully obsequious. Diana is as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile, buys Barham Down, threatens to change her child for a more cheerful one from the Foundling Hospital if it bears Stephen's pinched expression. Jack defends Diana's honor against a royal mistress too much. She and Stephen are super-married now, in a church like, and getting along more vivaciously now that he is not constantly drugged. He is delighted in the future company of his hypothetical daughter. Apparently a bed-companion in Pulo Prabang is no big deal. Philip has run away from school and wants to join Jack on a ship, is promised to sent with Heneage next year. George has little notion of probability and does not receive a kiss, having been wearing breeches for some time now. No note is made of Charlotte or Fanny unless "Caroline" is a nickname. Sam is going to be made. Sophia wears a gown.

On the Surprises, Padeen deserted and broke into an apothecary shop for opium, a capital crime. Jack got his hanging commuted to transportation to Botany Bay. Stephen sends his thoughts and prayers. Standish the annoying incompetent purser tries to leave ship, travels along awkwardly, and is given to the army in Spain for his violin.

We meet lots of new Dianes. Lieutenants Fielding, Bampfylde Elliot, and Harte's son Dixon Dick Richardson who was Pellow's flag-lieutenant of nine stone. Fielding is thirty-three and competent, but Elliott is not, being unlucky and inept, no seaman, though Jack likes him. He is struck by a bucket, probably to blame for the wreck of the Diane, and assuredly lost in command of Fox's pinnace. Blyth is the purser, a kindly older man who gets lightly wounded by a falling hen coop and tips Stephen to the fact that he's staying in a bawdy house. Warren the master, a man of great natural authority who never has to raise his voice to be obeyed. There's a surgeon Graham who doesn't make it back on board within twenty minutes of the signal after two weeks in port. Welby the marine officer carries out an impressive castrametation. Jack's clerk Elijah Butcher seems to appear from out of nowhere with lots of hydrography gear and bright black eyes ready for the fray.
‘It cannot be an ancient: the pagans, as far as my reading goes, were never much given to self-hatred or guilt about their sexual activities. That was reserved for Christians, with their particular sense of sin; and as “all I ever did” clearly refers to ill-doing, I must suppose it to be of a sexual nature, since a thief is not always stealing nor a murderer always murdering, whereas a man’s sexual instincts are with him all the time, day and night. Yet it is curious to see how the self-hater often succeeds in retaining his self-esteem in relation to others, usually by means of a general denigration: he sees himself as a worthless creature, but his fellows as more worthless still.’
posted by fleacircus (12 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I got the impression in this book that Stephen has grown a bit fixed in his mind, a bit complacent, a bit older. He seems more religious (like when he is praying during a storm). He doesn't recognize his almost anarchist former tendencies, and chalks it up to depression. Of course, he is also married to his love, expecting a child, quite incredibly rich, and even if he was broke tomorrow he has a lucrative profession. He has added much to the happiness of his best friend. There's a glimpse of a stuffy, unimaginative, cold patrician type Maturin in this book. A fuck-you-got-mine kind of Stephen. There is no generousness; he will not in any way help to ease the situation with Fox, for example. And there's no sense that Stephen feels any responsibility for what has gone on with Padeen through liability, neglect, and bad example. I'm looking real squinty-eyed at Stephen Maturin in this book.

That aside, I did like this book, even though it seems to avoid anything dramatic until the end. There aren't any ship actions. The reader can be pretty sure Surprise is not going to be smashed to bits on Inaccessible Island and the rest of the book is blank pages. The French mission almost falls apart on its own, and everything of consequence takes place off screen. O'Brian gets super elliptical about Wray's (and Edward Ledward's?) death. Even the stuff with Fox never truly boils over; the request to take the pinnace (Jack's private property, Wealthy Maturin points out) is pretty reasonable.
posted by fleacircus at 8:57 AM on July 5, 2018

I low-key wanna abandon my entire life and go live in that Buddhist valley.

O'Brian gets super elliptical about Wray's (and Edward Ledward's?) death.

Yes! Did Stephen kill those guys himself or not? It's so strange that you can't answer that question either way from the text. (Unless I missed it?)
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:04 AM on July 5, 2018

I love all the walking around Stephen does. I'll just take sailing around the islands with Jack as he pilots a boat between two rocks and wants to go look at a French frigate.
posted by fleacircus at 1:14 PM on July 5, 2018

Love the Aubreyisms. Seeing them all collected reminds me of how it took 3-4 instances for me to notice that Stephen's alternate suggestions ( 'You mean, they cannot have their bed and eat it.' ; 'You mean, prove the tree by its eating.') weren't the result of his parallel confusion so much as a gentle troll, with only himself as an audience.
posted by pykrete jungle at 5:49 AM on July 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

"Prove the tree by its eating," is one of my favorites, especially because of Jack's reply "Eating a tree would prove nothing." I guess I like it when absurd things get taken seriously. This book also has taking a pig to market to find out they're all out of pokes.

Also in this book I think Maturin does a true bad nerd joke, a real science teach quality joke, after some dish is spilled all over and he puns off 'lapsus calami'. Chasing that curtailed dragon!
posted by fleacircus at 7:18 AM on July 6, 2018

Yes! Did Stephen kill those guys himself or not? It's so strange that you can't answer that question either way from the text.

He does specifically state later on, maybe next book, or maybe in this one? idk? But anyway he does say that he killed them, iirc.
posted by poffin boffin at 8:56 AM on July 6, 2018

Stephen's alternate suggestions [...] weren't the result of his parallel confusion so much as a gentle troll, with only himself as an audience.

Gentle and fond trolling, I think: Stephen's inwardly delighted by Jack's malapropisms and is all in favor of encouraging more. Also, it'd be insulting to Jack to correct him; and Stephen's too fond of him to cause deliberate hurt over such an innocent thing.

I'm very fond of this one from The Far Side of the World in which Stephen manages to triple down on the absurdity:
    'Only this morning I was thinking how right they were to say it was better to be a dead horse than a live lion.' He gazed out of the scuttle, obviously going over the words in his mind. 'No. I mean better to flog a dead horse than a live lion.'
    'I quite agree.'
    'Yet even that's not quite right, neither. I know there is a dead horse in it somewhere; but I am afraid I'm brought by the lee this time, though I rather pride myself on proverbs, bringing them in aptly, you know, and to the point.'
    'Never distress yourself, brother; there is no mistake, I am sure. It is a valuable saying, and one that admonishes us never to underestimate our enemy, for whereas flogging a dead horse is child's play, doing the same to a lion is potentially dangerous, even though one may take a long spoon.'
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 12:03 PM on July 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

O'Brian gets super elliptical about Wray's (and Edward Ledward's?) death

Later on he gets pretty stairmasterful.
posted by fleacircus at 6:28 AM on July 9, 2018

In the thirteenth book of the series the disgusting British Empire is at it again

posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 2:15 PM on July 9, 2018

There's no sense that Stephen feels any responsibility for what has gone on with Padeen through liability, neglect, and bad example.

Yeah, he's pretty much "I was laid up with a broken leg, what was I supposed to do" about it. It's Jack that has to pull parliamentary strings to get Padeen's sentence commuted. It does feel like quite a contrast to the end of The Letter of Marque in which Stephen does seem much more sympathetic towards Padeen.

I think there's a passage very early in the book in which Stephen is noted as appearing sterner on the deck of the Diane; I don't have the book to hand right now though.

There is some echoing of early books

I'm maybe a third of the way in and it feels like it's doing a lot of looking backwards. Explicitly via Stephen re-reading his old diaries, recalling his first meeting with Jack, and mulling over how they've both changed; and implicitly, with Jack once again taking command of a new-to-him ship, and Stephen once again feeling conflict over potentially exposing a member of the United Irishmen.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 2:30 PM on July 9, 2018 [1 favorite]


I didn't put it in the movie post because the movie seems to think the British Empire was pretty cool.
posted by fleacircus at 6:57 PM on July 9, 2018

I felt like O’Brian was trying to portray Fox as bipolar and in the grip of a manic episode after the successful arrangement of the treaty.
posted by bq at 11:00 AM on December 5, 2019

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