Master and Commander

Post Captain ->


Lieutenant Jack Aubrey, RN, and Dr. Stephen Maturin do not hit it off when they meet at a concert in Port Mahon, Minorca, in 1800, but very quickly strike up a friendship after Jack is at long-last promoted to the rank of master and commander and given command of HM Sloop Sophie.

Stephen, stranded penniless after the death of a wealthy patron, agrees to sail with Jack as his surgeon, though he is ridiculously over qualified. The odd couple seem to compliment each other in every respect: Stephen is scientific, intelligent and wise, while Jack is dashing, charismatic and naïve.

Jack quickly gains the nickname of Lucky Jack Aubrey as he brings in prize after prize. He is helped in this by Stephen, who, going asshore occasionally to the estate where he grew up in Catalonia, is able to use his perfect Spanish and French to gather intelligence on enemy shipping; as well as his midshipmen Pullings, Babbington and Mowett, his coxwain Bonden and his stewart Killick.

This makes them all wealthy, but causes friction with Jack’s first lieutenant, Irishman James Dillon, who, coming from a wealthy family, does not understand a poor man’s obsession with money. Dillon comes to respect Jack after the captain leads a shore party against a Spanish battery, but his dislike resurfaces when Jack sends him to capture several Irish rebels travelling on an American ship, unaware that Dillon (and Stephen) took part in the Irish rebellion of 1798.

Dillon allows them to escape, but his agony over his divided loyalties poisons his relationship with his captain, and the two are engaged to fight a duel when the Sophie attacks the Cacafuego, a much more powerful xebec-frigate that has been hunting them. The attack is a success, but Dillon is killed, leaving Jack to puzzle over what Stephen has wondered all along—how two such similar men could hate each other.

Captain Harte, a superior at Minorca who was cuckolded by Jack, gets even by making sure the Navy doesn’t buy the Cacafuego, thus robbing his rival of a lot of money, though not tarnishing the glory of the action, which has made him famous. The Sophie returns to its capers, but is captured by a French squadron commanded by Admiral Linois after Jack leads them on a protracted chase.

Jack and Stephen make friends with their captor, Captain Christy-Pallière, who treats them very kindly. Jack, Stephen and the crew are exchanged for French prisoners and watch the stunning but indecisive Battle of Gibraltar from the sidelines, where the French fail to capture the English base there. Jack is acquitted of wrongdoing in the loss of the Sophie in a routine court-martial, and awaits his next command, a much richer man.


This first episode of the Aubrey/Maturin novels, numbering twenty in all, is also not the best written. O’Brian has since become a lot more confident writer in terms of voice -- here he writes in the stilted prose style of the era, which he later moderates. He also has a tendancy to subvert the drama -- I felt it was a mistake to simply kill Dillon just when his conflict with Jack was about to hit it’s climax. It also seems a mistake to have the Sophie captured so quickly, only to have an utterly boring last chapter where Jack watches the climactic battle from the shore. Still, where this novel works, it works for the reason the entire series works, the amazing relationship between Jack and Stephen, and the peaks behind the austere writing style into the corners of society that a book really from the era of the Napoléonic wars would never let us see. (6/29/04)