FRANCE: Napoleon's naval wars and Patrick OBrien

Cameron Sawyer says: Speaking of the Napoleonic Wars, have any WAISers read the historical novels of Patrick O'Brian concerning the naval part of these wars?

I don't really like historical fiction, preferring the real thing.  A friend of mine in Nashville, a semi-famous writer, spent one entire year in the 1980's reading and rereading the couple of dozen novels in this series, but I resisted his recommendations (I thought that writer's block had driven him crazy).  For years after that, I ignored the advice of other friends, and even my own father, to read them.  Then one day I was on a week-long sailing trip and found that I had forgotten the bag I had packed with reading material.  One or another of O'Brian's novels was all I could find on board to read, so I had no choice.  

And from that moment I was hooked.  These works so far transcend the genre of historical fiction that I can hardly find words.  The scrupulously researched historical facts and the perfect historical details (in language, dress, naval tactics, naval customs, politics, medicine, science, even music, you name it -- O'Brian was a perfect polymath) are merely a vehicle for what is, in essence, truly great literature.  I can't really think of any finer characterizations in literature, or any better portrayal of a complicated friendship between the most unlikely of characters (the main characters in all of these books is an English Navy captain, the gruff, Protestant, anti-intellectual Aubrey, and a ship's surgeon cum naturalist cum spy, the half-Basque, half-Irish, Catholic, opium-addicted Maturin). I'll bet Christopher has read these.  I do not think any WAISer would regret trying one of these (you will thank me later).  Many of you will probably reread them over and over again, as I have.

RH:I belong to the faction, not fiction school, but Cameron has a point. Faction means stuff you think you have to read, fiction stuff which you really want to read, so much so that you get dragged along.  My preference is for TV documentaries.  The excellent British TV series on Napoleon contains scenes which are obviously re-enactments. Is the film "Der Untergang" faction or fiction?  What about War and Peace, and its film version?

Carlos Lopez, who has written a book on Cochrane, says the O'Brien stories are more fiction than faction:
I found Patrick O'Brien's novels fascinating but historically naive to say the least. I find particularly disturbing his narratives on the South American Wars of Independence. Lord Cochrane's exploits are totally distorted,  bitter and mortal enemies appear as friends. and historical truth is totally ignored. As the author of several naval histories of the period, I envy O'Brien. Oh what fun it must be to just seat  in front of the computer and imagine naval battles and feats of navigation without ever having to search in the archives. To get the name of one governor who greeted Lord Cochrane in Mexico took me ten years. O'B would have done it in the seconds. But people must enjoy reading  fiction more than the true story. His books rank very high on My biography of Lord Cochrane is in the 1,256,000 place!  RH: It is very hard to get serious books published. The monumental two-volume biography of Leland Stanford by WAISer Norman Tutorow was published only after a heroic struggle. I congratulate him on publishing an important work which even Stanford University Press would not take on for fear of losing money.  It was finally published by Arthur Clark, which did a splendid job. Since Stanford was an important California figure, it is titled The Governor.
As a Senator, Stanford was also a national figure.  Please encourage your libraries to purchase a copy.  For details. e-mail

Robert Crow writes: I have just finished reading the thirteenth of O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels and may not read another piece of fiction until I have completed the rest (seven or so). Cameron Sawyer's assessment is right on target, in my opinion. "Dragged along" is an appropriate description of my own delightful plight: when I start reading one of these stories, I have trouble doing much else until I am finished; and I am thirsty for the next one.  Small quibble: Maturin is half-Catalan, not half-Basque -- not much of a difference in the U.S. but a big one in Spain.
Incidentally, for those who like their history with a fictional twist or vice versa -- but who really appreciate meticulous historical research -- I would recommend the Flashman series by George MacDonald Fraser. These are hilarious and somewhat salacious accounts of how a coward and villain came to be regarded as a hero in Victorian England -- in the Afghan Wars, the Charge of the Light Brigade, Little Bighorn, and elsewhere.  It all begins when Tom Brown (of Tom Brown's Schooldays)
bests Harry Flashman (a notorious bully) at Rugby and gets him booted out.  Again, very well written and tough to put down once started -- particularly the earlier ones.

Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: February 27, 2005