Monday, July 15, 2013


I'm realizing anew, this read-through of the Aubrey-Maturin novels, how much this series really depends on its fascinating array of guest stars, of which there are two in The Mauritius Command, both of great and sad importance: Captain Corbett, a vicious "flogging captain" whose idea of discipline is severe even by the standards of Nelson's navy, and Lord Clonfert, with whom Jack once served as a youngster but who hasn't done quite as well as Jack since. So, um, uh oh. We see trouble before we even meet the gentlemen in question.

We meet them on Jack and Stephen's latest mission, to take charge of a frigate, hang a commodore's broad pendant on it (thus signifying that Jack is, at long last, to command a squadron!) and head out to the African islands of Mauritius and La Reunion, there to take these potentially highly strategic islands away from the French, who are doing rather a half-assed job of using them as a base for action in the Indian Ocean. Consult a quality atlas if this confuses.

The action in The Mauritius Command highlights better than any we've seen so far just how much military vessels of this time period and since served as vast mobile artillery batteries. How else can ships take on an island? Float around and around in that effortless-looking way and unleash hell with the big guns on anything that looks like it might contain Frenchmen. Boom! And if the French are so bold and impetuous as to send out ships of their own to put a stop to this harassment, well, Commodore Lucky Jack Aubrey knows how to take care of those. This all goes off tolerably well, but for a couple problems, problems intimately tied in with the personalities of the two guest star captains I mentioned above. The trouble with Corbett is pretty straightforward; his crew are tired of getting fifty lashes every time a bit of tar plops down to mar the perfection of Corbett's decks and thus grow mutinous. The trouble with Clonfert....

Ah, Clonfert. Lord Clonfert is one of the most fascinatingly tragic characters O'Brian has written. A son of the Irish aristocracy -- who are not considered Irish by the Irish and are not considered real aristocrats by the rest of their class in the U.K. -- he's already got a chip on his shoulder before Jack shows up on the scene. Once Jack does, Clonfert pretty much loses it (and he's bi-polar to boot, I should mention; his crew are used to his mood swings and tolerate them because sailors "dearly love a Lord", but Stephen and Clonfert's own surgeon spend a lot of the novel shaking their heads over Clonfert's case) and mounts an all-out campaign to prove that he's just as good as his old shipmate, with disastrous results.

Fortunately, even as Jack is dealing with the consequences of having Corbett and Clonfert under his command, he is also working closely with an army colonel that is an infantry version of Jack himself, the capable and vaguely Sharpe-like Colonel Keating. Together they manage to overcome most of the obstacles created by the fractious captains. Most of them.

For of course, no officer, however capable, has any control over what his superiors say or do, or where they show up, just in time to steal his thunder. Feeling outraged on Jack's behalf is, however, all part of the fun of reading these novels.

And fun they most certainly are!

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