After finishing Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander a few days ago, I couldn’t resist moving on to the next book in the series. Post Captain begins with the establishment of the Peace of Amiens, bringing a close to the French Revolutionary Wars. Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, now well-off thanks to the prize money won on their Mediterranean cruise, set up a bachelor’s residence at Melbury Lodge. They soon make the acquaintance of the Williams family, most notably Sophie Williams and her widowed cousin Diana Villiers. Both women are beautiful and both view Jack as a potential husband. Jack and Sophie begin a tentative courtship, and Stephen begins falling for Diana. Unfortunately, Jack’s prize agent runs away with his money and Aubrey is forced to repay the bounty he received for a neutral ship he had captured. This sudden financial turn leaves him in danger of arrest for debt and disrupts his budding relationship with Sophie due to her mother’s unwillingness to marry her to a financially insolvent man. In order to avoid debtor’s prison, Jack and Stephen travel to France. Shortly after their arrival on the continent, war is resumed and the two must escape before being captured by Napoleon’s troops.
After a harrowing journey that includes capture by a French privateer and recapture by a British squadron, the two arrive back in England. Jack begs for any ship that will keep him employed and away from the threat of debtor’s prison. His request is granted with the HMS Polychrest, an experimental vessel known around the Royal Navy as ‘The Carpenter’s Mistake’. The vessel is ungainly, the crew is undermanned and poorly trained, and his first lieutenant is barbaric in his punishments of the crew. This combines to make an unhappy situation for Jack. In addition to his naval problems, Jack begins an affair with Diana (thinking that his prospects with Sophie have been sunk). This leads to a rift between Jack and Stephen, and Jack soon develops a reputation for lingering in port to spend time with his mistress. At the urging of another captain, Stephen attempts to point this reputation out to Jack. Tempers flare and the two former friends agree to a duel. The Polychrest is ordered to attack a small flotilla of vessels in a French port before the issue can be settled, and sets sail. The unruly crew has now grown mutinous, and approaches Maturin for his aid. He immediately informs Jack, breaking the silence between them since their argument. Jack quashes the mutiny and attacks the port sooner than planned in order to occupy the crew. The Polychrest runs aground during the attack, but Jack captures a French cutter and tows his ship to safety. Soon after, the wounded Polychrest founders and sinks. Jack and his crew return to England in the captured cutter and receive a warm reception. Jack and Stephen forget their former animosity and renew their friendship.
Jack is promoted to post captain for his exploits, putting him on the track for eventual promotion to admiral. He is offered a brand new ship currently being built, ready to put to sea in six months. His financial situation forces him to decline this offer, however, and he requests any assignment that will take him out to sea. He is assigned to temporary command of the HMS Lively, whose captain is attending Parliament. Jack meets with Sophie, and they agree not to marry anyone else, but to wait until Jack’s finances are on a secure footing. Meanwhile, Stephen has been active as an intelligence agent in Spain. He discovers that Spain is planning to enter the war on France’s side as soon as a large shipment of gold arrives from America. The Admiralty dispatches vessels to intercept the treasure ship, and Stephen requests that the Lively be among them. The book concludes with the capture of the Spanish treasure, promising a huge financial prize for Jack and his crew.
Needless to say, I love this book. This is the third time that I have read it and it is still as exciting and engaging as it was the first time. O’Brian is a master of building action and commands the English language like few other authors (there is a terrible pun buried in that sentence). Despite being roughly 500 pages long, Post Captain is a quick read. It is inhabited by a cast of characters that all seem real. Even the minor characters are endowed with personality traits that make them unforgettable. Unlike many examples of historical fiction, the Aubrey/Maturin Novels are wonderful literary achievements in their own right. Read them!
The Current Count
70 Read, 30 To Go