“One of the great papist characters in modern fiction”

At the UK’s best Catholic weekly, the Catholic Herald, there is a fun piece about books I often mention here, the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian, who would be 100 years old this year.

Which I would that he had lived to 100, so that we could have more tales of the nautical duo!

The Complete Aubrey/Maturin Novels (Vol. 5 volumes) (Aubrey/Maturin Novels)  UK link  HERE

Here is the piece, which is not available online. You can, however, subscribe to the digital version of the weekly.

The ‘reptilian’ Catholic who misses nothing

By Mark Benbow

The quick-witted Stephen Maturin is one of the great papist characters in modern fiction. His faith is so vivid you’d be forgiven for thinking that his creator was himself a Catholic

Dr Stephen Maturin is an unlikely Catholic hero. He is a ship’s doctor during the Napoleonic Wars. Half Catalan, half Irish, he is “reptilian” in appearance, casting a suspicious eye on everyone he meets. He is short, ugly and a spy – for the British government, fortunately, since nothing escapes him.
Maturin is the junior partner in one of
the great double acts in British fiction: the Aubrey-Maturin seafaring novels by Patrick O’Brian, who was born 100 years ago. Maturin’s surreptitious Catholicism is a theme in many of the 20 novels, beginning with Master and Commander, which was published in 1969 but acquired cult status only in the 1990s. O’Brian himself, though extremely reticent about his past, hinted that, despite his refined English voice and old-fashioned snobbery, he was an Irish Catholic from Dublin.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Aubrey-Maturin series is much loved by many Catholics, who relish the dynamic between Captain Jack Aubrey, brave, impulsive and naïve, and the dry wit of his papist confidant. O’Brian plunges his readers into the life of the sea, with few concessions to their ignorance of nautical jargon (except when Aubrey is explaining things to the land-lubber Maturin). Some of the writing is beautiful, as in this excerpt from The Surgeon’s Mate, which takes Aubrey and Maturin from the fogs of Novia Scotia to a French jail:

“There,” cried Stephen when Jack appeared in the frail topgallant-shrouds, “are you not amazed?” He pointed cautiously with one finger and Jack looked out to the south-west. At this height they were above the low blanket of fog that covered the sea: clear sky above, no water below; no deck even, but a smooth layer of white mist, sharply cut off from the clean air; and ahead, on the starboard bow and on the starboard beam the surface of the soft, opaque whiteness was pierced by an infinity of masts, all striking up from this unearthly ground into a sky without a cloud, a sky that might have belonged to an entirely different world.
“Are you not amazed?” he said again.

If you do not know what “topgallant-shrouds” are, then buy a nautical handbook (as some devotees do). O’Brian takes pleasure in meticulous accuracy, and not just in his accounts of naval warfare. The early 19th century was a time of religious change in England. Catholics fell under suspicion as Britain went to war with France again – and, indeed, the Benedictine-educated Maturin was a supporter of the French Revolution until the Terror and the subsequent tyranny of Bonaparte. Yet we were also on the verge of Catholic Emancipation: papists moved in elevated social circles and O’Brian expertly captures the half-surreptitious, half-proud spirit of Maturin’s Catholicism.

In Fortune of War, set in 1812, Maturin is apprehended by the Americans in Boston and attends Mass during his captivity:

The priest was already at the altar by the time they reached the obscure chapel in a side-alley, and crept into the enormously evocative smell of old incense. There followed an interval on a completely different plane of being: with the familiar ancient words around him, always the same, in whatever country he had ever been (though now uttered in a broad Munster Latin), he lived free of time or geography, and he might have walked out, a boy, into the streets of Barcelona white in the sun, or
into those of Dublin under the soft rain.

The reference to the old Mass will have appealed to one of O’Brian’s biggest fans, the traditionalist priest-blogger Fr John Zuhlsdorf, who in one post seems to take mischievous delight in the unflattering portrayal of the Jesuits as “[making] a sad nuisance of themselves again, turning out atheists from the schools by the score”.

Catholic readers should be warned, however, that these bracing, colourful and cluttered novels were written by a very strange and dishonest man. Patrick O’Brian was not Irish, not Catholic and not called Patrick O’Brian. Shortly before his death in 2000, the BBC revealed that he was born Richard Russ, the son of a doctor from Chalfont St Peter, Buckinghamshire. He had changed his name after an unhappy first marriage and probably deceived people into thinking that he was a spy during the war (he was actually an ambulance driver). His faith was as fictional as Maturin’s. But don’t let that put you off. The books, if you like that sort of thing, are terrific.

Which terrific ain’t in it, as Preserved Killick would say.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in O'Brian Tags, Preserved Killick and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. AnAmericanMother says:

    One of the wonderful things about fiction is that the truth often fights its way to the surface despite any personal failings of the author.

    Thus C.S. Lewis:
    “Keats was wrong, then, when he said he was certain of the holiness of the heart’s affections.”
    “I doubt if he knew clearly what he meant. But you and I must be clear. There is but one good; that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to Him and bad when it turns from Him.”

  2. Gail F says:

    ” The books, if you like that sort of thing, are terrific.
    If you like that sort of thing!!!! Now there’s a backhanded compliment. They’re wonderful books! Yes, O’Brian was a sad, odd man. But he was the only sort of author of his kind. And why should I care whether or not he was Catholic? The other protagonist, Captain Aubrey, was not a Catholic — does that mean I should expect the author to be an Anglican? I expect an author to show how his characters think and what they believe, and if a non-Catholic, very flawed man created one of the best Catholic characters ever, well good for him!!!!

  3. One of the most amazing things to me is the degree to which O’Brian wove his novels around the after action reports of Royal Navy Captains of the Napoleonic era. If what I have read is correct, most of the naval action in his books, and the legal action in the one book where Jack Aubrey is jailed for involvement in a business transaction of questionable legality, are based on historical events.
    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

  4. I just completed the entire series a few weeks ago! I really enjoyed them. ‘O’Brian’ did have Irish connections and spent some summers here. He obviously had some sympathy both for the Irish, other put upon peoples, but for Catholicism too.

  5. AnAmericanMother says:

    You’re exactly correct (I was a history major in college). The only other writer about Nelson’s Navy who even comes close is Captain Marryat – and of course he was THERE.
    I’m very impressed not only by the careful scholarship but by his ability to put himself inside the heads of people of the period (a good example of how NOT to do it is Hornblower, who is a 20th c. bundle of angst and neurosis in 19th c. costume. They didn’t THINK like that then.)
    You can only achieve that sort of intimacy by steeping yourself in contemporary correspondence, newspapers/magazines, and other ephemera. I read that sort of stuff for my thesis on the home front in the WBTS and Reconstruction, and after a year of research I realized that I was thinking like somebody in the mid-19th century. A bit later period of course, but far closer to Aubrey & Maturin than to us.

  6. Cantor says:

    The film Master and Commander was true to O’Brian in playing pretty closely to the facts. Aware that its largest audience would be American, they include the comment that the French opponent was a large and powerful frigate built in the United States. (Americans don’t mind credit for good ships so long as we’re not the bad guys.)

    In reality, the story is amazingly like the 1812 cruise of USS Essex, Capt. David Porter, commanding. Originally ordered to sail in company with USS Constitution, the two failed to rendezvous and Porter followed his second set of orders to destroy the British whaling fleet in the South Pacific. He was quite successful until overwhelmed by superior forces HMS Phoebe and HMS Cherub near Valparaiso.

    The film gives a part to fictional British Midshipman Lord Blakeney. In fact, they might have better focused on a real American midshipman, the ten-year-old stepson of Capt. Porter: MIDN David Farragut. Farragut later rose to fame as America’s first Admiral, best known for his Civil War order in the Battle of Mobile Bay: “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

  7. WMBriggs says:

    The 20 volumes of the Aubrey-Maturin series comprise the greatest novel in the English language. However, the omnibus 5-volume edition is not recommended. Far too many errors. From one of the Amazon reviewers:

    But I have a major reservation with Norton’s omnibus edition: there is little evidence that the publishers bothered to proofread their newly re-set text. Not only are there the usual, minor misspellings (like ‘sorpething’ instead of ‘something’), but some far more problematic ones — the kind that leave you with the nagging feeling: “surely O’Brian didn’t write that.” My favorite (so far) is in Book Two (Post Captain), which describes Canning’s “great delighted laugh, a crowing noise that rose from a deep ass…” (see page 738). Checking the text of the previous hardback and paperback edition confirmed that O’Brian referred to Canning’s vocal range (“bass”), not his nether regions.

    Another serious problem with the omnibus text is the recurring omission of paragraph breaks used to mark alternating voices. Including more than one speaker within the same paragraph makes for some very confusing, even misleading passages. One should know that Norton’s previous editions laid out the dialogue much more clearly (and consistently).

  8. Kathleen10 says:

    The series sounds so interesting! I have never in my life heard of it.
    WMBriggs, good point you made about the superior 20 volume set, although that typo may have earned the award for the best ever.

  9. WaywardSailor says:

    “Maturin is the junior partner”? Forsooth! The Dear knows, from the moment the good Doctor implores Captain Aubrey not to keep a half beat ahead of Locatelli’s C major quartet, he was as integral to the story as Lucky Jack. What mumping villain would classify him as “junior”?

  10. scaron says:

    Oh Kathleen10 I envy you! Every time I introduce this series to someone, and they take it up, I remember the pure excitement and joy I felt on taking up each of these great books. Don’t be put off if you feel a little lost for the first 75 pages or so of Master and Commander … stick with it and you will receive uncounted rewards.

    I also own “21”, the last, uncompleted work. I have never read it. I cannot bear to think that I have read the last of Captain Jack, Preserved Killick, Stephen Maturin, Barret Bonden, Awkward Davies, and all the rest of those glorious characters (not to mention superbly drawn villains, of which there are plenty). In a perfect world, the Lord would allow me to finish “21” on my very last day …

  11. Augustine Thompson O.P. says:


    I have read 21, but 20, _Blue at the Mizzen_, was the perfect way to end the series. I don’t think 21 was shaping up that way.

  12. Suburbanbanshee says:

    There have been a surprising number of good novelists who have also made up plausible fictional lives for themselves. While I do not condone them doing so (it is hurtful to friends and untrue), it doesn’t seem to hurt their novels to be writing them from a doubly fictional viewpoint.

    The halfway point would seem to be those novelists who make up obviously fictional facts about their pen names’ lives. All the fun, none of the hurt.

  13. Fr Sean Coyle says:

    You may be interested in Frank McNally’s article ‘The Life of O’Brian’ in The Irish Times on 12 December: http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/the-life-of-o-brian-1.2034680 and a letter in today’s edition (16 December): http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/letters/what-was-in-a-name-for-patrick-o-brian-1.2038574

  14. sisu says:

    Taking sailing lessons and getting some time on the water can only heighten your enjoyment of these books – :) There are clubs that focus on sailing (not country clubs), and are much cheaper than joining a gym, and have boats to ‘borrow’, so you don’t have to own one. Or volunteer to learn in a crewing spot in a “one design” racing fleet – that’s how I learned.
    I read these books back before learning to sail, and they were entertaining, but the nautical lingo didn’t make much sense. I could look up terms like “to weather” and “lee shore”, but that’s different than the gut feeling you get from those terms after you experience them. After I spent a year or so racing and sailing around various dinghies, on rereading, the books came wonderfully alive. :) My husband and I got ourselves pinned against rushes in high winds, trying to ogle some critter, sailing Sunfishes on the lee end of the local lake. We joked we had realized “the terror of the lee shore” !!!

  15. JonPatrick says:

    I have been working my way through the series over the years, just finished “The Letter of Marque”. Midst the flow of Christmas gifts a new shipment of Aubrey / Maturins just arrived so that I now have everything up through “the Yellow Admiral” to savor in the coming months. I was an avid reader of the Hornblower series in my youth but these novels are far superior.

    I am amazed that O’Brian wasn’t Catholic as he seems to have certainly captured a Catholic sense in how Stephen Maturin thinks and acts.

  16. LOTH says:

    There are several companion works that can open up O’Brien’s world. 1. A Sea of Words. This illustrated book explains many sea-faring terms, notable people, and events of this era. Also useful for Moby Dick. 2. Harbors and High Seas. This is an atlas arranged by title. It explains the context of each book. Both were written by Dean King. 3. There is a CD entitled Musical Evenings with the Captain (violin, cello, and pianoforte–the notes explain why the recordings use piano instead of the harpsichord–and also that musical tastes in the Royal Navy were likely to be conservative and eschew Romanticism. Finally, for those who really want to know their rigging and much more there is Alan McGowan’s coffee-table HMS Victory. You might be amazed at the composite nature of the masts themselves (apart from the yard arms and rigging) and how these pieces were fitted together.

  17. Augustine Thompson O.P. says:

    Jon Patrick,

    Actually, being Catholic was part of the O’Brian persona. I once heard him speak in Portland OR. He remarked “most of my friends in France are also Catholic monarchists.” That was just about the only self-referential remark in his talk, but he did bring up the role of religion in the series and he seemed to be fishing for someone to ask him to expand on that that aspect. I regret I didn’t. Instead, I asked him how he did the research on medicine. His answer was: “it all comes from two books, Gilbert Blane’s _Observations on the Diseases of Seaman_ and the first edition of the _Encyclopedia Britannica_.”

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