- Book reviewer
- 19th century wars, Book reviews, Royal Navy, Biographies
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2006 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Jack Aubrey Commands – An Historical Companion to the Naval Work of Patrick O’Brian
By Brian Lavery
Patrick O’Brian’s Navy – The Illustrated Companion to Jack Aubrey’s World
Richard O’Neill (ed.)
A Sea of Words – A Lexicon and Companion for Patrick O’Brian’s Seafaring Tales
By Dean King Henry Holt
(Publisher details appear at the bottom of the page)
Reviewed by Bob Nicholls
Hands up those of us who have not read any of the Jack Aubrey books. Not a veritable forest I’ll be bound. The same goes, I imagine, for those who haven’t seen Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World.
If, like me, you raced through the majority of the late Patrick O’Brian’s (he died six years ago at the age of 85) twenty novels that comprise the ‘Aubreyiad’, you relied on the device of having Stephen Maturin’s ignorance of the ways of the sea and nautical and contemporary terminology being explained by our hero, and were therefore able to concentrate on the twists and turns of the plot.
Sooner or later though we suddenly realised that we want to know more, for, as Dean King says in A Sea of Words, ‘Part of the great beauty of these tales is that they spark the thirst for knowledge: suddenly an era that initially seemed very remote – that of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars – becomes very immediate. I found myself wanting to know more.’
The three books above go, each in its individual manner, a great deal of the way to answering all the questions even the most picky of us might have.
In their publishing order A Sea of Words contains more than 8000 words that the compilers assess, with every justification, could use defining for modern use. These include grass-comber, a delightful word to describe a farm-labourer; soft tack for bread (as opposed to hard tack) and trocar, which is a surgical instrument used for drawing liquid from a body. These take their place inside the 400-odd pages of lexicon, to produce an essential vade mecum for the Aubrey series.
The other two volumes are profusely illustrated detailed descriptions of all aspects of the Royal Navy during the period. Given the variety and quantity of illustrations which survive, it is remarkable that the duplication is as scarce as it is.
Subjects covered include accounts of Life at Sea, the World that Jack Knew, the ships used, with building, construction, layout and sailing techniques. Personnel structures, with studies of officers and the lower deck, give a comprehensive view of these, and many other, topics.
The Royal Navy in action comes in for thorough treatment and battle tactics as well. Sailing a warship of the period as well as fighting it brings to life what it was like.
Which book to recommend?
Brain Lavery’s book is, in many ways, a continuation of his Nelson’s Navy, first published to critical acclaim in 1989. (According to Peter Weir, Director of Master and Commander, this work was the source and inspiration for the making of the film). He is the internationally acknowledged authority on the subject.
On the other hand, the contributors to Jack Aubrey Commands are also well-known authors in their own fields of early 19th century naval history. If push came to shove I would recommend this study. But only by a whisker.
There is an alternative. A search in Amazon will turn up ‘as new’ copies of each (and A Sea of Words too) at much reduced prices. Why not go for broke and buy all three? And the DVD for around US$15.00 while you’re about it.
Jack Aubrey Commands
London, Conway Maritime Press 2003,
182 pages; rrp $29.95 Capricorn Press
Patrick O’Brian’s Navy
London, Salamander Books 2003, 50 pages; rrp $24.95
A Sea of Words
New York (third edition) 2001, 400+ pages, rrp $US 16.00.