Patrick O’Brian, sentimentality, & redemption through observation

As I often do as winter shows its unwelcome face, I am turning to Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels for solace, energy, and inspiration. This weekend I copied over — dictated via my voice-recognition software, actually — the passage below. It comes from “The Reverse of the Medal,” in which both our heroes, Captain Jack Aubrey and his particular friend/surgeon/naturalist/spy, Stephen Maturin, suffer horrid reversals.

I read for and find different things every time through this 4000-page opus (20.5 volumes) This time through, as I write my own book about sensitivity to experience, I’m noticing especially how richly responsive to experience both men are, albeit it in very different ways.

So I was taken by this passage, about halfway through the novel, in which Stephen, deeply blackly despondent over setbacks in both his love life and his espionage, finds the deepening blackness brightened by the natural world to which he is so deeply attached. It’s a lovely piece of writing — the sort in which the slight faults make the strengths more evident. It picks up where a horse-drawn coach has dropped Stephen off in a village near Aubrey’s place, to which he will walk. It is just dawn; he has ridden in the coach all night. A couple of observations at end.

A few minutes later Stephen was standing there with his baggage by the side of the road while the dim coach disappeared in the dust-cloud of its own making and a long trail of early-morning rooks passed overhead. Presently the door of the ale-house opened and an amiable slut appeared, her hair done up in little rags, very like a Hottentot’s, and her garment held close at the neck with one hand. “Good morning, now, Mrs. Comfort,” said Stephen. “In time pray let the boy put these things behind the bar till I send for them. I mean to walk to Ashgrove over the fields.”

“You will find the Captain there, with some saucy foremast jacks and that wicked old Killick. But won’t you step in, sir, and take a little something? It’s a long, long way, after a night in the coach.”

Stephen knew that the Jericho could run to nothing more than tea or small beer, both equally repugnant to him in the morning; he thanked her, and said he believed he should wait until he had walked up an appetite; and when asked whether it would be that wicked old Killick who came in the card for his portmanteau he said he would make a point of asking the Captain to send him.

For the first mile his road was a lane between high banks and hedges, with woods on the left hand and fields on the right — well-sprung wheat and hay — and the banks were starred all along with primroses, while the hedges had scores of very small cheerful talkative early birds, particularly goldfinches in their most brilliant plumage; and in the hay a corncrake was already calling. Then when the flatland begin to rise and fall this lane branched out into two paths, though on carrying on over a broad pasture — a single piece of 50 or even 60 acres with some colts in it — and the other, now little more than a trace, leading down among the trees. Stephen followed the second; it was steep going, encumbered with brambles and dead bracket on the edge of the wood and farther down with fallen branches and the dead tree or two, but near the bottom he came to a ruined keeper’s cottage standing on a grassy plat, its turf kept short by the rabbits that fled away at his approach. The cottage has lost its roof long since and was filled up right with lilac, not yet in bloom, while nettle and elder had overwhelmed the outbuilding behind; but there was still a stone bench by the door. Stephen sat upon it, leaning against the wall. Down here in the hollow the night had not yet yielded, and there was still a green twilight. An ancient wood: the slope was too great and the ground too broken for it ever to have been cut or tended, and the trees were still part of the primaeval forest; vast shapeless oaks, often hollow and useless for timber, held out their arms and their fresh young green leaves almost to the middle of the clearing, held them out with never a tremor, for down here the air was so still that gossamer floated with no perceptible movement at all. Still and silent: although far-off blackbirds could be heard away on the edge of the wood and although the stream at the bottom murmured perpetually the combe was filled with a living silence.

On the far side, high on the bank of the stream, there was a badger’s holt. Some years ago Stephen had watched a family of fox-cubs playing there, but now it seemed to him that the badgers were back: fresh earth had been flung out, and even from the bench he could distinguish a well-trodden path. “Perhaps I shall see one,” he said; and after a while his mind drifted away and away, running through a Gloria he and Jack had heard in London, a very elaborate Gloria by Frescobaldi.  “But perhaps it is too late,” he went on, when the Gloria was ended and the light had grown stronger, brighter green, almost the full light of dawn. Yet scarcely were those words formed in his mind before he heard a strong wrestling, sweeping bumping sound, and a beautifully striped badger came into sight on the other side of the brook, walking backwards with a load of bedding under its chin. It was an old fat badger, and he grumbled and cursed all the way. The last uphill stretch was particularly difficult, with the burden catching on hazel or thorn on either side and leaving long wisps, and just before the entrance the badger lifted its head and looked round, as though to say “Oh it is so bloody awkward.” Then, having breathed it took a fresh grip on the bundle, and with a final oath vanished backwards into the holt.

“Why do I feel such an intense pleasure, such an intense satisfaction?” asked Stephen. For some time he reached for a convincing reply, but finding none he observed “The fact is that I do.” He sat on as the sun’s rays came slowly down through the trees, lower and lower, and when the lowest reached a branch not far above him it caught a dewdrop poised upon release. The drop instantly blazed crimson, and a slight movement of his head made it show all the colors of the spectrum with extraordinary purity, from a red almost too deep to be seen through all the others to the ultimate violent and back again. Some minutes later a cock pheasant’s explosive call broke the silence in the spell and he stood up.

At the edge of the wood the blackbirds were louder still, they had been joined by blackcaps, thrushes, larks, monotonous pigeons, that a number of birds that should never have sung at all. His way now led him through ordinary country, field after field, eventually reaching Jack’s woods, with honey buzzard said once vested. But it was ordinary country raised to the highest power: the mounting sun shone through a faint trail was never a hint of glare, giving the colors of freshness and intensity Stephen had never seen equaled. The green world of the gentle, pure blue sky might just have been created; and as the day warmed a hundred scents drifted through the air. 

“Returning thanks at any length is virtually impossible,’ he reflected, sitting on a stile and watching two hares at play, sitting up and fibing at one another, then leaping and running and leaping again. “How few manage even five phrases with any effect. And how intolerable are most dedications too, even the best. Perhaps the endless repetition of flat, formal praise” — for the Gloria was still running in his head — “is an attempt at overcoming this, an attempt at expressing gratitude by another means. I shall put this thought to Jack,” he said, having considered for a moment. The hares raced away out of sight and he walked on, singing in a harsh undertone “Quoaniam tu solus sanctus, tu solus Dominus, tu solus altissimus” until a cuckoo called away on his left hand: cuckoo, cuckoo, loud and clear, followed by a cackling laugh and answered by a fainter cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo far over on the right.

His happiness sank at once…

As well it might, for the bird spoke with unbearable directness to his love life. 


  • One of the beauties of O’Brian’s monumental work — over 4000 pages; Proust, but with battle scenes, salt water, deadlier gossip, and better breakfasts — is that he can take the time to stretch out like this, to slow down; to try to capture a smart, sensitive, man being perfectly still. To say nothing of the incomparable English countryside.
  • Part of me thinks this does not quite work — that O’Brian’s attempt to have Stephen pay homage to nature’s redemptive beauty, a healing that is open only to slow, attentive observation and a sensitive heart, surrenders to sentimentality. O’Brian recognizes this danger too, which is why he lodges his caveat (via Stephen) that no homage, no thanks, at least in words, will ever quite work: Maybe it takes musical homage, formalized as a recognition of God’s glory, to express the gratitude. 
  • Thus throughout, O’Brian, even though he writes fast, or at least fluidly — for his manuscripts, in elegant, longhand, bear few revisions — does his best to steer clear of sentimentalism: Other than Stephen’s own critical examination of how deeply he is moved, there is no hand-waving to tell us how beautiful and moving this is; no florid adjectives. One might argue he crosses the line with the dewdrop; maybe that’s a bit much. Then again, Stephen’s observation of that wet prism jibes perfectly with what we’ve seen before in this intensely curious and informed observer; so, arguably, this is not too much. And I like too how, shortly after this, as Stephen gets up and walks through other birdsong, O’Brian ends the list of signing birds with a reference to “monotonous pigeons, and a number of birds that should never have sung at all.” 
  • Finally, while I always thrill to O’Brian’s vocabulary — various, intricate, always necessary — dictating this passage via my voice-recognition software made me even more aware of how much original and fresh language he brings. Some rich stuff not in the standard vocabulary:   
    • Hottentot
    • portmanteau
    • well-sprung wheat
    • corncrake
    • trace (for trail)
    • plat
    • combe
    • holt
    • fibing, for which I could find no definition

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