The Yellow Admiral
by Patrick O'Brian
A critic's endorsement on the cover of this book compares Jack Aubrey and
Stephen Maturin, heroes of this long series of historical novels, to Holmes
and Watson. What devoted readers of this series will find astonishing is not
the aptness of the comparison, nor yet its flattery of O'Brian's characters,
but frankly the paleness of Holmes and Watson overagainst Aubrey and
Sherlock Holmes is a fascinating character and no mistake; but he was never portrayed
in anything like the psychological detail of Jack Aubrey. Watson, on his
part, is a mere cypher who tags along and asks the great detective opportune
questions; Maturin, meanwhile, is so far from being a sidekick that at times
he seems to be the central protagonist of the series - a figure of immense
complexity, whose many parts are hard to describe or even summarize without
the use of several commas and one or two semicolons.
Classic whodunits they may be, but the omnibus volume of Sherlock Holmes
adventures is still in the same edition as the one I sold at a garage sale
in 1987; it resides, moreover, on the clearance table at Barnes & Noble.
Meanwhile the Aubrey-Maturin adventures, which God preserve from an omnibus
edition, have been shouted up as companions to Jane Austen's novels: a
brilliant, colorful, thrilling, moving portrait of the early 1800s that has
already taken its place among modern literary masterworks.
Most amazing of all, this 18th book in the series sustains the same
high-quality storytelling, historical detail, nuances of character, and
compulsively readable adventure as all its predecessors - perhaps surpasses
them. Conan Doyle had his occasional off-days; but when has Patrick O'Brian
ever missed his stays? Conan Doyle so tired of Holmes that he killed his
hero off; only death prevented O'Brian from completing a 21st Aubrey-Maturin
adventure. Some comparison!
All right, I've just written four paragraphs in response to a single
sentence-fragment on the front cover of this book. So I'll have to be brief
in explaining why I think you might enjoy The Yellow Admiral. As Jack
Aubrey moves up the Royal Navy's list of post-captains, only death or
disgrace can prevent him, in the course of time, from becoming an Admiral.
It is simply a matter of seniority. However, a senior captain in bad odor
with the government - for example, because of political stands he has taken
as a Member of Parliament - runs the risk of being "yellowed." Which is to
say, he could be formally promoted as an Admiral, but not assigned a command
- a disgrace tantamount to being cashiered out of the service.
Jack Aubrey now faces this unpleasant prospect, thanks to the probability
that the war will end soon and put most of the navy out of work, to say
nothing of the political enemies Jack has made both in Parliament and in the
Admiralty. One of his deadliest enemies is Admiral Lord Stanraer, who
commands the blockade of Brest, in which Jack serves. Under the advice of
naval intelligence head Sir Joseph Blaine, Stephen Maturin urges his friend
to consider an alternative that may save his reputation and his career.
Reluctantly, Jack agrees to accept a temporary suspension from the Royal
Navy and the command of a hydrographic survey ship off the coast of Chile.
This, in turn, will give Stephen an opportunity to lend covert support to
Chile's struggle for independence from Spain.
Between these developments, Jack and Stephen spend a good deal of time on land. This
gives Jack an opportunity to inform Stephen (and us) of how the partitioning
and enclosing of the common lands in the early 19th century radically
changed the British way of life. It enables us to witness a crisis in Jack's
marriage, an idyllic moment in Stephen's family life (though with a
foreshadowing of tragedy to come), a brilliant spy caper that may have you
cheering aloud, and a spectacular, bare-fisted boxing match that has
unexpectedly wide-ranging consequences.
The other half of the story takes place on the water, where Jack bears up
nobly under the vicious enmity of his commanding officer; Stephen carries
out cutting-edge (for his time) medical maneuvers, as well as a crucial,
intelligence-related rendezvous; and Jack's ship Bellona plays a decisive
(but historically unsung) role in a shoot-out with French blockade-runners.
Alas, Napoleon's surrender forces Jack to commit to an entirely different
lifestyle afloat - sailing without midshipmen, marines, or the Articles of
War - for the first time in some twenty years. But take heart; in the final
pages news of Napoleon's escape from Elba reaches Jack and Stephen in the
middle of a family pleasure cruise, promising at least one more moment of
wartime glory in Book 19, The Hundred Days.
Recommended Age: 14+
If you would like to contact Robbie, you may do so here.