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Letter of Marque is, besides all else, the Aubrey/Maturin novel in which Patrick O'Brian presents the most sustained demonstration of his gift for comedy. We read the books for many oft-stated reasons--the beauty of the friendship between Jack and Stephen; the quality of the prose; the excitement of the action sequences; etc.--not least, because they are sprinkled with scenes of comedy. But here the plot is largely built upon a comic strain, Stephen's addiction to laudanum.

As always, Jack's travails are central to the action of the story. After his conviction in the prior novel's stock-rigging scandal, he has been reduced to simple Mr. Aubrey, dismissed from the Royal Navy. Stephen intervenes with his friends in the Intelligence Corps and gets him the letter of marque of the title and command of a private fighting ship, their old friend, The Surprise. Their mission is to capture a French frigate, The Diane, which is in harbor at St. Michael's, a Channel Isle that Jack knows well. Should the action be successful, there would be at least a chance of restoration to the Captain's List, not to mention significant prize-money.

The ensuing battles are exciting enough, and, not always the case, O'Brian presents them at length. But it is the other plot twines that make the book. From his children clandestinely swearing like the sailors who have largely served as their nannies to the sailors of Shelmerston who belong to a sect that worships Seth and insists his name be emblazoned on the side of the ship to Killick's near mutinous mutterings, we get the usual comic flourishes. But more centrally, Stephen Maturin becomes a figure of fun.

Throughout the series Stephen is presented as the quintessential man of Reason and he often boasts that for such a man as he, the addictive effects of laudanum can hold no danger. But, not only has he obviously become addicted but, unbeknownst to him, his servant, Padeen, has likewise become addicted and is stealing from his stores and watering down the laudanum with brandy. Stephen is left bewildered by the diminishing pleasure that the drug brings, until the potentially fatal denouement of the story, when he finally gets access to an unadulterated dose.

Folk often claim that Maturin is a stand-in for the author and that his Enlightenment/scientific trappings answer the emotion of Aubrey and the superstitions of the sea. But, as we've seen before, Maturin is playing a weak hand in that regard.

At any rate, this is one of the very best installments in the greatest series of novels ever written.


(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A+)

  

Websites:

See also:

Patrick O'Brian (5 books reviewed)
Sea Stories
Patrick O'Brian Links:

    -OBIT: Patrick O'Brian: Prolific novelist whose voyage into privacy meshed with the odyssey of his sea-going characters (January 8, 2000, The Guardian )
    -ESSAY: Full Nelson: Outmanned and outgunned, the British flummoxed the French. (PATRICK O'BRIAN, 4/18/99, NY Times Magazine)
    -ESSAY: Cast away Three years after his death, his acclaimed seafaring novels are still bestsellers and have just been made into a blockbuster movie. But recent revelations about how Patrick O'Brian abandoned his family have cast a shadow over his work. (Richard Russ, November 28, 2003, The Guardian)
   
-IN MEMORIAM: PATRICK O'BRIAN: Senior Correspondent Elizabeth Farnsworth is in San Francisco, remembering a man who wrote about the sea. (Online Newshour, January 10, 2000)
    -OBIT: Patrick O'Brian: Prolific novelist whose voyage into privacy meshed with the odyssey of his sea-going characters (Guardian, January 8, 2000)
    -FEATURED AUTHOR: Patrick O'Brian: With News and Reviews From the Archives of The New York Times
    -ESSAY: An Author I'd Walk the Plank For (Richard Snow, January 6, 1991, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: The Humble Genre Novel, Sometimes Full of Genius (David Mamet, 1/17/00, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: A Master and the World He Commands: Pondering Patrick O'Brian and his nautical novels, before Russell Crowe takes over. (MAX HASTINGS, November 7, 2003, Wall Street Journal)
    -OBIT: Patrick O'Brian, Whose 20 Sea Stories Won Him International Fame, Dies at 85 (FRANK J. PRIAL, 1/07/00, NY Times)
    -OBIT: Gone Aloft (Derek Brown, 1/07/00, The Guardian)
    -Featured Author: Patrick O'Brian: With News and Reviews From the Archives of The New York Times
    -ESSAY: Full Nelson: Outmanned and outgunned, the British flummoxed the French. (PATRICK O'BRIAN, NY Times)
   
-INTERVIEW: Conversations/Patrick O'Brian; In the Glare of the Short-Toed Eagle, Or What You Read Is All You'll Get (FRANCIS X. CLINES, November 14, 1993, NY Times)
    -INTERVIEW: The Seas of Adventure Still Beckon a Storyteller; At 83, Patrick O'Brian Journeys Into History (FRANK J. PRIAL, October 19, 1998, NY Times)
    -PROFILE: Patrick O'Brian: The author of the wildly popular 18th century seagoing saga created, out of his own life, a fiction nearly as elaborate. (IAN WILLIAMS, 1/13/00, Salon)
    -APPRECIATION: The Humble Genre Novel, Sometimes Full of Genius (DAVID MAMET, 1/17/00, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: The real master and commander: The swashbuckling novels of Patrick O'Brian and C.S. Forester owe much of their inspiration to one man: Lord Cochrane, a seafaring scot whose life was marked by adventure, adulation and scandal. David Cordingly reports (David Cordingly, 02 Sep 2007, The Telegraph)
    -REMEMBRANCE: Master and Deceiver: Patrick O'Brian, the celebrated author behind the new film "Master and Commander", has been branded a callous, deceitful and arrogant bully. His stepson, Nikolai Tolstoy, says the truth is much more complex (Nikolai Tolstoy, 11/30/03, Times of London)
    -ESSAY: Nautical novelist 'couldn't even sail' (James Landale, 8/16/04, BBC News)
    -ESSAY: Cruising with Patrick O'Brian - The Man and the Myth (Tom Perkins, Latitude 38)
   
-FAN SITE: The Gun Room: @HMSSurprise.org: which it's the Patrick O'Brian list of the world!
    -APPRECIATION: An Author I'd Walk the Plank For (Richard Snow, January 06, 1991, NY Times)
    -INTERVIEW: The HistoryAccess.com Interview: Geoff Hunt (Bob Frost, 1993)
    -ESSAY: Science at sea: What the novels of Patrick O'Brian can teach us (Stephen Curry 6 April 2008, LabLit)
    -REVIEW: of Blue at the Mizzen by Patrick O'Brian (Jan Morris, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick O'Brian: The Making of a Novelist by Nikolai Tolstoy (Joseph O'Connor, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick O'Brian: the Making of a Novelist by Nikolai Tolstoy (John Lanchester, The Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick O'Brian: The Making of a Novelist by Nikolai Tolstoy (Rachel Cooke, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick O'Brian: The Making of a Novelist by Nikolai Tolstoy (Max Hastings, The Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of The Aubrey/Maturin books: Master and Commander & The Yellow Admiral by Patrick O'Brian ( Danny Yee, dannyreviews.com)
   
-REVIEW ARCHIVES: Aubrey Maturin series (Ex Libris Reviews)
    -ARCHIVES: Patrick O'Brian (NY Times)

Book-related and General Links:

    -Stephen Maturin (Wikipedia)
    -The Letter of Marque (Wikipedia)
    -The Patrick O'Brian Wiki : The Letter of Marque (Wikia)
    -GOOGLE BOOK: The Letter of Marque
    -ESSAY: Patrick O'Brian's Ship Comes In (MARK HOROWITZ, 5/16/93, NY Times)
   
-ESSAY: In Praise of Laudanum: For some, “addiction” may be the only cure. (JIM PITTAWAY • March 29, 2004, The American Conservative)
    -ESSAY: Dreaming of Stephen Maturin (A Life Divided, 8/25/08)
    -ESSAY: Patrick O'Brian and Naval Medicine and Surgery (Dr. John Rice April 15,200~)
    -ESSAY: Hooked on Boy Books (TAMAR LEWIN, July 23, 1995, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Patrick O'Brian (Marilyn Green Faulkner, 4/27/09, Meridian)
    -ESSAY: War, women and weevils : Why I love O'Brian's books (Emily Wilson, 11/28/03, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: APPRECIATION (Ken Ringle, January 8, 2000, Washington Post)
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-INTERVIEW: Patrick O’Brian, The Art of Fiction No. 142 (Interviewed by Stephen Becker, Summer 1995, The Paris Review)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: In Which We Serve (John Bayley, 11/07/91, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: The 5 Best Aubrey-Maturin Novels by Patrick O’Brian (Peter Galen Massey)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVE: Re-reading Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series (JO WALTON, Tor Books)
    -REVIEW: of The Letter of Marque by Patrick O'Brian (Jo Walton, Tor Books
    -REVIEW: of Letter of Marque (Peter Campbell, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Letter of Marque (Kirkus Review)
    -REVIEW: of Letter of Marque (Dorothy Borders, Nature of Things)
    -REVIEW: of audio version of Letter of Marque (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Letter of Marque (Victoria, MuggleNet)
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