H.M.S. Surprise by Patrick O'Brian: A review

H.M.S. Surprise is the third in Patrick O'Brian's twenty book historical fiction series concerning the English Navy in the Napoleonic War and early 19th century period. The entire series has been acclaimed by professional reviewers and ordinary readers alike. The books are extremely well-written with tenacious attention to detail and that continues to be true in this third entry.

Fans of naval history love the series for its wealth of detail regarding the most arcane aspects of life on a navy ship in the early 19th century. O'Brian obliges them with long passages describing, in the terminology of the period, how the ships are set up and how they are run, and the passages concerning the naval battles, I am sure, have those who are turned on by such things drooling. That really isn't me and I confess my eyes glaze over a bit at those times and I tend to skim hurriedly through them.

But these books aren't just about the hardships of life on board ship and about naval battles or else I wouldn't be reading them. At their heart, they are about the relationship between Captain Jack Aubrey and doctor/spy Stephen Maturin and that is what I find compelling in them.

I also find particularly interesting the fact that, even though the books were written in the late 20th century, they are very much in the style of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The language that is used, the particular style of phrasing could easily have come from a Jane Austen book, if Jane had written naval histories. This increases their feeling of authenticity and makes it easier for the reader to lose him/herself in the story.

The story here takes Jack and Stephen and the Surprise on a long voyage across the Atlantic, down along the coast of Brazil, then through the perilous southern ocean and back up to the Indian Ocean. They spend time on the teeming Indian subcontinent itself. Their travels in all these places are full of enough adventure to keep even the most easily bored reader turning those pages to see what happens next.

The adventures start even before the advent of the Surprise when Stephen is betrayed and is captured by the French in Spain and there undergoes terrible tortures. He manages to get word out and it is hardly a spoiler to reveal that he is rescued by Jack and a hardy band since he does continue to appear in later books. Unfortunately, after rescuing Stephen, Jack, who has been just half a step ahead of the bailiffs for some time now, is finally run to ground and clapped in a debtors' prison. He is extracted from there by the Admiralty in order to take command of the Surprise and sail the Indian Ocean in search of Napoleon's fleet.

Affairs of the heart take their place in this book, as well, as we find Jack now engaged to his beloved Sophia, much against the better judgment of her mother, Mrs. Williams. Meanwhile, Stephen continues to be obsessed with the beautiful Diane Villiers, who has now decamped to India with her lover, Canning. When we learn that Stephen's voyage will also take him to India, we can guess that they will meet there, which they do with utterly unforeseen consequences.

This book spends many pages on developing the character of Maturin. He is something of an earlier day Charles Darwin as he studies and collects specimens of flora and fauna at their every stop along the way. He is also a student of human culture as he observes it in every port of call, seeking to learn languages and customs. He accepts people as they are and seems to fit in wherever he goes. His interactions with an untouchable child in India are particularly poignant.

O'Brian's writing is also suffused with humor, often provoking smiles or chuckles and, less often, belly laughs, and it is one of Maturin's collecting expeditions, in Brazil, that is the impetus of my favorite line in this book, the one that I found laugh-out-loud funny.

When Maturin returned to the ship with his specimens, he brought with him a sloth, which quickly became a favorite with the crew but which, for some reason, cast a baleful eye on Jack. At one point, attempting to make friends with the creature, Jack feeds it some grog. When Stephen comes upon the two of them later, he views the sloth, sniffs its breath
and realizes it is drunk, at which point he turns to Jack and cries:
Jack, you have debauched my sloth!
Name me one other book where you would be likely to read such a line! 


  1. Thanks so much for linking this in to Books You Loved. If you pop back in a few days you should see a lot of interesting links. Have a great day.

    1. I'm happy to participate, Carole, and I'll definitely check back to see the other favorite books of the month.

  2. I think this is my favorite in the series, and the line about the sloth always cracks me up. It has to be one of the most frequently quoted!

    1. That line is priceless, Lisa! I confess I'm really not that interested in naval history but I truly like the sly humor of the series and the relationships of the characters. Plus I like the fact that he writes in the style of the period about which he is writing. I look forward to reading the next in the series.

  3. The debauched sloth: that's one of my favorite lines, too, though there are many, many more from the series--the rat poop in the coffee beans, and Jack says something like "Ah, thought I recognized that tang." This book is the one where the voyage really gets going and hooks you for the next 16(?). I love those books!

    1. They really are extremely well-written and with a lot of humor, Hoover Boo. My husband tried to get me to read them for years. Maybe I should listen to him more often!


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