HMS Surprise is the third in Patrick O’Brian’s popular and well regarded series of Aubrey/Maturin novels. The series is centered around the lives of Royal Navy captain Jack Aubrey and his close friend naval surgeon and intelligence operative Dr. Stephen Maturin during the Napoleonic War era. HMS Surprise was the first book in the series I had read and I found the opening a little jarring. It wasn’t that it wasn’t well written it was more a matter of its style. O’Brian was well known for his attention to period detail and period language. This attention to language extends to the the way in which the books are written and in fact, the narrator’s voice is strongly reminiscent of that time; there is something decidedly old-fashioned about O’Brian’s prose. Also jarring was the rather domestic bent of the early chapters. The novel opens with a somewhat technical meeting of elements of the British Admiralty and goes on to relate Aubrey’s efforts to get out of debt and marry his sweetheart as well as Maturin’s thoughts about the woman he is in love with.
As I said, that early part of the book was well written but it wasn’t quite what I was expecting, far less action-oriented. Nonetheless I continued. The tone changes somewhat when Aubrey takes command of a sailing frigate — the eponymous HMS Surprise. At this point the narrative becomes immersed in the compressed world of a ship at sea. Aubrey has orders to transport a British envoy to Asia and the voyage that results that is at the heart of the book. It is a long and sometimes difficult trip, one that O’Brian uses to touch on any number of aspects of early 19th Century life — O’Brian’s extreme erudition concerning his subject matter is clear and his portrayal of that time is completely convincing. HMS Surprise isn’t just a naval or adventure novel but something far more expansive; it is a book that takes in a whole world, a (stunning) array of places and topics — from rigging and gunnery to sloths to life in the streets of Bombay to overland trade between Europe and Asia.
The reader of course sees much of this through the eyes of Aubrey and Maturin and the characters are very well drawn. Characterization runs through the narrative, in subtle and more obvious ways. By the latter part of the book, I felt as if I knew them as I had begun to know the world they lived in. Something which is reflected in the novel when Aubrey talks to the hands just before they engage the French. He addresses them like old friends and by this time, they are, having been together for thousands of miles. In a similar way, I felt as if I’d come to know those characters having experienced that same journey through the page.
Above all, the book was beautifully written. The language is often poetic and beyond the fine details, it is O’Brian’s sublime prose that brings the world of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin alive. From a simple description of a street at night:
“nothing but a row of doorways stretching on for ever under the moon, quite unearthly, strange, inhuman, deserted, and inimical.”
To how routine on Surprise:
“obliterated both the beginning of the voyage and its end, it obliterated even time, so that it seemed normal to all hands that they should travel endlessly over this infinite and wholly empty sea, watching the sun diminish and the moon increase.”
Some critics have likened O’Brian to a Homer of the sea and while such a statement may seem outlandish, O’Brian’s descriptions of the battle between Surprise and French ship-of-the-line Marengo would be at right at home in the Iliad. One scene describes in perfect clarity the moment before Marengo fires on Surprise, contrasting that last instant of normalcy with what happens after:
“The crash of the broadside, and of the bow-gun, and of the twenty shot hitting her, come in one breath — an extreme violence of noise. He saw the wheel disintegrate…and forward there was screaming.”
There is great energy to O’Brian’s prose and it conveys action especially well, putting across the hurry, the confusion, of the battle:
“The third broadside merged into the fourth: the firing was continuous now, and Stourton and the midshipmen ran up and down the line, pointing, heaving, translating their captain’s hoarse barks into directed fire — a tempest of chain.”
And when Surprise shows her teeth against the Marengo it’s hard not to get caught up in the elation of the men:
“…but at this range not a shot flew wide. The powder-boys ran, the cartridges came up in a racing stream, the gun-crews cheered like maniacs, stripped to the waist, pouring with sweat, taking their sweet revenge…”
Ultimately I found HMS Surprise an excellent introduction to the Aubrey/Maturin series. There ware references to the two previous novels but they were adequately explained and don’t get in the way of narrative. Then novel is a rich mix of historical color, nautical detail, and clear, interesting characterization. By the time I reached the final page, the unease I felt at the beginning of the book was long forgotten — a fantastic read.