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The Letter of Marque by Patrick O'Brian

The Letter of Marque (1988)

by Patrick O'Brian

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Aubrey-Maturin (12)

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I'm returning to this series after a very long break, and I'm glad that I did. It's possible, after all, to read books wrong, which can end up spoiling the book for reasons that are nothing to do with the book itself. In the case of the Aubrey/Maturin series, the uniformity of their excellence in terms of writing, their largely character-driven, relatively shapeless novelistic plotting compared poorly, I thought, to the more intricate, complex and subtle mechanisms of Dorothy Dunnett. Of course, that's the wrong approach. They don't suffer in comparison at all. They are completely different animals. To read them for the thrill of clever plot twists that have been deviously woven into eight massive volumes is both pointless and a bit stupid, and I'm glad now that I've achieved this perspective, because the pleasures of O'Brian's novels are in some ways richer than Dunnett's, for all that Dunnett will always edge out O'Brian as one of my favourite writers.

Jack Aubrey is in a sorry state at the start of The Letter Of Marque, struck off the naval lists after a trumped-up charge, he is morose, short-tempered and depressed. Stephen Maturin has purchased The Surprise, however, and with the titular letter and a crew half of old naval hands and half of doughty pirates, they set out to restore Jack's fortunes.

The aforementioned uniformity of excellence of these novels tends to render each succeeding novel susceptible to accusations of sameness. Certainly there is progression. Each book is a chapter in the ongoing history of our heroes' friendship and careers. They age and change in circumstances and temperament. There are voyages, there are battles, there are some exchanges of intelligence, observations of flora and fauna, and occasional visits to hearth and home and family, where Jack can blunder cheerfully and Stephen can mope for his estranged wife. The story develops, the characters grow, the world opens up around them, a world so fully and perfectly realised that we come to understand that what we mistook for sameness is, in fact, recognition and comfort and familiarity. Each book gives exactly what it sets out to give, and so long as we don't mistake it for something it's not, we can fully enjoy them in all their warmth and generosity. For all love. ( )
1 vote Nigel_Quinlan | Oct 21, 2015 |
In which Aubrey and Maturin take command of the HMS Surprise, newly become a privateer. With letters of marque courtesy of Blaine, they assemble a crew and prepare for a mission to the South Americas. First, however, there remains work closer to home: the continued frustrations created by French Intelligence within the Admiralty, and opportunities for engaging the French in the Mediterranean. An abiding question: whether Aubrey's misfortunes will dilute his leadership now he is without the Royal Navy tradition.


Events close in Summer 1913? These are days between stations: still intending for South America on intelligence mission, but first seek prizes in South Atlantic and Mediterranean, and then diverted to Riga and Sweden.

Militarily: A complete sweep and return to fortune. Surprise first takes Merlin, consort to Spartan, thus learning of latter's plans against Azul. "Lord Nelson's Bridge" manoeuvre wins both Azul and Spartan, subsequently coaxing Spartan's prizes out of harbour with Merlin pretending to be consort still. Later, a cutting out of Diane and two French gunboats plus two merchantmen from St Martin's (an action which seems based in historical events). Again O'Brian plays with names: here, the Diane foreshadowing events later with Villiers.

Politically: Duhamel dies escaping to Canada; Blaine is again head of Naval Intelligence, though Wray & Ledward avoid capture and "someone high up in Admiralty" remains sympathetic. Schuyler: "However, papers found at Wray’s house implicate him in the stock scandal so that it is now obvious to all that Jack was set up." Stephen captures Paul Ségora aka Red Admiral during the Diane expedition, but Ségora later escapes disguised as woman.

Domestically: situations for both Jack and Stephen change dramatically.
● Stephen inherits his godfather's considerable fortune, and purchases Surprise to ensure he and Jack may continue their South America venture; Padeen's addiction after injury in gunnery practise, leading to Stephen's unwitting weaning from laudanum; and, reconciled with Diana in Sweden, though at considerable injury. Briefly stranded on Old Scratch.
● The prizes and attendant actions propagate a sea change for Jack, in money, legal problems, naval career. Initially offered a "pardon" but is offended at the underhanded suggestion by Soames at a party of Blaine's; and, Gen Aubrey is found dead in a ditch, with Jack inheriting Woolcombe and put up for county seat by Cousin Edward. Jack promises to support Navy in Parliament and "be mild", in exchange for reinstatement.


Together with Reverse of the Medal, marks a watershed in Jack & Stephen's joint adventures. Conceivably the next book is actually the 3rd in this mini-series, with the South America mission finally taking center stage. ( )
  elenchus | Aug 25, 2015 |
Finally, Aubrey and Maturin have a stretch of (almost) unmitigated good luck. ( )
  sben | Feb 11, 2014 |
In the last volume of the wonderful Maturin/Aubrey series, Jack had been court-martialed for what appeared to be his complicity in a stock market fraud. Being a naïve landlubber, he had no idea of what he was being fraudulently involved in, thought he was just helping someone out and making a killing in the meantime. He was kicked out of the navy and removed from the post-captain’s list, eliminating all his accumulated seniority. Stephen, having come into a considerable fortune, purchased The Surprise, Jack’s old ship, and bought a letter of marque so Jack could operate as a legal privateer.

Having been sent on a special mission (remember that he is still an English secret agent), Stephen obtained a special exemption for the men of The Surprise to prevent them from being pressed into service should they be stopped by an English naval vessel. O'Brian really has a delightful way of writing. Here's another example of that wry humor that pervades his books. Russell is declaiming how all Frenchmen are worthless and uses as examples some French proverbial expressions, ". . .when the French wish to describe anything mighty foul they say, 'sal come un peigne', which gives you a pretty idea of their personal cleanliness. When they have other things to occupy their mind they say they have other cats to whip: a most inhuman thing to do [at least we beat dead horses] And when they are going to put a ship about, the order is 'a- Diue-va', or 'we must chance it and trust to God', which gives you some notion of their seamanship." One can only guess about O'Brian's early relationship with publishers, but from numerous comments made by a variety of characters, I suspect it was not a happy one: "You were telling me about publishers," asks Stephen of Mowett. “ ‘Yes , sir: I was about to say they were the most hellish procrastinators--' " 'Oh, how dreadful,' cried Fanny. 'Do they go to special houses, or do they . . .' " 'He means they delay,' said Babbington." O'Brian was a big fan of opium apparently, for Maturin is constantly singing its praises as a cure for all sorts of ills, and when queried about its ostensible addictive qualities, he replied in this book: "The objections come only from a few unhappy beings, Jansenists for the most part, who also condemn wine, agreeable food, music and the company of women: they even call out against coffee, for all love! Their objections are valid solely in the case of a few poor souls with feeble willpower, who would just as easily become the victims of intoxicating liquors, and who are practically moral imbeciles, often addicted to other forms of depravity; otherwise it is no more injurious than smoking tobacco." One learns all sorts of interesting things. Jack returns to his ship only to discover the word Seth written on the side.

The Sethians were a Gnostic Christian group who believed that Cain and Abel were brought into the world by angels, and that Seth, who was born after Abel’s murder, was the Almighty’s direct and pure creation. Anyway, there were pockets of Sethians scattered throughout England and, naturally, there were two schools of Sethians, the old that wrote the S backwards, and the new that wrote it in the conventional manner. Unlike Quakers, “they have no dislike for warfare,” so Jack has several Sethian sailors who celebrated recent good fortune by honoring Seth by painting his name on the side of the ship. When ordered to remove the name, they refused, not wishing to dishonor Seth. What makes this interesting is Jack’s novel way of making everyone happy. Rather clever, I thought. (Check out the Sethians on the web. They have a rather different perspective on the universe.) ( )
1 vote ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
Another good one: politics, battles, conclusions to long-running plot-threads ... a delight as usual. ( )
  JBD1 | Jun 22, 2012 |
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» Add other authors (6 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Patrick O'Brianprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Hunt, GeoffCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tull, PatrickNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vance, SimonNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Ever since Jack Aubrey had been dismissed from the service, ever since his name, with its now meaningless seniority, had been struck off the list of post-captains, it had seemed to him that he was living in a radically different world; everything was perfectly familiar, from the smell of seawater and tarred rigging to the gentle heave of the deck under his feet, but the essence was gone and he was a stranger.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0393309053, Paperback)

When Jack Aubrey is unfairly deprived of his commission in the Royal Navy, Stephen Maturin comes to the rescue, purchasing the captain's former ship and outfitting it as a privateer, to be commanded by...Jack Aubrey. Soon the Surprise is off to sea, on a mission that Aubrey hopes will redeem his good name. The author's grasp of period detail is astonishing as ever--and so is his gift for pure entertainment.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:21 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Jack Aubrey, a former sea-officer in the British Navy and still bitter about his court-martial, agrees to take command of his old ship, the Surprise, which was sold to Dr. Stephen Maturin, who obtained a letter of marque to the use the ship as a privateer.… (more)

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2 editions of this book were published by W.W. Norton.

Editions: 0393309053, 0393028747

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