October 19, 2007


The High Seas' Man of War: a review of COCHRANE: The Real Master and Commander By David Cordingly (Ken Ringle, Washington Post)

Though far from humble about his creative talents, novelist Patrick O'Brian always stressed that the real-life Royal Navy exploits on which he based his 20-book Aubrey/Maturin saga far outstripped anything he could imagine. He also noted repeatedly that his swashbuckling scourge of the Napoleonic navy, "Lucky Jack" Aubrey, was grounded in the life and adventures of a genuine naval hero named Thomas Cochrane, about whom too little is remembered today.

Now comes British writer and historian David Cordingly, a former curator at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, to bring us up to date on Cochrane. If his biography is not quite a banquet for the reader, it is still most intriguing and satisfying fare. Within his nearly 85 years, Cochrane packed enough drama and history to shame both Horatio Nelson and Sir Francis Drake.

Not only was he an audaciously brave, sword-waving warrior, boarding hundreds of enemy ships amid cannon smoke and wreaking assorted havoc with shoreside raiding parties and ship-stealing "cutting out" expeditions, he was also a reformist gadfly in Parliament, a tireless tinkerer and inventor of everything from poison gas and tunneling techniques to electrical insulation, an author and pamphleteer, a pioneering advocate of both rocket bombardment and a steam-powered navy, and, just for good measure, a major on-the-scene player in the liberation of Chile and Peru from the Spanish, Brazil from the Portuguese and Greece from the Turks. He was the perfect romantic hero for the romantic age. Wrote Lord Byron: "There is no man I envy so much as Lord Cochrane."

O'Brian fans will find great satisfaction in smoking out similarities and differences between Cochrane and Aubrey.

We've previously mentioned that the Aubrey/Maturin novels are especially good iPod fare, since one of their greatest charms--that they are written as if the reader were present early in the 18th century and thoroughly familiar with the vocabulary of the sea--can also make them slow reading at times. Not only are the readings--by Patrick Tull--excellent in their own right, but since he doesn't slow down to puzzle out terms you don't either. You just have to follow along from the context. You may miss a bit here and there, but, in exchange, you don't get bogged down.

But this Summer I was listening to Desolation Island and Aubrey and Maturin spend so much time on land and set out on such a mundane voyage--transporting folks to Australia--that it started to become a concern that the narrative was just too slow to even walk to. Then, all of a sudden, the Dutch ship Waakzaamheid attacks when they're in the far south and seas are running so high that it quickly becomes clear that one or the other ship must perish with all hands, since conditions preclude capture. Here the pace was so quick and the sense of dread
so palpable--Jack Aubrey is genuinely outraged by the murderous nature of the attack, which is all out of proportion with his more English understanding of the niceties of war--that the listener/reader can hardly slow down as the action unfolds. This scene is so terrifying it puts the shark attacks in Jaws and the shower scene in Psycho near to shame. Thanks to Aubrey's horror at his action, the Dutch captain -- though we never meet him -- seems as cold-blooded as Bruce or as homicidally crazy as Norman. It's extraordinary story-telling.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 19, 2007 2:40 PM

You are right about that scene, it's intense, and one of those moments in prose when I've clearly "visualized" the scene simultaneously with reading it -- I mean palpably imagining it, down to tasting sea salt and smelling powder smoke.

Posted by: Twn at October 19, 2007 4:01 PM