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!
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.