HOME SCHOOL BOOK REVIEW
Book: Master and Commander, Aubrey-Maturin Series #1
Author: Patrick O’Brian
Publisher: W. W. Norton and Company Inc., reprinted in 2003
Language level: 5 (obscenity and vulgarity)
Reading level: Adults only!
Rating: 0 stars (NOT RECOMMENDED)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
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O’Brian, Patrick. Master and Commander, Aubrey-Maturin Series #1 (published in 1970 in England by William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd., and in the United States by W. W. Norton and Co. Inc., 500 Fifth Ave., New York City, NY 10110). A homeschooling friend of ours recommended this as good historical fiction. The publisher says, “This, the first in the splendid series of Jack Aubrey novels, establishes the friendship between Captain Aubrey R.N. [Royal Navy], and Stephen Maturin, ship’s surgeon and intelligence agent, against a thrilling backdrop of the Napoleonic wars. Details of life aboard a man-of-war are faultlessly rendered: the conversational idiom of the officers in the ward room and the men on the lower deck, the food, the floggings, the mysteries of the wind and the rigging, and the roar of the broadsides as the great ships close in battle. It is the dawn of the nineteenth century; Britain is at war with Napoleon’s France. When Jack Aubrey, a young lieutenant in Nelson’s navy, is promoted to captain, he inherits command of HMS Sophie, an old, slow brig unlikely to make his fortune. But Captain Aubrey is a brave and gifted seaman, his thirst for adventure and victory immense. With the aid of his friend Stephen Maturin, ship’s surgeon and secret intelligence agent, Aubrey and his crew engage in one thrilling battle after another, their journey culminating in a stunning clash with a mighty Spanish frigate against whose guns and manpower the tiny Sophie is hopelessly outmatched.” Our friend said that her daughter complained of some “bad language,” but when she herself looked at, all she noticed off hand were only a few British euphemisms like “blimey.”
Therefore, knowing my penchant for historical fiction, this friend of mine loaned me this book. It sat on my desk for quite a while. Coincidentally, the day after I finally picked it up and read the introductory author’s note in preparation for beginning the book, my brother-in-law came in for a visit and brought a new movie for us to watch. You guessed it. It was Master and Commander, based on the Patrick O’Brian books, starring Russell Crowe. I usually prefer to read a book before seeing the movie, but in this instance the process was reversed. The movie was not too bad. The book is well written and interesting, although the plot does plod along a bit slowly at times. But if I was a little disappointed in the film’s language, I was even more shocked with the book’s. One might hope against hope than an author writing about sailors might not feel the need to use stereotypical “sailors’ language,” but O’Brian did not resist the urge. There are plenty of instances of cursing (the “d” and “h” words appear frequently) and taking the Lord’s name in vain. But worse, there is much vulgarity tooan obscene British term for the rear end, as in “kiss my ar**”; a slang term for the male sex organ; and even the “f” word. There are references to “buggery,” sodomy, and pederasts. It is emphasized that the hero, Jack Aubrey, enjoyed looking at women’s bosoms.
The Los Angeles Times said, “O’Brian is a novelist, pure and simple, one of the best we have.” If he is the best, we are in BAD trouble. The New York Times said, “The best historical novels ever written.” Of course, this is not surprising coming from a couple of newspapers which probably never met a book with “dirty words” that they did not like. Personally, I think that the historical novels of G. A. Henty are MUCH better. Time Magazine said, “If Jane Austin had written rousing sea yarns, she would have produced something very close to the prose of Patrick O’Brian.” However, I seriously doubt that her prose would have been anywhere near as purple. Master and Commander, set at the dawn of the nineteenth century when England was at war with Napoleon’s France, is the first in a series of twenty Aubrey-Maturin adventure novels, which includes Post Captain, H.M.S. Surprise, The Mauritius Command, and The Far Side of the World. These chronicle the lives of Jack Aubrey, a British naval lieutenant who is advanced to captain of the H.M.S. Sophie, and his good friend and ship’s physician, Dr. Stephen Maturin. Based on what I have read, I could not in good conscience even suggest these books to a teenager under any circumstances. In fact, I would feel uncomfortable suggesting them even to an adult. I suppose that if a mature, discerning individual who was really into the Napoleonic Wars decided to read these books, I could not say that it was wrong, but I myself chose not to finish this one (especially after I came across the “f” wordyet I understand that it is often recommended in high school literature classes!). I figured it wasn’t worth sifting through all the garbage to find anything useful.