O’Brian, Patrick: (03) H.M.S. Surprise (spoilers)

SPOILERS for H.M.S. Surprise; here’s the non-spoiler post if you got here by mistake.

I said that Post Captain was a book where Jack gets put through the wringer; H.M.S. Surprise is a book where Stephen perhaps literally gets put through the wringer. (O’Brian’s glossing of details was a sound decision.) First captivity, then Dil, then Canning (and another movie incident with the self-surgery), then Diana . . . (Speaking of glossing, I feel like I’m supposed to know where the “ancient small iron ring” came from, but I can’t bring it to mind now. If we’ve seen it before, it would have been nice to be reminded of that.)

At sea, there was the tense rounding of the Cape (I was surprised that they went first to Brazil to get to India, but it appears that this is a matter of prevailing winds), and the driving-off of Linois’s squadron from the East India Company’s convoy. And Sophie joining them off Madeira.

It’s hard for me to know what to think of Diana. I can’t like anyone who treats Stephen so, and yet I have some sympathy for her situation, which O’Brian paints clearly. I can’t imagine Diana happy, actually, absent a genderswitch or time travel.


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  1. It’s difficult for me to pick out a favorite from an epic, twenty volume story, but HMS Surprise has as good a shot as any as being my “favorite.” It’s got everything you can imagine–daring rescue from den of torture, humor (the sloth, etc.), dashing sea action (the near suicidal diversion of Linois is great stuff), emotional complications (the Stephen-Diana-Canning triangle)…plus, it has one of the most poignant chapters in the whole series, the interlude in India, which is a wonderful for its Kim-like feel as Stephen goes native, and then for the character of Dil. The resolution of that chapter gets me every time, with its understated but devastating end, and Stephen quoting the latin from the funeral mass (I assume, I’m not Catholic). Then there’s the whole Diana tangle, of course. O’Brian masterfully juggles emotional threads.
    I too have a lot of sympathy for Diana, although it’s easy to agree sometimes with a character from, I believe, The Surgeon’s Mate, who castigates her as “la garce” (“the bitch”). And I think you precisely put your finger on it…Diana is a character stuck in a time and place that just isn’t conducive to her personality finding contentment. She and Stephen have an interesting roller-coaster over the course of the series.

  2. I agree about Diana (whom I admire, but would probably not like). I find it interesting to think of her as a character escaped from a Jane Austen novel — unwilling to play the game, she has found her own unsatisfactory solution, whereby she can be unhappy on her own terms, rather than on someone else’s. It doesn’t work, but it was a brave attempt.
    When Alexandria Digital Literature first recommended the O’Brian novels to me — forecfully — H.M.S. Surprise was the one it predicted I would like best, followed closely by The Thirteen Gun Salute and The Letter of Marque. All in all, a good guess.

  3. No embedded links? My mention of Alexandria Digital Literature up there was supposed to be a link to http://www.alexlit.com. It’s intermittent and poorly-supported these days, probably on its last financial elbows, but it’s still the best book recommender I have ever seen, by an order of magnitude or two.

  4. David, you missed a closing quote mark which is why the link didn’t come through; I’ve fixed it.

  5. Also, content:
    I stopped looking at AlexLit quite a while ago, just because word-of-mouth gave more context. It’s a noble endeavour, though.
    I love the sloth (vampire!, wailing when it looks at Jack, happily settled somewhere where it drinks the altar wine) and the Bombay chapter, which has such amazing atmosphere and then such pain. Because I listen to these alone in the car, I sometimes talk to the characters–I found myself saying “Oh, Stephen” quite a lot, in a “you poor thing” kind of way. (I also remember saying, quite soon after, “Oh, Jack” in a “you endearingly silly creature, you” way at some terrible pun or another.) The daring action bits are great too, and the tense rounding of the Cape.
    As for Diana, I have the urge to quote _The Lady’s Not For Burning_ at her:
    If only inflicted pain could be as contagious
    As a plague, you might use it more sparingly.
    Or perhaps find something to the effect that her unhappiness doesn’t give her the right to make others unhappy along with her.
    However, she is kind enough to not tell Stephen that Jack refused her passage on the _Surprise_, which is something. (I didn’t have enough context to judge whether he was actually being a scrub by refusing her; would it really have got him in trouble?)
    All in all, great stuff, and a richer brew so far than the fourth, which I’m about halfway through.

  6. Kate: Re: Jack refusing Diana passage, of course it depends on one’s definition of “scrub”, but in contextual terms– that is, seen from the perspective of an early 19th cent. gentlemen– I don’t think he qualifies in this instance (Jack certainly has his scrubbish moments elsewhere, in spite of which, we love him anyway). I don’t think Jack is particularly worried about getting in trouble…as we shall see later, regulations could be massaged here and there as necessary. That was an excuse, as I would say Diana well knew.
    I always took that refusal as largely a manifestation of Jack’s protectiveness toward Stephen. Jack had his own awakening re: Diana back in Post Captain, at least as far as her toxic romantic side goes, and events in Surprise have only confirmed him in his impression. I think he perceives that she’s bad for Stephen, and he’s doing his part to help, in a “yes, it hurts to excise the tumor, but it’s for your own good” sort of way. It doesn’t ultimately work, of course, and we’d probably take it to be way too interfering/paternalistic, but I think he does it with good intentions. Jack is an interesting mix of penetration and cluelessness, as O’Brian shows (and Stephen observes) numerous times.
    Re: The Mauritius Campaign (I’m blanking if that’s the actual title, but it’s the one where Jack is appointed Commodore of an expedition to retake the Maritius islands), it’s a more straight forward sort of naval adventure… it does have a nicely drawn little psychological portrait of Clonfert, one of the captains serving under Jack, I thought, so keep your eye on that.

  7. Trent: yes, I agree that Jack was trying to protect Stephen, I was just wondering how thin his excuse really was.
    And yes, I’ve tentatively pegged Clonfert as being another James Dillon, someone other than Jack or Stephen whose psychological complexities are of much concern to Jack, Stephen, and the plot.

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