Blue at the Mizzen
December 31, 2018 4:30 AM - by Patrick O'Brian - Subscribe

In the final book of the twenty-book series: peace has erupted again, and the Surprises are rich and rudderless: doomed to be blind drunk, poxed, and stripped before Sunday, with dangerous notions that there ain't no martial law and they ain't slaves. However, there is work to be done. The disgusting British Empire's business in Chile is unfinished, now even more complicated by a rift within the juntas and the addition of a freelance meddler, Sir David Lindsay, with his uniform like that of the Royal Navy but with rather more lace, and with his rebuilt Asp and her long brass chasers. A thorny situation to resolve – if the Surprise can ever find a shipyard to heal her mangled shattered foreparts and go from all ahoo to all a-tanto – with no hope of a prize or distinction at the end of it. Is it Jack's implacable fate to be yellowed? Be astonished by the answer within Blue at the Mizzen. Meanwhile, Stephen courts the potto lady.

     You may kill a leopard if she assumes a threatening attitude, thus condemning her beautiful cubs to a hideous and lingering death. You may shoot and skin a number of slightly differing green pigeons and wood-doves with no more of a tremor than Sir Joseph Blaine impaling a butterfly. Yet to the question ‘You would not destroy the whole litter and be shot of them?’ you may reply ‘If you had seen a little leopard, I do not think you would ask.’
• Jo Walton's reread. Here we are at the ends of things and there's people who don't show up to say good bye. The only person I found myself missing this book, though, was Jack.
• I won't be posting 21 so also check out her reading of that and thoughts on the whole series. I like her image of the endless series:
Eventually he’d have yielded to history and advancing technology and taken them into space and had them fight against aliens and study the fauna of new planets, always keeping in mind the career of Lord Cochrane and the actual historical accounts of battles and the progress of natural history. I feel sure of this because he died so young, at a mere eighty-six, a few chapters into this new volume, starting new plotlines, dangling new hares, with not the least idea of ever coming to an end.
• Lissuns were on the case to figure out Jack's share of the prize money from the previous book. They seem to settle on ~£20k, worth two million 2003 USD, and Stephen getting about a tenth of that.
• There's only one listed aubreyism and indeed the last books really tailed off on Jack's mangled witticisms, though I think sometimes O'Brian was teasing the reader to guess Jack's joke. At one point in this book Jack wants to perhaps describe the weather going at it like cats, but two actual cats are sitting there staring him down silently. He realizes the joke wouldn't work, so he gets Poll Skeeping to remove them. (See also, Jenny trying to set up a leopard eating dogs joke?)
The Gunroom archives are what they are. I was surprised to see the list isn't really dead; posts continue to this very day, and here is a conversation they had this month about Jack's relationship with General Aubrey.
• Find tall ships in your area.
• Watch American whalers scour the oceans.
There, my dear, I hear the imperious bell – our life is ruled by bells – that marks the beginning of my rounds, and if I do not go at once I shall have sour disapproving looks – not perhaps from Amos Jacob, but certainly from Poll Skeeping and her mate, from all the patients, straightened in their cots, their sheets smoothed tight, their modest comforts hidden, and their faces washed, and not improbably from the ship’s two cats, who came secretly aboard at Freetown, and who have grown wholly accustomed to the rigour of naval life, disliking the slightest variation – worthy, scrupulous cats, who regularly visit their little trays of ashes, set out in the galley by the equally severe and righteous cook. My dear, farewell for a moment…’
People and things:
- Sarah and Emily are taught the naval version of puss in the corner which apparently has more subtlety. They have neat copy books and continue to code shift but speak no French. Their cooking astounds.
- Brigid is 'almost pretty'. Prettiness ranking goes: Brigid, Sophie, even Sophie's children, bugs.
- Stephen loves how she is engaging with the natural world; worries how she will take all the hunting, shooting, and fishing that he and everyone around her do.
- George is on leave from Lion.
- Shelmerston is plagued by revenue cutters and a lookout tower.
- Stephen is in his head a lot about Christine Wood, which carries the book along for awhile. He has an inner dialogue where he calls himself a lemon and decides he likes women who take long strides putting one foot directly in front of the other. He especially likes how she looks with blood from leech bites running down her legs.
- Jack has a new coxswain, "Latham: a capital seaman, but one who could never fill Bonden’s place in his own, his captain’s or his fellows’ affection."
- Poll Skeeping is around doing well. Maggie Tyler the bosun's wife's sister is somewhere too.
- Jack tells us that he'd done some of that sinister improving or rural land from his lawyer's nephew that he forgot about, that's finally turned a profit. But this was very shabby land and the peasants will keep their farms.
- Killick and Grimble interrupted entertaining two ladies of Funchal to a light collation.
- William Reade is described as having a hook hand, but that understates having no arm from the shoulder doesn't it? I wonder if it's a wound retcon or if I misremember. You know, they say Reade's an excellent young man and the Ringle has fine sailing qualities.
- Horatio Hanson appears for anyone who is interested in the story of a likable, capable, talented noble-blooded son being seasoned before the mast before he can become a right naval protagonist. He manages to survive the book and distinguish himself by defending Jack. Joe Plaice is his sea-daddy, Awkward Davies perhaps his sea-uncle.
- Clarissa Oakes is now Clarissa Andrews, and so not to be considered for Diana's replacement at all.
- Christine Wood gets a sensibly acquired emerald, not a dazzlingly famous odd diamond, but Golcondan all the same.
- The nightjar she shows him does look improbable.
- Jacob is going around being excellent, spying, carrying messages, crossing continents. Maybe he and William Reade could become particular friends.
- Stephen is getting old; his hearing is getting so bad that he doesn't pick up on Sir Joseph Blaine's subtle emphases. In the way that Jack leans on Stephen for help writing letters, Stephen leans on Jacob, and there's a bit where Stephen asks if there's any problem with what he's written and Jacob says there isn't at all, and even if there were, which there isn't, it would be perverse to rewrite the thing over a mere e.g. - random example - fucked up subjunctive.
- Royal Fellows appearing here and there in the Lisbon packet is sort of funny by suggestion of how silly they are, though Stephen does wish they would laugh like men and not eunuchs.
- In other news Henry Wantage shows back up, and he has been held kidnapped, "cut", beat every Sunday, but he's back with a language skill, ready to be mocked by reefers and die of yellow fever.
- A fun time is had in the doldrums with squid-covered decks, frightened cats, navigators reaching a consensus on the ethical way to alter a chronometer. This book has a little of everything, actually, except Stephen being in any danger at any time. There are two ship actions which are described briskly but not perfunctorily. Pretending to be a peaceable merchantman, not disguised.
- megrims
- Maturin does not practice the vicarious asceticism of physicians who don't manage pain
- Jack is shot in the shoulder and stabbed through the thigh by a man with a devilish grin who then gets boarding-axed by Awkward Davies.
- Jack wins a six thousand acre estate but it's full of the ugliest vegetable, and some probably-not-very-pro-colonial tenants.
- Jack gets his last orders of the canon.
      But this satisfactory account was wholly set aside by Harding’s arrival, with the words ‘Sir, we float!’ which were instantly understood by Captain Aubrey and all his officers to mean that Mr Seppings had finished well before his promised time, that the frigate was moored in the fairway, with the sheer-hulks standing by to restore her masts and the bosun on hot coals to get back to rigging her.
      They were words that released an extraordinary amount of energy among the sailors, a decently-restrained grief in Sophie, less decently in her children, and not at all in Brigid, who had to be led from the room. All this distressed the men: it did not interrupt their extremely rapid movement – co-ordinated movement, some going almost by instinct rather than order to their various stations with what speed horses, wheeled vehicles or plain feet could command; some, the best-mounted, to Portsmouth to prepare those ordinarily slow-moving local minds for the laying-in of stores: powder and shot, salt beef, salt pork, beer, biscuit, rum, the necessary water, some linear miles of ropes and cordage and square miles of sailcloth; carpenter’s stores, bosun’s stores – all those innumerable objects that even a modest man-of-war required for a voyage of enormous length: even the common rhubarb purgative amounted to seven casks.
posted by fleacircus (9 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This one's on the shelf at my local library; but until I pick it up,

William Reade is described as having a hook hand, but that understates having no arm from the shoulder doesn't it? I wonder if it's a wound retcon or if I misremember.

You're remembering right; Wikipedia's recurring characters page says that "in The Nutmeg of Consolation, he loses his entire arm due to injuries sustained in battle."

His hook is mentioned several times in the previous book too; at one point he's using it to cling to the rigging of the Ringle. Maybe O'Brian wanted to keep Reade around as a protégé for Jack and quietly diminished his amputation to make it less disqualifying for advancement in the service?
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 9:53 PM on December 31, 2018

Yes I was wondering if he thought it was too disqualifying, or just didn't want to spend time on it. He probably does have a hook, maybe the characters are just being polite.
posted by fleacircus at 12:18 AM on January 1, 2019

I'm a few tens of pages in and a little confused by the timeline. Is O'Brian retconning, or at least substantially expanding, the rather abrupt ending (back in port / prize is legal / handholding / lone figure waving, waving) of the previous book? Or does the Surprise limping back into the mole fall after the waving, waving departure?

The lengthy description of Waterloo feels like a substantial nod towards Victor Hugo.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 11:04 AM on January 7, 2019

There's no retconning IIRC. I think the Surprise is still limping from the long fight with the xebec at the start of this book because repairs are hard to come by in peacetime. Or it is going to tell you what happened soon in retrospect.
posted by fleacircus at 8:54 PM on January 7, 2019

Having re-read: it's muddled. Bits of it seem to overlap, bits don't. The Surprise leaves Gibraltar with the prize money, suffers a collision that almost completely disables her, limps back into the mole; the hand-holding from the last book is amplified into a full-on wearing-the-horns affair (of which Stephen is fully aware but a lot more accepting and less spouse-breachey disapproving than before); the Admiral accelerates their repairs; the Surprise leaves and again a lone figure -- Isabel, of course -- wave, waving them off. It does feel strongly like O'Brian wasn't terribly happy with having to end the last book in a rush and went back for another crack at it.

That said, though: for an unplanned ending, this isn't half bad. Jack finally gets his blue pennant; Stephen's proposal at least stands good hopes of being eventually accepted.

The only person I found myself missing this book, though, was Jack.

Yes, it's much more of a Stephen book; we spend a lot of it inside Stephen's head. Jack's present but mostly in a paint-by-numbers kind of way: generally dashing, paternal to his crew, injured in action but never mind he's okay.

He does get two good moments though: being frank to the Duke of Clarence, and being firm with the Chileans. He's become better at navigating politically-fraught situations, even though in the Clarence affair Stephen has left him at a disadvantage by not telling him the full story.

I don't think I buy into Jo Walton's fantasy of it continuing forever. Even had O'Brian kept going, I think there's not much story left. The war's over; Jack's an admiral; there's only so much more mileage left in the surveying and/or South American wheel-spinning. Stephen and Jack are both aging. Stephen in this book contemplates leaving his life at sea to settle down on land with Christine; something he never did for Diana. My suspicion is that 21 or 22 would have been the swan-song that brought the series to a formal closure.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 5:37 PM on January 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

Yeah I agree that Stephen is getting wrapped up with a bow by the end of this. Even with age aside, the main thing that drives this series is the friendship between Aubrey and Maturin and that feels kind of settled, cordoned off, comfortable but maybe even a little obsolete..
posted by fleacircus at 8:54 PM on January 13, 2019

Stephen in this book contemplates leaving his life at sea to settle down on land

...although my headcanon is really that he buys the Ringle and he and Christine live the rest of their days botanizing around the world in scandalously unmarried bliss. The itinerant Fellows of the Royal Society, in their repurposed Lisbon Packet, don't really serve any purpose to the plot here; but do provide an example of what Stephen could be doing post-war and post-Jack.

And Jack's exemplar is probably Lord Keith; the little aside of the the Keiths being swindled by their estate manager felt very much like an echo of Jack's many problems on land. Jack maybe has one more fighting action left in him before he ages into a more managerial mode of command? There's a striking moment late in the book, when Stephen is carefully leading him through writing his letter to the Chileans, where Jack's advancing age suddenly becomes apparent to Stephen:
With infinite concern he had been seeing Jack age before his eyes; it was not that he grew pale — he could not have been much paler — but all the living joy had drained out of his face; and now it was that of the Jack Aubrey of seventy or even more.
Not that this is saying that Jack is seventy; I don't think O'Brian's ever been precise about their ages, and the extra years he squeezes into the war makes it slippery anyway. But it's very clear from these last few books: they're getting old.

I won't be posting 21

I'm glad about that; I found it very frustrating, both because it's so much not a book yet but also because his handwriting on the manuscript pages is so hard to decipher.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 9:23 AM on January 24, 2019

Oh, and on slippery ages: Stephen has no idea how old Brigid is.
‘You have spoken of your daughter. How old is she?’
‘I am ashamed to say I cannot tell. Quite young, sure: nowhere near puberty.’
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 1:20 PM on January 28, 2019

Re: Stephen's comment on Jack's age, to be fair Stephen has been visualizing and calling Jack old and worn out since, like, Post Captain.
posted by fleacircus at 9:06 PM on January 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

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