O'Brian's World


Thomas R. Edwards is well known in literary studies as the author of This Dark Estate, a landmark exegesis of Alexander Pope's poetry, and Imagination and Power, a study of poetry and politics that would later come to be acknowledged as one of the important precursors of the New Historicism. A leading member of the Rutgers English Department in the days when it was recognized as one of the best in the nation, he would become, with Richard Poirier, a founding editor of Raritan, perhaps the most influential American quarterly of the later twentieth century. In his retirement, he has continued to write regularly for The New York Review of Books and other publications.

The volume that now appears as O'Brian's World has also been a product of Edwards's retirement, a labor of love born equally of his great fondness for the Aubrey-Maturin novels and what began as the casual investigation of a few isolated details in Napoleonic naval history. The comprehensive reader's guide that eventually resulted, a superb example of what Nabokov once called the rare and sunlit world of natural scholarship, was originally produced for private circulation among a circle of friends. For years now, tattered and dog-eared copies, many smudged and faded from second- or third-generation photocopying, have been passed around among an ever-widening circle of O'Brian readers. It is at the repeated urging of these readers that the volume now appears in an XLibris edition.

The present editor of Raritan has graciously given permission to include "The O'Brian Touch," Edwards's essay on the Aubrey-Maturin novels, as an introduction to the present edition. Written at a point when the Aubrey-Maturin series had just begun to attract attention in the United States, and when many people had heard about them—misleadingly, as Edwards would effortlessly demonstrate— as little more than updated versions of C.S. Forester's Hornblower books, "The O'Brian Touch" made a compelling argument for their serious claims as literary or imaginative writing. If, today, those claims seem so self-evident as to be barely worth restating, it is worth remembering that Edwards's Raritan essay had a great deal to do with making them obvious to an important body of first-time readers.

There can be little doubt that Patrick O'Brian, at any rate, understood and appreciated Edwards's splendidly appreciative discussion of the Aubrey-Maturin series. O'Brian, as we now know, was a reclusive and mysterious figure, living and writing in a remote
European village, discouraging attempts at interviews, probably even oblivious—this is how it seemed—to reviews of his books or essays about his work. Even so, many readers of "The O'Brian Touch" assumed that a copy of the essay would make its way to O'Brian in his isolated village, and that Thomas Edwards would one day go to his mail to find an appreciative note from the author of Master and Commander and The Far Side of the World. But it was not to happen.

Or rather, it was not to happen in exactly that way. But O'Brian did, as it turns out, send a message of deep appreciation for Edwards's essay on his work. The Hundred Days, the first Aubrey-Maturin novel to appear after the publication of "The O'Brian Touch," begins with a pair of senior British naval lieutenants gazing out to sea through their telescopes from the Rock of Gibraltar. It is the spring of 1815. With Napoleon's defeat and his exile to Elba, the once-bustling harbor area has been left strangely silent and deserted. Now news has come of Napoleon's escape from Elba, and the laid-up British men-of-war that did so much to bring about his defeat are being hurriedly refitted. Virtually the last British squadron still afloat is that of Commodore Jack Aubrey, which has been urgently summoned home from Madeira. It is the return of this squadron that the two elderly lieutenants, keen critics of the most minute details of seamanship, are watching through their telescopes:

The breeze came aft and the whole squadron flashed out studdingsails, broad wings set in a thoroughly seamanlike manner: a glorious sight. . . . They were all of them sailing large, of course, all of them getting the last ounce of thrust from the dying breeze with all the skill learnt in more than twenty years of war; a noble spectacle, but one that after a while called for no particular comment, and presently the old lieutenant, John Arrowsmith, two months senior to his friend Thomas Edwards, said, "When I was young I always used to turn to the births and marriages in the Times as soon as I had done with the promotions and dispatches; but now I turn to the deaths."

"So do I," said Edwards.

The gesture is pure Patrick O'Brian: sly, whimsical, oblique, and so invisibly woven into the fabric of his imaginary world that only the most alert reader would be likely to recall that the elderly naval lieutenant
Thomas Edwards—a common enough English name, after all, then and now—shared his name with the author of a signally important essay on the Aubrey-Maturin novels. Yet this, more perhaps than the most carefully phrased personal letter, is the tribute O'Brian must have known the author of the "The O'Brian Touch" would most treasure: monumentum aere perennius. As long as there are readers of the Aubrey-Maturin series—and that, as no one who has read the novels can doubt, will be as long as the world contains serious and intelligent readers—lieutenant Thomas Edwards will be there in the opening paragraphs of The Hundred Days, peering out through his telescope with as keen and critical eye for the fine details of Aubrey's seamanship as another Thomas Edwards had once showed for the literary achievement of Aubrey's creator.