Monday, February 27, 2012

The Ionian Mission

Book eight in the Aubrey/Maturin series, and it was pure bliss. It was like Christmas, my birthday, and Halloween all rolled into one. I absolutely adore these novels with an unrestrained passion. If you haven’t read them yet, I have to ask: WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?! Even if historical fiction isn’t your thing, give Master and Commander a chance. However, I would recommend reading one of the first three books. You certainly don’t want to start with Ionian Mission, because it is well and truly a book for the fans. I forget which 17th century playwright said this, but it rings true, “What the devil does the plot signify, except to bring in fine things?” O’Brian stretched the years between 1812 and 1815 in the way that M.A.S.H stretched the Korean War, so while Ionian Mission has a function within the historical background to play, mostly it’s just incredible good fun.

However, my first prediction from the last book—that both Jack’s and Stephen’s marriages were going to collapse—appears to be baseless, unless merely postponed.

Marriage was once represented as a field of battle rather than a bed of roses, and perhaps there are some who may still support this view; but just as Dr Maturin had made a far more unsuitable match than most, so he set about dealing with the situation in a far more compendious, peaceable and efficacious way than the great majority of husbands.

Indeed, Stephen and his beautiful, fashionable, flighty wife Diana take the rather modern step of living apart yet maintaining an amicable and loving marriage. Their marriage is fittingly portrayed for such wonderful characters, giving glimpses of sentimentality (Diana befriending Stephen’s bachelor-pad landlady and bringing him darned socks from home), tragedy (Diana refusing to marry Stephen in a Catholic ceremony, he being Catholic and she not), practicality, and sweetness (when Diana orders a magnificent, inventive wooden case for Stephen’s upcoming sea voyage which costs money she doesn’t have). Stephen is still touchingly devoted to Diana, worrying that she might be pregnant and wondering if he can set aside his own lack of desire for children because having them would make Diana happy. Jack’s marriage is a similar combination of extremes.

In the figurative sense, his marriage was a good deal happier than he deserved (he was neither a sure provider nor quite strictly monogamous[1]) and although he was not ideally happy, although he might secretly wish for a companion with more sense of a man’s carnal nature and somewhat less possessive, he was profoundly attached to Sophie.

However, unlike the previous novel, there is far less of the women in this book. Instead, it has very much to do with an area of naval archaeology often neglected, and central to the blockade setting (I was able to nod along with much of it, having read books on Nelson’s navy for the first time in the last few months). In that sense, Jack’s men are as much the central characters as the two protagonists, from bubbly, promiscuous Babbington to lyric Mowett to dependable, unerring Pullings.

A new character, a grave Presbyterian linguist specialist in Greek and Turkish, Professor Graham, interrogates the service and much of the book, in one way or another, is given up to that. Form must be adhered to; when Stephen almost makes the ancient Worcester lose the tide, he receives a dressing down from all the officers, even though in private they are happy to see him[2]. It is very sweet[3] indeed that Jack cannot bear to stay angry at Stephen for long. Impressment is critiqued, one of the Navy’s worst excesses, and Stephen (as medical practitioner) in his small way saves a few deserving landsmen from a miserable voyage at sea. Jack feels the loneliness of command more than ever in this book, especially when Stephen has to leave Worcester on a diplomatic mission. Delicacy and diplomacy versus spontaneity and bloodshed are explored a great deal in this book; Admiral Harte, Jack’s nemesis, gives him the delicate task of deciding which Turkish pasha to back with naval firepower against the French, which makes the last quarter of the book fly by, though in honesty it’s very different than anything we’ve read in the series before. Jack is already sore at that point because he resisted confrontation against the French because of his orders.

But his youthful days are not completely behind him, as a near-brush with infidelity in Port Mahon is interrupted only by Stephen’s inept (but extremely comic) intervention. In fact, enough time is spent at leisure to see both Jack and Stephen’s most petty moments of minor sins; in point of fact, the making of their humanities. Though Jack’s seamanship may, on the whole, appear a bit uncanny, and Stephen’s ability to do almost anything except sail perhaps difficult to believe, the little tics and defects in their characters make them even more the literary men I love so very much.

Worcester is on its way to the Mediterranean to join in the blockade of Toulon, and Jack’s excellent seamanship tests the ship’s rigging as well as the timings of its crew, who delight in gun exercises firing non-regulation powder that Jack got cheap from a fireworks factory! The gunner’s wife, the only woman aboard and a fairly routine one at that, had received a number of propositions—propositions that she rejected firmly but without surprise or rancor, being used to men-of-war. The outgoing voyage also sees Jack hamstrung with a bevy of parsons/schoolmasters, to be delivered to other ships once they reach the blockade, among them the aforementioned Professor Graham and Mr Martin, a fellow ornithologist. An amazing scene occurs when a flock of exhausted quails start falling defenceless onto the deck of Worcester during the Sunday service, and Mr Martin takes great pains to save them from being devoured, Stephen and the other non-Anglicans helping while the sermon is said. There is also a rhinoceros aboard a ship (which seems dangerous to me!). Jack endeavours in extreme earnestness to make Stephen understand about “the weather-gage,” something I confess I have barely got the hang of myself, and have to resort to diagrams to even attempt to fathom.

Two fine things in this book make more of an impression than any other: the Admiral’s old pug dog, who climbs up into Stephen’s lap and bites Jack’s leg, and the rehearsal of the Messiah aboard ship. You can imagine me grinning ear to ear as I read these parts. (If I ever have time to draw, I’m going to depict these two scenes.)

I realize more and more that the film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World not only combined the elements of the two books in the title, but bits and pieces from almost every other novel I’ve read so far, including this one; a grand “best of” compilation.

I do not know what awaits us in Treason’s Harbor, but I was shocked to find the ending to Ionian Mission an utter cliffhanger.

[1] See the first book for his youthful philandering and The Surgeon’s Mate for his matrimonial slip-up.

[2] There’s a wonderful scene when the wardroom welcomes him aboard with a song composed by Mowett and Stephen’s favorite dish, wild truffles. Reading it makes me feel at home.

[3] I mean this in a completely platonic way. I maintain that their relationship is absolutely platonic, the way Watson’s and Sherlock’s is.

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