The Commodore
September 2, 2018 6:00 AM - by Patrick O'Brian - Subscribe

In the seventeenth book of the series, Jack wrangles the Ringle, and the Surprise comes home at last to England, to emptied Shelmerston, to gardens become children to alien spades, to Mrs. Williams recovered as a bookie with an entourage and perhaps using snuff, to doubts about Diana's conduct, to measles-ridden swollen-faced hoydens, to a scarlet trull with a loaded horse-pistol, and to Stephen's fairy daughter Brigid who only needs a good shaking, the black hole, bread and water, and the whip. Pullings is ecstatic because Aubrey is made Commodore and given a squadron to West Africa, for the slave trade is to be ended, if not by will by force, despite Lord Nelson's love of the disgusting British Empire's system of colonies. Jack nearly unbosoms himself; Bonden recalls a bodice; Freetown and the Bight of Benin await, full of pottos, sodomy, and the CFR 80% yellow jack.

... ‘Greenwich. You would not believe, sir, the amount of money they screw out of poor hardworking seafaring men for that old chest of theirs. And who ever seen a penny piece out of it? Not Old Mould, any gate.’
    ‘Lo, Greenwich, where many a shrew is in,’ said Stephen, unthinking.
    ‘Greenwich is bad enough, bad enough; there are some very disagreeable females in Greenwich. But it is nothing at all,’ said Mould, his voice rising passionately as he caused the stout tiller to tremble under his hand, ‘nothing at all, set against Shelmerston, for shrews. Take Mrs Mould, for instance…’ He took Mrs Mould and handled her most severely, not only for her ignorant, illiberal, worldly rejection of the plurality of wives – ‘Think of Abraham, sir: think of Solomon: remember Gideon – threescore and ten sons, and many wives!’ – but also for a variety of shortcomings that it would scarcely be decent to name, all denounced with such vehemence that it would have been necessary to check him if a lighter more or less guided by an idiot boy with a single enormous oar had not drifted across the Ringle's bows, so that her topsail was obliged to be backed at once, to take the way off her, and all sheets let fly, while every soul that could seize a spar fended off in an uproar of reprobation.
• We're sort of back in 1814 but it's gotten even more ahistorical. The ship battle in this is not very good; there really hasn't been a good battle since I don't know when.
• Jo Walton's reread at tor dot com. Interesting fictional tie in to another book.
• Apparently pottos are also called "softly-softly".
• Some gunroom mailing list chatter about the book. Mostly end-of-series discussion. Of interest is someone who copied some of O'Brian's notes from the Lilly Library.
• Other mailing list discussion. Impending rot is a topic.
• When Jack is sick the (non-Maturin) doctor recommends "Night Thoughts" as a nice calming thing to read to Jack which I suppose is a joke, and contrasted with Stephen's idea that the despairing die easier.
• The part where Stephen wakes up and hears Jack playing at Ashgrove is lovely.
• Jack's cur-tailed appreciation count: 381
• Stern gallery appreciation count: 49,355
    ‘Damn the Doctor.’
    ‘Rot the Doctor.’
    ‘The Doctor’s soul to Hell,’ said the lower deck, the midshipmen’s berth, and the wardroom.
Mr. Oakes is fucking dead! It's a little wild that this fact is dropped at the end of the last book, and not really discussed in this book. Mrs. Oakes is around being unlikable and eating two eggs for dinner. Brigid is Stephen's manic pixie dream daughter. Stephen about laughs himself to death when Clarissa says Brigid mostly only speaks English to cats and pigs. Some people think she's a natural child. Padeen is promised a farm in Ireland. They're packed off to Spain. Sarah and Emily have to endure Mrs. Williams' slurs, then get set up at the Grapes and pretty much forgotten.

Sophie throws a dinner which Stephen is propelled into late. She drags Jack up and down for giving some red silk to Clarissa, but off-screen. Mrs. Williams, Mrs. Morris, and Mr. Briggs are perfectly awful. Mr. Briggs informs often and is paid back in Trump's Lane. "Black night, no words; only a din like a great puppy being whipped."

Charlotte and Fanny are going around doing stuff. Charlotte has the NERVE to dare correct her mother that she is not Fanny nor is her face swollen and bloated. Charlotte is "the fatter twin". They're "almost pretty". George abbreviates "positive" to "poz". They're all crazy about the uniform.

Heneage Dundas and Sir Joseph Blaine probably should have figured more in various character blurbs in previous posts. They are pretty steadily who they are, though, which is competent, helpful, and horny. Blaine weirdly gives Stephen a porphyry Jove of a couple tons to deliver probably to some lady friend an awkward annoying favor by someone who doesn't think much about ships. Dundas is having money trouble.

Jack's got three captain's under him like with The Mauritius Command and similarly one's discipline is lax (Capt. Duff, because of the sodomy) and the other's too taut (Capt. Thomas, the Purple Admiral, because he sucks). They're not really served up as a character study or anything. Thomas' Thames hits a reef and never gets to the fight, nor is he scragged. Duff's Stately screws up a tacking maneuver and gets mauled pretty bad.

Pullings is having a weird career as Jack's pet Post Captain. Mr. Whewell is a new officer, who grew up around the slave trade and passed for officer but not gentleman; he's just all-around competent, though scarred and ugly but still blushing from a run in with Dahomey Amazons at a handsomer age. Reade seems to be having all the fun in the Ringle that Jack wishes he could have. No mention made of missing an arm or being much caressed.

Killick is everywhere as usual. He has no respect for the lubberly butler giving the "butler's wipe" to Jack's silver. He procures cheddar. In a rare scene without Jack or Stephen he has a discussion with Bonden about Jack and Sophie parting brass rags (no longer being raggies). Bonden beats Dick Roe's face for mocking the fever-struck Maturin. Killick says it ain't catching but "if it ain’t catching why does the poor bugger take in the victuals at a run, holding his breath with a piece of charcoal in his mouth and then rush out, daubing his face with vinegar and Gregory’s cordial, pale and trembling? Not catching, my arse." Killick calls the nice room in Ashgrove Cottage the welwet saloon because it has one velvet chair in it. He's described as "looking as usual like a lean, cantankerous and out of work ratcatcher." When Stephen tries to wave goodbye to Dundas, he nearly falls off the Ringle but Bonden catches him and passes him to Joe Plaice to be tied down without batting an eyelash.

Joe Plaice is a little bit here and there, such as grinning in from a gun port while Stephen is dismayed at the Bellona's sick bay. He's also servant at the officer's dinner where Stephen dips his sleeve in the soup. Described as Stephen's "old mild fat and bald friend". Stephen thinks he's acting out of character getting caught up in the inter-ship rivalries. Awkward Davies has a red waistcoat and keeps the captured slaves at work on the pumps.

Christine Wood (nee Heatherleigh) the "Mrs. Governor" of Freetown is unbeatable at bats and stirs Stephens let's call it bosom. Jack Square is at least Rectangular, and is almost certainly not getting paid enough for being a guide and pilot.

Notable animals: The embarrassing frisky horse Lalla. The lucky roach-eating potto. Slaver following sharks. Remembrance of a poor goat on the Sophie. Mr. Brigg's Abhorson (Abhor + whoreson?) who gets startled by a blackbird and dumps Jack off onto a boundary stone head first.

Regrettable Deaths: Mr. Gray cut for the stone, survives the surgery but not the infection and buried in two thousand fathoms. The Stately Marine and the Thames lieutenant who duel and both gut stab each other.
    ‘You must certainly come tomorrow,’ she said as they parted, ‘and I will show you my garden and my creatures – I have a chanting goshawk and a brush-tailed porcupine! And perhaps you might like to see my bones.’
    ‘Nothing could possibly give me greater pleasure,’ said Stephen, pressing her hand. ‘And perhaps we might walk by the swamp.’
posted by fleacircus (9 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The part where Stephen wakes up and hears Jack playing at Ashgrove is lovely.

It really is; and Stephen halfway between rationalizing that Jack hides his full talent because he "hated showing away" and realizing that he's been matching Stephen's level all along as a loving gift to a friend.
'My hands have now regained the moderate ability they possessed before I was captured,' observed Maturin, 'but his have gone on to a point I never thought he could reach: his hands and his mind. I am amazed. In his own way he is the secret man of the world.'
I liked also this comment from the same linked Reddit thread:
One reason I feel this scene is so important is that I read it as a subtle tip of the hand by O'Brian, a tacit acknowledgement that we really only know Jack through Stephen. For all intents and purposes, Maturin is the point-of-view character throughout the series; we know his inner self far better than we know Jack's, and we experience much of their world through Stephen's eyes. We hear Stephen's thoughts and musings clearly, while Jack's remain opaque. I've gone so far as to assert that Stephen is the main character of the series, not Jack. (It is the foetus of a thought; but I cherish it.)
I'm not sure that's fully true; I think we are sometimes privy to Jack's thoughts? But we certainly are in Stephen's head a lot more; or in his diary, which is a much closer approximation to his actual thoughts than Jack's letters home are to his.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 12:18 AM on September 3, 2018 [3 favorites]

There's more Jack in earlier books, though it's not entirely balanced even then. I don't think we've ever had Jack's thoughts at length on Stephen's character, but we certainly hear a lot of the reverse.

I think this book especially is very much about Stephen with Jack pushed off to the side. The anti-slaver part of the mission is skipped past while Stephen has yellow fever. The culminating battle is dealt with perfunctorily, and even then Stephen is given important moments because it's Ireland. Stephen is running around doing things and Jack's life is mostly settled.

There's a weird situation where in an early part of the book Stephen muses inwardly about what a stranger Jack is to jealousy, being too sure in his own life etc., so when it strikes him he is very vulnerable. Then later in the book there's this exchange:
    ‘I have always prided myself on a perfect freedom from jealousy,’ said Jack.
    ‘For a great while I prided myself on my transcendent beauty, on much the same grounds; or even better,’ said, Stephen.
Which is a kind of jerky thing for Stephen to say, though IDK maybe men's friendships are like that. And Stephen did pretty much just do a little spying and informing on Mr. Hinksey as much as he could deny to himself, so maybe it's a fair dig.

My trouble with this book is I don't think Stephen is a very good solo lead character. The point of the series is that Jack and Stephen complement each other and kinda need each other to stay on the rails. This book is mostly concerned with Stephen's goals and challenges and generally speaking he accomplishes everything he desires without any setback. Brigid's fine. Mrs. Oakes is ready to do whatever and is fully capable. Padeen is magic and lucid. The meeting with the sordid local crime-y boys (Socrates and Houmouzios) go fine. There's not even a wrinkle to challenge his careful optimism. None of his shortcomings matter. IDK I just feel like Stephen is too imperfect to fill the frame so much.

(Though I do think what Diana says to him has a sharp edge to it; she says whenever she is thinking intensely of Stephen, he magically shows up – which is what, once every five years?)
posted by fleacircus at 5:16 AM on September 3, 2018

I also could have / should have mentioned the paragraph where Stephen lists all the drugs he's tried or been addicted to.
posted by fleacircus at 5:17 AM on September 3, 2018

This book is mostly concerned with Stephen's goals and challenges and generally speaking he accomplishes everything he desires without any setback.

Yep. He almost loses his fortune at sea but then doesn't thanks to Reade's biscuit-toss sailing. He almost dies from yellow fever but then doesn't. He loses Diana and then doesn't. And the Habachtsthal threat resolves conveniently all by itself; a suicide ex machina. Jack's OK too; his mission a success, his marriage presumably back on its bumpy tracks. The only real dangling thread is Christine, clearly introduced as a potential new love-interest for Stephen.

I wonder if O'Brian was feeling that this might well be the last book in the series? and so he tried to leave it in a tidy and-they-all-lived-happily-ever-after state in case he didn't revisit it.

And maybe that's the rot, really: he still writes beautifully, but his plotting is suffering because the end of all is approaching. The end of the war; the end of Jack's ascension through the ranks -- with the additional challenge of making Jack-as-Commodore or Jack-as-Admiral as interesting and exciting as Jack-as-Commander; the end of his own writing life.

A couple of trailing thoughts:
  • I am suspicious of that suicide-by-throat-slitting and wonder if Blaine was behind it -- via Pratt, maybe? He was certainly suggesting very hard to Stephen that *wink* maybe Habachtsthal could, y'know, *WINK* meet with an accident? And Stephen's all like, yeah, okay, I did off Ledward and Wray, but assassinating a hemi-demi-royal might be a touch too far for me.
  • On nob, topping it the: I fear Reade may be due for some bringing-down-a-peg come-uppance after his two showy bits of seamanship in the Ringle.
  • I have very mixed feelings about Padeen as magic-whisperer-to-the-autistic. He's laid the groundwork, I guess, with multiple descriptions of Padeen being gentle and kind to patients in the sick-bay, but it does have more than a touch of the noble-savage trope to it. (Mystical serf?)

posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 12:25 PM on September 4, 2018

(Oh, huh, and I just noticed that Jo Walton also noted the tied-up ending in her review: "a natural ending point in a way that almost none of the other books are.")
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 1:01 PM on September 4, 2018

Oh I would bet that the Duke of Habachtsthal was murdered, if not by Blaine then by the French. (I remember so little of the later books. There's one thing I remember that hasn't happened again yet and I'm starting to wonder if it's going to.)

Yes O'Brian is running out of history, and probably also away from the romantic ideal Navy too. It's like when the Game of Thrones people ran out of decently plotted book material.

Maybe O'Brian got sad because he looked a couple years in the future and saw his stepson was about to become a staunch UKIP international monarchist.

Oh apparently the Ringle is named after the guy who pointed out the Baltimore clipper to O'Brian.
posted by fleacircus at 5:31 PM on September 4, 2018

Mrs. Williams recovered as a bookie with an entourage


Also, the sly hints that Mrs. Willams and Mrs. Morris's relationship with "their man Briggs" is maybe somewhat more than just master/servant. Their shared "strong, almost obsessive and sometimes singularly specific interest in who went, or wanted to go, to bed with whom"; her worry about his having been beaten by the hands:
‘They have not cut him, have they?’ cried Mrs Williams when they were alone. ‘I trust that was not what you meant when you said embarrassed.’'
‘No, ma’am,’ said Stephen. ‘You will not have a eunuch on your hands.’
‘I am so glad,’ said Mrs Williams.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 9:16 PM on September 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

I do enjoy her little gang of scumbags. I like the idea that they are having little flings, probably they are very 'naughty'. Okay I'm now imagining this too much, thank you.
posted by fleacircus at 12:01 AM on September 8, 2018

Sir Joseph Blaine, misanthrope:
“There is little to be said for the marriage of a sailor; or for any other man, if it come to that. As for the perpetuation of the human race, there are times when it seems to me that the world would be far, far better if the race were to die out. We have made such a sorry piece of work of it — everything for happiness, and misery everywhere.”
That last sentence made such an impression on some previous borrower of the book that they underlined it and marked it with a marginal exclamation point.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 5:01 PM on September 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

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