Naval fiction seems to be the theme for all my April reads so far, though this wasn’t a deliberate choice! I’ve been so enjoying this second circumnavigation of Patrick O’Brian’s masterly series that Mauritius Command wound up jumping a few places up on my reading list. Book four in the series takes place a few years after the events of HMS Surprise and is based on the very real Mauritius campaign of 1810, putting our two protagonists right at the centre of it.
The start of the book finds Jack ultimately out of his natural element and struggling. He’s now married and ensconced in a little country cottage with wife Sophie, their infant twin daughters, niece Cecilia and his shrewish mother-in-law Mrs Williams. Skilled as he is at sea, domestic life is not something that suits Jack and it is clear to Stephen Maturin, when he arrives to visit, that his friend is not happy.
Stephen brings a solution with him though and soon the two friends are once more back at sea, this time in HMS Boadicea, headed to the Southern Hemisphere with the intention of joining a squadron there and taking Mauritius and La Reunion from the Bonapartist forces stationed on the islands. To Aubrey’s great delight, when they land at Cape Town, he is designated Commodore of said squadron.
Though at first it seems Jack has had his every prayer answered, life as a great man proves difficult. His captains are not what he hoped for, and he has to contend with the brutal Corbett and pretentious Lord Clonfert, who simultaneously views Jack as a rival while desperately seeking his approval.
Stephen, meanwhile, is shown in his full glory as political agent and skilled physician. When he is not being dropped clandestinely onto the islands to handout political pamphlets, he is in discourse with Clonfert’s physician McAdam about that captain’s erratic and obsessive behaviour.
Like all of this series, the heart of the book is friendship and in Mauritius Command we see Jack and Stephen as close and fond of each other as ever. The novel showcases their contrasting natures as well as their general ignorance of each other’s areas of expertise in a wholly endearing way. Jack, a first rate sailor and mathematician, is hopelessly inept on land and when Stephen asks the age of his daughters can only say “quite old by now, they seem to have been here forever”.
Stephen on the other hand, is a physician of uncommon merit, a skilled surgeon and naturalist, but despite years at sea still knows next to nothing about naval customs. When Jack is in a frenzy of delight having been presented with his commodore’s pennant, Stephen has no idea of the significance and only notes that he thought it was “the banner of some bosun’s guild. But it is an amazingly handsome flag, upon my honour, and so neatly sewn.” Neither fails to show indulgence and excitement for each other when warranted though, even if they don’t understand why it is necessary.
There’s a nice balance between these moments of wholesome friendship – one of the strongest in literature in my opinion – and naval action as the squadron fights for control of the islands. It was good to see some of the recurring characters back again too, including the reliable Barret Bonden and good-natured Thomas Pullings. I absolutely bloody love Killick and all his shrewish mother-henning, so was glad to see plenty of him hovering at Jack’s back.
The character that really stuck with me even after finishing the books was Lord Clonfert. He was a pathetic character in the very literal sense of the word and seemed to have a pathological need to be admired and flattered; he could almost have been an inspiration for Gilderoy Lockhart in the Harry Potter series. I was cringing in the section where he was showing Jack a narwhal tusk and adamantly claiming it was a unicorn. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him and found the conclusion of his story very sad indeed.
To summarise, it was another excellent read by the master of historical fiction and literary friendship. Will I be able to resist starting Desolation Island before I get through some more of my ‘to read’ pile? It remains to be seen!
My rating: 4.5/5