Master and Commander is a nautical historical novel by the English author Patrick O'Brian, first published in 1969 in the US and 1970 in UK. The book proved to be the start of the 20-novel Aubrey-Maturin series, set largely in the era of the Napoleonic Wars, that O'Brian continued working on up until his death in 2000.
The novel is set at the turn of the 19th century. It follows the young Jack Aubrey who has just been promoted to the rank of Master and Commander, and Stephen Maturin, a destitute physician and naturalist whom Aubrey appoints as his naval surgeon. They sail in HM Sloop Sophie with first lieutenant James Dillon, a wealthy and aristocratic Irishman. The naval action in the Mediterranean is closely based on the real-life exploits of Lord Cochrane, including a battle modelled after Cochrane's spectacular victory in the brig HMS Speedy over the vastly-superior Spanish frigate El Gamo. In the novel, Dillon is killed and Aubrey denied official recognition for his victory, though he gains a reputation within the Royal Navy as one of its great, young fighting captains.
Master and Commander met with mixed early reviews on its first publication. Although UK sales were respectable enough for O'Brian to continue with his series, it was not initially a success in the US. In Britain and Ireland, however, voices of praise gradually became dominant. In 1990, the US publisher W. W. Norton re-issued the book and its sequels; this was an almost immediate success and drew O'Brian a new, large readership. O'Brian's biographer has placed the novel at the start of what he called the author's magnum opus, a series that has become perhaps the best-loved roman fleuves of the twentieth century.
The novel opens in April 1800. Jack Aubrey, a shipless lieutenant wasting away in the Royal Navy port of Mahon in Minorca, meets Stephen Maturin, a destitute Irish-Catalan physician and natural philosopher, at a concert at the Governor’s Mansion. During the performance, Maturin elbows Aubrey who is beating the measure "half a beat ahead". The men, both at personal low points, treat the matter as one of honour; they exchange names and anticipate a duel.
Later that evening, Aubrey learns that he has been promoted to the rank of commander and has been given command of the 14-gun HM Sloop Sophie. Meeting Maturin in the street the next day, Aubrey's joy overcomes his animosity and he invites Maturin to dine. The men discover a shared love of music, Aubrey playing the violin and Maturin the cello. On learning Maturin's profession, Aubrey asks him to join his ship. Although as a physician Maturin's expertise goes far beyond that normally expected of a naval surgeon, he agrees.
Sophie is sent to accompany a small convoy of merchant ships in the Mediterranean. Aubrey takes the opportunity to get to know his sailors and work them into a fighting unit with the aid of his new first lieutenant, James Dillon, a wealthy and aristocratic Irishman. Dillon and Maturin had met earlier (a fact they keep to themselves) as members of the United Irishmen, a society dedicated to Irish Home Rule and Catholic emancipation. Dillon suffers a crisis of conscience when ordered to intercept an American ship thought to be harbouring Irish rebels, and he works to help them avoid capture.
Maturin, who has never been aboard a man-of-war, struggles to understand nautical customs, and O'Brian has the crew explain to him (and to the reader) naval terminology and the official practice whereby prize money can be awarded for captured enemy vessels. Maturin is treated by the crew as a landsman, though without offence. As a natural philosopher he relishes the opportunity to study rare birds and fish.
His convoy duties complete, Aubrey is permitted by Admiral Keith to cruise the Mediterranean independently, looking for enemy French merchants. Sophie meets and defeats the much larger and better-armed Cacafuego, a Spanish 32 gun xebec-frigate, though losing a number of crew, including Dillon, in the bloody action. A victory against such odds would normally bring official recognition, promotion, and significant prize money, but unfortunately for Aubrey his superior at Mahon is Captain Harte, with whose wife Aubrey has been having an affair. Harte ensures that Aubrey receives none of those things, though he cannot prevent Aubrey gaining a reputation within the Royal Navy as one of its great, young fighting captains.
On escort duty, Sophie is captured by a squadron of four large French warships. The French Captain Christy Pallière is courteous; he tells Aubrey of his cousins in Bath, and feeds him well. Aubrey and his crew miss the Algeciras Campaign but are able to observe the fighting from Gibraltar, having been paroled by the French. Aubrey faces a court-martial for the loss of his ship, and is acquitted.
See also Recurring characters in the Aubrey–Maturin series
In addition, O'Brian names all of the British, French and Spanish ships present in the Algeciras Campaign.
In the 1960s two of O'Brian's seafaring books for children, The Golden Ocean (1956) and The Unknown Shore (1959), caught the attention of a US publisher, J. B. Lippincott, who were seeking an author to follow in the footsteps of C. S. Forester, creator of the Hornblower series of novels. Forester had died in 1966 and a year later, at the age of 53, O’Brian started work on Master and Commander. The novel was first published in the US by Lippincott in 1969.
O'Brian's then UK publisher, Macmillan (who had originally agreed to jointly commission the book) rejected it as too full of jargon, but it was taken up and published Collins in 1970.
The novel did respectably in Britain ("selling a most surprising number" according to O'Brian), but was not initially successful in the US. O'Brian later commented, "I am sorry to say that the Americans did not like it much at its first appearance (they have changed their minds since, bless them)".
Lippincott persevered in the US with publication of the next two novels in the series, Post Captain (1972) and HMS Surprise (1973), though sales remained slow. A change of US publisher to Stein and Day for The Mauritius Command did not help, and US publications ceased with Desolation Island in 1978.
In 1989 Starling Lawrence, an editor with the US publisher W. W. Norton, borrowed a copy of The Reverse of the Medal from O'Brian's London literary agent to read on his flight home to New York. Lawrence persuaded Norton that in spite of the failed attempts of two previous US publishers Master and Commander and the subsequent novels were worth re-publishing. Norton's re-issued series (from 1990) was an almost immediate success and drew a new, large readership.This section concentrates on reviews of this specific novel. For more general reviews of the series as a whole, see Aubrey–Maturin series literary significance and criticism
C. S. Forester having died just a few years earlier, some critics were left bewildered and disappointed by the complexity of O'Brian's creation after the predictability of the Hornblower series. "Not, I think, memorable, at least in the Hornblower way" wrote the Irish Press, while according to the Library Journal, "Mourning Hornblower fans may prefer to read a good if disappointing new book rather than to reread one of the master's epics".
The reception of other critics was more positive. In the US, The New York Times Book Review noted the author's "delightful subtlety", and his "easy command of the philosophical, political, sensual and social temper of the times [that] flavors a rich entertainment", while Kirkus Reviews said that the book was "A welcome treat for sea hounds who care more for belaying pins than ravaged bodices below decks".
Several UK press reviewers were also impressed. The Sunday Mirror said "Nothing is glamourised. The press gangings, the squalor are all here....The battle scenes are tremendous...This is not secondhand Forester, but a really fine piece of writing", while Benedict Nightingale writing in The Observer called the book "Dashing, well-timbered, pickled in the period, and with strong human tensions and cross-currents". According to The Evening Standard "It is as though, under Mr O'Brian's touch, those great sea-paintings at Greenwich had stirred and come alive".
The sailor Sir Francis Chichester, recently returned from his 1967 single-handed voyage round the world, described the book as "the best sea story I have ever read", a quote which the publishers adopted for use on the novel's front cover. Also used on the book's jacket in Britain was a heartfelt quote from the author Mary Renault, "A spirited sea-tale with cracking pace and a brilliant sense of period. In a highly competitive field it goes straight to the top. A real first-rater".
As the series of novels expanded, single-volume reviews became less common and reviewers tended to prefer retrospectives of the entire series to date. As one reviewer noted, "The best way to think of these novels is as a single 5,000-page book".
Although Master and Commander and its immediate sequels had received at first a somewhat muted reception in the US, in Britain and Ireland the voices of praise continued to increase and gradually became dominant. By 2000, O'Brian's reputation was such that his American biographer Dean King was able to place Master and Commander at the start of what he called the author's magnum opus, a twenty-novel series that has become perhaps the best-loved roman fleuves of the twentieth century: "[an] epic of two heroic yet believably realistic men that would in some ways define a generation".
Writing in 2013, the author Nicola Griffith said, "I began Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander knowing I would hate it. Instead, I was smitten ... In these books every reader who loves fiction both intellectually and viscerally will find something to treasure — and every writer something to envy. They will sweep you away and return you delighted, increased and stunned". She concluded "Lots of reviewers have compared O'Brian to his fellow naval novelist C.S. Forester, but that's nonsense. This is Jane Austen on a ship of war, with the humanity, joy and pathos of Shakespeare".
The 2003 Peter Weir film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, starring Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany, uses some of the characters, dialogue and events from the Aubrey-Maturin series, but features a plot not found in the novels themselves.