‘I might say something about pearls before swine—the pearls being these priceless eggs, if you follow me—were I to attempt a repartee in the same order of magnitude.’
‘I did not fag all the way up here to be insulted about my wit, which, I may tell you, is more generally appreciated in the service than you may suppose,’ said Jack.
As you know if you’ve read me, I read a Patrick O’Brian book in the Master and Commander series every year. Just one, every year. 2009 was the fifth book, Desolation Island. The reason I measure out my exposure to these books is that I am convinced they are the best historical fiction ever written, and every time I read one of the books it makes me immeasurably happy and intellectually fulfilled. Even though the last book, The Mauritius Command, was incrementally lesser than its predecessors (particularly HMS Surprise, my favorite of the ones I’ve read so far) Desolation Island is certainly back up in the stratosphere. So good—I have no words.
Well, me being me, I actually do. Here’s the review .
Like the two previous books, Desolation Island starts on land with Captain Jack Aubrey, his wife Sophie and their three children, her mother Mrs Williams, Dr Stephen Maturin, Barret Bonden (ship’s coxswain), and Preserved Killick (steward)—one big happy family in Ashgrove Cottage. O’Brian has always written Sophie extremely well, and though she gets comparatively little disclosure in this book, O’Brian conveys Sophie’s complex feelings toward her husband (who she loves deeply, who she has to govern to a certain extent on land, and who she worries about while he is at sea), and toward one of her best friends, Stephen. Despite their domestic bliss, Jack’s get-rich-quick schemes are dubious and almost draw him into a duel. Meanwhile, Mrs Williams must never be forgotten:
Most of the servants in Ashgrove Cottage were sailors, partly because of the extreme difficulty of inducing maids to stay within reach of Mrs Williams’ tongue; upon seamen, however, long inured to the admonition of the bosun and his mates, its lash fell unregarded; and in any case its virulence was much diminished, since they were men, and since in fact they kept the place as trim as a royal yacht.
There is an outrageous aside where Killick buys a wife before we return to Stephen’s secrets. (‘But if you had heard him speak of wombats—oh, just in passing, and not with any sense of ill-usage—it would have brought tears to your eyes. Oh, Jack, he is so very low.’)
The reason Stephen is so low continues to be Diana Villiers, Sophie’s cousin and a selfish, high-flying woman Stephen has loved for the better part of three novels. She has continuously rejected him, (In a brief flare of rebellion, anger, and frustration he thought of his enormous expense of spirit these last few weeks, of the mounting hope that he had indulged and fostered in spite of his judgement and their frequently violent disagreements; but the flame died, leaving not so much an active sorrow as a black and wordless desolation) but this book proves he is still desperately in love. Her spectre is invoked when Stephen is summoned on his avocation: spying. It seems Diana has been caught up in spying for the Americans and has just avoided being arrested by the Bow Street Runners. She is implicated with a Mrs Wogan, an American, who is being transported for her undercover crimes. According to Stephen’s superior, Mrs Wogan ‘writes like a cat, with every third word underlined, and cannot spell. Speaks excellent French, however, and sits a horse to admiration: no other education that can be detected.’ Due to his obsession over Diana, Stephen appears to be losing his mojo as an intelligence agent, and his superiors want him to reassert his usefulness by spying on Mrs Wogan as she is transported to the colonies—on the Leopard, a ship given to Jack to sail to New South Wales. The book wickedly tempts us with a portrait of William Bligh and never delivers!
Aboard ship, Jack is faced with a not very enjoyable task of transporting convicts (among them three women including Mrs Wogan), insubordination, and a possible Jonah. Stephen likewise must question if his heart is in spying when he starts to fall for Mrs Wogan, who physically resembles Diana, and equally he feels kinship for Michael Herapath, the American who dotes on Mrs Wogan the way Stephen dotes on Diana. Stephen, despite his misgivings, sees himself as a much superior spy: Not the slightest flicker of awareness. Either the woman was the most consummate actress or she had never heard his name. Diana, he reflected bitterly, might not have been so proud of mentioning it. SPOILERS: I spent the whole book in mortal terror that Wogan and Herapath were much more artful than they seemed, and she was going to poison Stephen or betray him or something. I was wrong! /SPOILERS
Midway through the passage, the convicts and then the crew are afflicted with gaol-fever (no idea what kind of contagious virus this would now be called) which thins out the crew and makes every man precious. Jack’s lieutenant, Grant, proves a thorn in his side, though Jack (in letters to Sophie) and Stephen (in his cipher journal) are quick to admit he has his good points : maintaining his mother and two unmarried sisters on his pay, his strong seamanship and chastity. Though “Lucky” Jack Aubrey never backs down from a fight, he does not seek out the Dutch ship Waakzaamheid. Instead, the mighty ship pursues and nearly destroys the Leopard in some of the most exciting sea battles yet described in the series. From them Jack nearly does not return alive, though the wonderful thing about Jack Aubrey is his humanity. While contemplating the Dutch captain dressed in black, ‘I wonder,’ thought Jack, ‘whether it is just an odd chance, or whether we killed some relative of his? His boy, perhaps, dear God forbid.’ He is gracious and compassionate to his enemy: [destruction of the Waakzaamheid] filled him with a kind of sorrow, a strange abiding grief.
Jack has a virtuoso role to play in this book, as the rest of the story shows him commanding his ship out of sea-fields of icebergs (some of the most startling imagery the books have yet produced), near-mutiny, Desolation Island, a confrontation with an American whaler, and ultimately he keeps his conviction, his cool head, his faith in Stephen, his love for Sophie, and his mastery of the sea.
Despite this, I found the book spending a lot more time in Stephen’s head than it did Jack’s, which is somewhat unusual as both characters have been given equal attention in the past. I have no complaints as I love Stephen deeply and would suffer no hesitancy if he ever asked me to marry him! Anyone who has ever loved without that love being returned will recognize themselves in Stephen, and my heart aches for him through most of the book. His frustration with the walls of falseness he has to put up in order to pursue his espionage is combated by his opium habit. Despite all this cynicism, the book ended on a much more romantic, compassionate, humane, and even sentimental note that I expected; it was really a pleasant surprise and a joy to behold.
I think resolution to Stephen’s Diana problem will at last be achieved in the next book.