Author Topic: Patrick O'Brien, C.S. Forester, the Royal Navy, and Napoleonic history  (Read 434 times)

Offline JayUtah

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I've lately committed to re-reading the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brien.  In the wake (pun intended) of Tom Hanks' Greyhound, I read C.S. Forester's The Good Shepherd, although Forester is understandably better known for the Horatio Hornblower series.

I've belatedly realized that this particular group has a shared interest in history, comes from a variety of relevant national backgrounds, and has various degrees of military service experience.  We may be collectively uniquely qualified to embrace this particular literary genre.

My brother-in-law is a Lt. Commander in the U.S. Navy.  He serves as the chief engineer aboard the latest generation of swim-out landing-craft-carrying vessels.  So I have a little skin in the game when it comes to naval operations.  In my much-younger and much-fitter days, I did sail training on the Empire Sandy in the Great Lakes.  I expect our U.K. regulars to understand the import of that name; the Empire ships are legendary in shipbuilding.  Empire Sandy began as a Larch-class oceangoing tug, and was then converted to a three-masted, gaff-rigged schooner.  I was proud to sail in her, albeit under the Canadian flag.  I believe my experience is significant because a great deal of the naval War of 1812 was actually fought in the Great Lakes, where Empire Sandy now rules the waves when not consigned to tourist night cruises out of Toronto.  But the Lakes were previously the battleground between the American and Royal navies, perhaps at this point evenly matched.  I feel a great kinship to those sailors of both navies who fought those battles in those treacherous waters.

What I admire in O'Brien's writings is that while he's clearly writing from the British perspective, he speaks -- through Capt. Aubry -- with great respect for the American navy of the Napoleonic era.  In O'Brien's universe, Capt. Aubrey was on HMS Java when it was defeated and captured by USS Constitution.  Indeed, he notes the Admiralty's historically-literal warning that the American 44-gun frigates were not to be engaged by His Majesty's vessels except in squadron strength -- this after the loss of HMS Java and HMS Guerriere.  (There's an obscure historical novel entitled Freedom of the Seas which highly romanticizes these engagements.) O'Brien, I think, realized that many of his readers were Americans.  I'm not sure the Royal Navy of the Napoleonic era was as impressed (also pun intended) with the U.S. navy as Capt. Aubry.

And in The Good Shepherd, Forester confronts head-on the misgivings of an inexperienced American officer placed in command of an escort manned largely by seasoned Allied sailors.  I don't actually recommend the novel, as it's a giant pile of "Right full rudder," "Left full rudder" that broadly separates the chapters of good character development and plot arc.

But in any case, who else has read these books?  What did you think?  Those of you who have served in your militaries: do these works paint an accurate picture?  O'Brien also considers the political machinations of the day, since Dr Maturin was an Admiralty spy.  Does this jive with your understanding of the history?  O'Brien writes in the linguistic style of the period he covers.  He also wrote out his novels longhand in fountain pen.  Does this help or hinder?

My last visit to the U.K. afforded little beyond London, Cambridge, Dover, and Oxfordshire.  I desperately want to visit Portsmouth, especially to spend approximately the rest of my life studying HMS Victory.  Any other important maritime sites I should visit on my next voyage?
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Offline Obviousman

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Re: Patrick O'Brien, C.S. Forester, the Royal Navy, and Napoleonic history
« Reply #1 on: November 01, 2020, 10:55:26 PM »
Okay - first a slight wander off topic then back to replying to your questions:

I have never read most 'sea' novels, especially those back in the days when ships were made of wood, and men were made of steel. I like scifi. And I read heaps of it. So I started this book, the first in a series, called Midshipman's Hope by David Feintuch. I enjoyed it and continued the series. Then someone pointed out to me that it was all pretty much just Horatio Hornblower in space. And they were right.

So, please forgive me when I haven't read a number of books you might think I would have been sure to have read (though I did read and enjoy The Caine Mutiny.

Anyway, back to your post....

The books I have read (fiction) range from excellent detail all the way to wildly inaccurate. Many people can put aside the inaccuracies "...for the bigger picture..." (i.e. the story) but it really distracts me. An Apollo movie, for example: if they make major blunders in it that are red flags to an Apollo historian (us) but not noticed by the general public then I still am irked by it.

As said, I haven't read those works but I will say this: when I first read The Hunt for Red October I was pretty stunned. The book discussed aspects of Anti-Submarine Warfare that were classified at the time. A lot of people looked around and asked how the hell he got away with publishing it.

Offline raven

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Re: Patrick O'Brien, C.S. Forester, the Royal Navy, and Napoleonic history
« Reply #2 on: November 02, 2020, 03:05:42 AM »
I haven't read as much as I'd like, but I have a fondness for Napoleonic warfare era seagoing stories. I would have never wanted to live like that, but the sea, the striving under such conditions, the stiff upper lip in the face of all odds, and, let's be honest, the downright dapper officer's uniforms, yeah, yeah I like 'em. I've read some Hornblower and some of the Master and Commander series. Definitely want to read more, that you can be damn sure of.

Offline gwiz

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Re: Patrick O'Brien, C.S. Forester, the Royal Navy, and Napoleonic history
« Reply #3 on: November 02, 2020, 05:21:35 AM »
I read the entire Patrick O'Brien series about twenty years ago and loved them.  Interesting thing about them is they also appeal to Jane Austen fans, showing the same period from a male perspective.  While I don't have any relevant practical experience to compare, there are several tall ships in these (Cornish) waters and I've occasionally met people involved with them.  They all seem to be O'Brien admirers.
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Offline Peter B

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Re: Patrick O'Brien, C.S. Forester, the Royal Navy, and Napoleonic history
« Reply #4 on: November 02, 2020, 05:29:18 AM »
I've lately committed to re-reading the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brien.  In the wake (pun intended) of Tom Hanks' Greyhound, I read C.S. Forester's The Good Shepherd, although Forester is understandably better known for the Horatio Hornblower series.

I've belatedly realized that this particular group has a shared interest in history, comes from a variety of relevant national backgrounds, and has various degrees of military service experience.  We may be collectively uniquely qualified to embrace this particular literary genre.

No military service for me, but a reasonable amount of knowledge about the period thanks to researching the life of one of my great-grandfathers.

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...What I admire in O'Brien's writings is that while he's clearly writing from the British perspective, he speaks -- through Capt. Aubry -- with great respect for the American navy of the Napoleonic era...

And in The Good Shepherd, Forester confronts head-on the misgivings of an inexperienced American officer placed in command of an escort manned largely by seasoned Allied sailors.  I don't actually recommend the novel, as it's a giant pile of "Right full rudder," "Left full rudder" that broadly separates the chapters of good character development and plot arc.

But in any case, who else has read these books?  What did you think?  Those of you who have served in your militaries: do these works paint an accurate picture?  O'Brien also considers the political machinations of the day, since Dr Maturin was an Admiralty spy.  Does this jive with your understanding of the history?  O'Brien writes in the linguistic style of the period he covers.  He also wrote out his novels longhand in fountain pen.  Does this help or hinder?

I've read only one of O'Brien's books, and, sorry, I found his writing style pretentious enough that I don't feel motivated to read any more. There are plenty of ways of providing an insight into a historical place and time without going down that path. From my reading experience, Sharon Penman and Alfred Duggan both did just as good a job of placing the reader inside the head of a character with a very different world view, while still using modern English.

As for World War Two, I have to say I have a preference for history over fiction. I found Jonathan Dimbleby's "The Battle of the Atlantic" as gripping as any novel. (Though I read Alistair Macleans' "HMS Ulysses" as a kid and remember enjoying it.)

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My last visit to the U.K. afforded little beyond London, Cambridge, Dover, and Oxfordshire.  I desperately want to visit Portsmouth, especially to spend approximately the rest of my life studying HMS Victory.  Any other important maritime sites I should visit on my next voyage?

I'd love to visit the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, along with the Cutty Sark, both for itself and for its connection to my great-grandfather. And if your voyages ever bring you to Australia I can recommend the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney, which has tall ships, a destroyer and a submarine to explore.

In fact, your thread has provided another little nudge to me to get back to editing my great-grandfather's memoirs. He wrote them in the 1920s, describing his life experiences from the 1860s to the 1900s. In the earlier chapters he provides some wonderfully vivid word pictures of life at sea in sailing ships - the rations, adventures in various ports, storms at sea, interactions with various natives, disease, and the ships themselves.

He describes gun-running to Taiping rebels, taking part in the Great Tea Race of 1866 (Wikipedia has a good article about this event), a late autumn narrow escape from Hudson's Bay, a few ship wrecks and a couple of near misses, and the intricacies of the legal side of the shipping industry, such as buying and selling ships, court cases brought about by ship losses, and an insurance court case. Yet while he told a great story, it's also become apparent from my research that he was an unreliable narrator (which just makes his story all the more interesting).

Offline Peter B

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Re: Patrick O'Brien, C.S. Forester, the Royal Navy, and Napoleonic history
« Reply #5 on: November 02, 2020, 05:52:52 AM »
Okay - first a slight wander off topic then back to replying to your questions:

I have never read most 'sea' novels, especially those back in the days when ships were made of wood, and men were made of steel. I like scifi. And I read heaps of it. So I started this book, the first in a series, called Midshipman's Hope by David Feintuch. I enjoyed it and continued the series. Then someone pointed out to me that it was all pretty much just Horatio Hornblower in space. And they were right.

I believe the same can be said of David Weber's "Honor Harrington" books. Not that there's anything specifically wrong with re-creating one setting in another, but there's the danger of slipping into cliche, of simply rehashing old plots without coming up with anything new.

For me, the interesting connection between the wooden ships genre and SF lies in the strategic questions which arise out of the interaction between long travel times to destinations and comparatively quick battles (compare, for example: the decisions made by the British and French during the Seven Years War when they were sending fleets and armies from Europe to North America, Africa, the Caribbean, India and South America; and dispatching hypothetical space fleets from Earth to various planets and asteroids).

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So, please forgive me when I haven't read a number of books you might think I would have been sure to have read (though I did read and enjoy The Caine Mutiny.

Anyway, back to your post....

The books I have read (fiction) range from excellent detail all the way to wildly inaccurate. Many people can put aside the inaccuracies "...for the bigger picture..." (i.e. the story) but it really distracts me. An Apollo movie, for example: if they make major blunders in it that are red flags to an Apollo historian (us) but not noticed by the general public then I still am irked by it.

Yep, I'm with you (in movies at least): seeing modern warships being bombed by the Japanese in "Pearl Harbor", or "The Imitation Game" showing a British destroyer with quadruple gun turrets when they never had more than two guns in a turret. It's enough of a distraction to destroy that willing suspension of disbelief.

But funnily enough, most of the known historical inaccuracies in "Apollo 13" didn't bother me.

Quote
As said, I haven't read those works but I will say this: when I first read The Hunt for Red October I was pretty stunned. The book discussed aspects of Anti-Submarine Warfare that were classified at the time. A lot of people looked around and asked how the hell he got away with publishing it.

Haven't read the book, but I felt the movie was pretty good.

Offline molesworth

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Re: Patrick O'Brien, C.S. Forester, the Royal Navy, and Napoleonic history
« Reply #6 on: November 02, 2020, 10:37:32 AM »
I've lately committed to re-reading the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brien.
To use the vernacular of Aubrey-Maturin fandom, you're "commencing another circumnavigation"  ;)

I'm also a big fan of this series of tales, and fascinated by the details of both the history and naval technology.  O'Brian's storytelling weaves a fantastic narrative through the reality of life at sea and of the politics and wars of the time.  Although I was vaguely aware of the characters from the movie "Master and Commander", I didn't realise there were lots more tales of this unlikely pair until I discovered my love of the sea...

In my much-younger and much-fitter days, I did sail training on the Empire Sandy in the Great Lakes.  I expect our U.K. regulars to understand the import of that name; the Empire ships are legendary in shipbuilding.  Empire Sandy began as a Larch-class oceangoing tug, and was then converted to a three-masted, gaff-rigged schooner.  I was proud to sail in her, albeit under the Canadian flag.
I certainly couldn't be described as particularly young or fit when I stepped aboard the wonderful Bark Europa in the Azores in 2006 for my first ever voyage under sail, about 12 days up to France.  I was utterly hooked by the experience and have logged something around 10,000 nautical miles aboard her since then, including a trip to Antarctica - probably the most amazing experience of my life.

Unfortunately this year's planned voyage from Fiji to Australia was cancelled due to the pandemic, but the tale of Europa's long journey home from Ushuaia to The Netherlands - 81 days, 10,000 NM, non-stop, almost entirely under sail - is worth reading on the ship's log.  Quite an experience for the crew, and probably a record not likely to be broken any time soon.

But in any case, who else has read these books?  What did you think?  Those of you who have served in your militaries: do these works paint an accurate picture?  O'Brien also considers the political machinations of the day, since Dr Maturin was an Admiralty spy.  Does this jive with your understanding of the history?  O'Brien writes in the linguistic style of the period he covers.  He also wrote out his novels longhand in fountain pen.  Does this help or hinder?
I'm not too well-versed in the history of the period, but his grasp of the nautical side of it is excellent.  I believe he spent many hours studying the workings of ships and rigs to make sure it was as accurate as possible, and having spent many hours hoisting and furling sails, scrambling round the rigging, and trying to steer a course, it's all very familiar on the page.

That attention to detail also carried over a bit into the "Master and Commander" movie, with pretty realistic sailing sequences, much of it filmed aboard an actual tall ship.  I met one of the sailing crew when he was working as bosun on Europa, and got a lot of info about the movie from chatting to him.

My last visit to the U.K. afforded little beyond London, Cambridge, Dover, and Oxfordshire.  I desperately want to visit Portsmouth, especially to spend approximately the rest of my life studying HMS Victory.  Any other important maritime sites I should visit on my next voyage?
If you ever get up to North East Scotland, a visit to Dundee and RRS Discovery should be on your list.  Not from the Napoleonic era I admit, but a notable part of the history of Antarctic exploration with a lot of fascinating history aboard her, and I'd be more than happy to take you for a tour.
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Offline molesworth

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Re: Patrick O'Brien, C.S. Forester, the Royal Navy, and Napoleonic history
« Reply #7 on: November 02, 2020, 10:54:43 AM »
... And if your voyages ever bring you to Australia I can recommend the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney, which has tall ships, a destroyer and a submarine to explore.
I'll second that recommendation.  It's a superb museum and I spent hours wandering through it.

In fact, your thread has provided another little nudge to me to get back to editing my great-grandfather's memoirs. He wrote them in the 1920s, describing his life experiences from the 1860s to the 1900s. In the earlier chapters he provides some wonderfully vivid word pictures of life at sea in sailing ships - the rations, adventures in various ports, storms at sea, interactions with various natives, disease, and the ships themselves.

He describes gun-running to Taiping rebels, taking part in the Great Tea Race of 1866 (Wikipedia has a good article about this event), a late autumn narrow escape from Hudson's Bay, a few ship wrecks and a couple of near misses, and the intricacies of the legal side of the shipping industry, such as buying and selling ships, court cases brought about by ship losses, and an insurance court case. Yet while he told a great story, it's also become apparent from my research that he was an unreliable narrator (which just makes his story all the more interesting).
Now that would make an amazing book, and certainly one I'd read.  I'm not much into the dry details of history, but I love biographies of people who lived through interesting times, and have tales of adventure to tell.

One of my favourite records from the last days of sail is "Around Cape Horn" by Captain Irving Johnson.  He joined the crew of the four-master Peking in 1929 and filmed his experience of sailing from Germany to Valparaiso via Cape Horn.  It's a great piece of history, and also superbly and humorously narrated by Johnson, almost in one breath from start to finish.
Days spent at sea are not deducted from one's allotted span - Phoenician proverb

Offline gwiz

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Re: Patrick O'Brien, C.S. Forester, the Royal Navy, and Napoleonic history
« Reply #8 on: November 03, 2020, 05:09:31 AM »
In fact, your thread has provided another little nudge to me to get back to editing my great-grandfather's memoirs. He wrote them in the 1920s, describing his life experiences from the 1860s to the 1900s. In the earlier chapters he provides some wonderfully vivid word pictures of life at sea in sailing ships - the rations, adventures in various ports, storms at sea, interactions with various natives, disease, and the ships themselves.
I envy you.  My grandfather sailed on both the Cutty Sark and the Thermopylae, but he died before I was born and an aunt with minimalist tendencies threw out his papers, so all I have is one photo and a few word-of-mouth memories.
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Offline Peter B

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Re: Patrick O'Brien, C.S. Forester, the Royal Navy, and Napoleonic history
« Reply #9 on: November 03, 2020, 05:26:13 AM »
In fact, your thread has provided another little nudge to me to get back to editing my great-grandfather's memoirs. He wrote them in the 1920s, describing his life experiences from the 1860s to the 1900s. In the earlier chapters he provides some wonderfully vivid word pictures of life at sea in sailing ships - the rations, adventures in various ports, storms at sea, interactions with various natives, disease, and the ships themselves.
I envy you.  My grandfather sailed on both the Cutty Sark and the Thermopylae, but he died before I was born and an aunt with minimalist tendencies threw out his papers, so all I have is one photo and a few word-of-mouth memories.

A shame you've lost the papers, but the memories and photo are something at least.

Oh, and speaking of the Cutty Sark, my great-grandfather claimed to have beaten it on a Sydney-China run. Although the Cutty Sark was a much faster ship, my great-grandfather took his ship on a short cut through pirate-infested waters, and got lucky - something of a summary of his life, from what I've discovered.

Offline JayUtah

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Re: Patrick O'Brien, C.S. Forester, the Royal Navy, and Napoleonic history
« Reply #10 on: November 03, 2020, 08:24:59 PM »
Yes, add The Caine Mutiny to the list.  I loved that book.

O'Brien's writing style definitely compels one either to love it or to hate it.  Yes, you can also certainly write it off as a hook or a gimmick.  I just like the way it flows.

Scotland is definitely on the menu, when circumstances permit.  I've always wanted to visit Scapa Flow.  And Islay, for ... reasons.  I'm a Bell (Borders) on my mother's side.  And if you go farther back, there's some MacInnes, MacFarlane, and MacLarens in there, but probably not enough to let me wear the tartan.  But thank you for the specific recommendations.

Yes, Irving Johnson!  The film is on YouTube.  What a great story.

Bark EUROPA looks fantastic!  Square/full rigs are definitely more fun to sail than gaff rigs, even on a smaller ship.  And they take more skill.

But back to O'Brien.  Rumor has it he basically lived at the Admiralty and fashioned most of the novels after what he read in ships' logs and official dispatches.  Aubrey's criminal trial (sorry, slight spoiler) was taken right out of a contemporary casebook.  More importantly, much of Capt. Aubrey's exploits, at least early on, are those of Thomas Cochrane.  There really is a single RN officer who inspired the character.
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Offline mako88sb

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Re: Patrick O'Brien, C.S. Forester, the Royal Navy, and Napoleonic history
« Reply #11 on: November 04, 2020, 12:22:50 PM »
I’m a big fan of this genre. Started with the books by Alexander Kent then moved onto CS Forester, Dudley Pope and Richard Woodman. One author who only has 5 books in the genre is Walter Jon Williams with his Privateers & Gentleman series that I really enjoyed. I tried one of Patrick O’Briens books but he just didn’t click with me. After watching Master & Commander, I decided to give him another try and I’m sure glad I did. Some fantastic writing by him. When I got to the chase scene in Desolation Island, I was reading it in my truck before starting work. I became so engrossed with that particular part of the book that I simply couldn’t put the book down and go in to start my shift. I ended up being a few minutes late which was only the 2nd time for me during the 25 years I had been with the company at that time. That was by far the most gripping thing I have ever read. Absolutely shocking how it ended. The movie has a variation of the chase scene that I thoroughly enjoyed but the book version knocks it out of the park. Of course the rest of the series is great and I should go through it again but maybe when I retire in a few years.

Currently, I’ve been reading David Poyer’s books about modern naval warfare that has progressed to WW3. While waiting for his latest release, I started his 3 book series about naval combat during the American Civil War.

Offline Dalhousie

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Re: Patrick O'Brien, C.S. Forester, the Royal Navy, and Napoleonic history
« Reply #12 on: November 16, 2020, 01:03:45 AM »

My last visit to the U.K. afforded little beyond London, Cambridge, Dover, and Oxfordshire.  I desperately want to visit Portsmouth, especially to spend approximately the rest of my life studying HMS Victory.  Any other important maritime sites I should visit on my next voyage?

There is much more to Portsmouth than Victory.  There is the 19th century Warrior, the world's first ocean going armoured warship.  A truly amazing restoration and absolutely huge.  Then there is 16th C Mary Rose. Both the preserved wreck and a reconstruction, with artefacts placed in context. With these you have 300 years of warship and maritime evolution.  Between Victory and Warrior you have M33, a WWI coastal bombardment monitor, and the only surviving warship from the Dardanelles campaign.

Then there is the submarine museum, with the modernised WWII submarine Alliance, Holland 1 – the Royal Navy's first submarine, and a WWII midget submarine X24, the class that crippled the Tirpitiz and Takao and scouted the D-day beaches.

The navy and submarine museums are also excellent, and there is much historic architecture round the town and the navy base.

Offline Dalhousie

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Re: Patrick O'Brien, C.S. Forester, the Royal Navy, and Napoleonic history
« Reply #13 on: November 16, 2020, 01:06:21 AM »
Julian Stockwin has a series about a wig maker called Thomas Kydd who is pressed and eventually reaches the quarter deck (so far) during the Napoleonic wars.  Yes, there were examples of this in real life.  Stockwin usually gives some historical background to each book as well.