Books: The habit of victory - in the year 1815b

Forget Amis and the Britpack, never mind the bad- boy Scots and the sensitive Irish: the most fashionable literary cult of the last few years is the sea-saga of Patrick O'Brian, whose nautical stories of the Napoleonic era have an astonishing list of devotees. As the latest volume makes its appearance our own aficionado, philosopher Galen Strawson, explains his fascination
There are people who do not profoundly admire Patrick O'Brian's series of historical novels about Captain Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy and his friend Dr Stephen Maturin, the Irish-Catalan physician, naturalist and secret agent. These people fall into two main classes - those who have not read O'Brian, and have perhaps never heard of him, and those who are determined not to like his books because so many other people like them so much. It is possible that there's a third group, comprising those who have read him and have ingenuously failed to enjoy him. The existence of this group awaits empirical confirmation, however, and in order to belong to it you must be tired of life or territorially threatened.

The Yellow Admiral (HarperCollins pounds 16.99) is the 18th book in the series, which begins in Minorca on 1 April, 1800 with Master and Commander (1970). All the books have a basis in historical fact, and the sequence has now - 6,000 pages later - reached February 1815: the British-American war of 1812-1814 has ended, Napoleon has just left Elba for France, the Napoleonic Wars are about to enter their last 100 days. There is absolutely no point in writing a review of The Yellow Admiral because those who have not read O'Brian should begin at the beginning with Master and Commander, and those who have will not only not be influenced by any review, but will also prefer not to be told the plot. It's enough to say that Aubrey and Maturin are now part of the British fleet blockading Brest, and that the O'Brians, like Aubrey when he goes back to sea, will find The Yellow Admiral a welcome return to routine. ("The O'Brians" are the admirers of O'Brian, as "the Indefatigables" and "the Sophies" are the crews of HMS Indefatigable and HMS Sophie). They will also be relieved that the last pages of The Yellow Admiral appear to entail a 19th volume.

Fifteen years in 6,000 pages suggests a pace of about 400 pages a year, but the true rate of change is far more peculiar. The first 12 of the 15 years pass in under 2,000 pages, and then, at some point in the sixth book (The Fortune of War, 1979), in which the 1812 war between Britain and the United States breaks out, the series enters a time warp, a kind of temporal "Klein bottle" - or perhaps it is what Kurt Vonnegut calls a "chronosynclastic infundibulum". In consequence, the next two years take 4,000 pages - largely for reasons which O'Brian sets out in his introduction to volume 10 (The Far Side of the World, 1984). By this point, he notes, he is "running short of history". Had he known how much pleasure he was to take in this kind of writing, and how many books were to follow the first, "he would certainly have started the sequence much earlier [than 1800] ... Historical time has not yet run out ... but even in the early 19th century the year contained only 12 months, and it is possible that in the near future the author ... may be led to make use of hypothetical years, rather like those hypothetical moons used in the calculation of Easter: an 1812a, as it were, or even an 1812b."

This is a slightly disingenuous declaration, for O'Brian is already up to about 1812d by this time, and has dipped in and out of 1813. But his readers immediately forgive him.

O'Brian follows C S Forester in this naval genre, and he explains part of the cause of its popularity in his introduction to Master and Commander: "When one is writing about the Royal Navy of the 18th and early 19th centuries it is difficult to do full justice to one's subject: for so very often the improbable reality outruns fiction." The record of the Royal Navy during the period is so remarkable - lacking numerical superiority, it captured or destroyed more than seven enemy warships for every one of its own that was captured or destroyed, and lost only five ships of the line to the enemies' 159 - that O'Brian repeats the point in his prefaces to The Mauritius Command (volume 4, 1977) and The Fortune of War: his "imagination could not outdo the facts".

The Royal Navy had the "habit of victory". Many of its captains practised Nelson's tactics ("Never mind the manoeuvres - always go straight at 'em"), while the enemy "timidly formed line to await the onslaught", as Brian Lavery says in Nelson's Navy: The Ships, Men and Organisation 1793-1815, to which Patrick O'Brian wrote the foreword. O'Brian, his imagination outdone, sticks strictly to written sources in his accounts of actions at sea: "When I describe a fight I have log-books, official letters, contemporary accounts or the participants' own memoirs to vouch for every exchange."

This self-denying ordinance costs him nothing and secures, as he remarks, the jewel of authenticity. He restricts his fictional invention to his characters and to the other parts of their lives. He takes them round the world - to the Baltic, the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, the Pacific, to India, Australia, Antarctica and the Americas - captain and naval surgeon, playing music (violin and cello), enduring storms, negotiating with foreign potentates, studying natural history, lusting, loving hopelessly, marrying, and (in one case) fornicating, united in their hatred of Napoleon's oppression, deep in friendship in spite of a number of divergent loyalties (Maturin is both an Irish and a Catalonian nationalist, and a Catholic).

How might one criticise these grossly rewarding books? Two or three of them are somewhat less good than the others. There are stretches of loose phrasing in 6,000 pages. The arrested chronology is occasionally troubling, especially when one reads the whole series in rapid succession, and tries to make sense of the growing-up of the Aubrey and Maturin children. The series is also subject to one major Wiederholungzwang, or compulsion to repeat, in the way it continually raises Aubrey up into success, and then throws him back down into destitution and a pit of lawyers (he hits bottom again in The Yellow Admiral).

The Irish idioms of Stephen Maturin, which increase in frequency as the series goes on, sometimes seem implausible and excessive (an objection heard from those who are Irish). And some may worry (unreasonably) about the anachronistic prescience of Maturin's pre-Darwinian speculations on natural history. Others may find Diana Villiers, who marries Maturin, too dashingly styled: they may prefer O'Brian's long, oblique study of Sophie Williams, who marries Aubrey, or Louisa Wogan (in Desolation Island, vol 5, 1978), or the remarkable Clarissa Oakes (who first appears in Clarissa Oakes, Vol 15, 1992).

Certain things will jar, here and there, but the sequence as a whole is an extraordinary vehicle of happiness. O'Brian's gift for occasional detail touches Tolstoy's - something that a virtuoso of detail like John Updike can never do, because he is too conscious and worded. O'Brian's development of Aubrey's character from book to book has genius - it seems that it is out of O'Brian's hands - it is as if he has unwittingly bootstrapped himself into it by having first imagined Maturin, through whose eyes Aubrey's development is registered. Maturin is no less interesting in his intense, irritable, irrepressibly investigative delicacy of feeling. But he is more fixed in character, and, as a fictional creature, more of an achievement, less of an astonishment.

In O'Brian, the ships and the sea are as important as people. It's possible to get by with an impressionistic understanding of the many naval terms (from "bumkin" to "cunt-splice" to "yellow admiral"), but things have now been made much easier by the publication of A Sea of Words: A Lexicon and Companion for Patrick O'Brian's Seafaring Tales, by Dean King, John Hattendorf and J Worth Estes (Henry Holt, $14, available on import from Macmillan). O'Brian is a vast expert on these matters, and on many other subjects - insomnia, bad jokes, physical addiction, political corruption, early 19th-century medicine, land enclosure, sexual and marital dukkha (gloom), the pathology of treason, the squalor of the law. He draws heavily on Robert Hughes's book The Fatal Shore in Clarissa Oakes and The Nutmeg of Consolation (vol 14, 1991), which take Aubrey and Maturin to Australia for the second time, and exploits James Atlay's careful account of Lord Cochrane's trial in The Reversal of the Medal (vol 11, 1986), in which Aubrey is wrongly convicted of financial fraud, and caught up in one of the most touching moments in literature.

The reach of O'Brian's intelligence shows the breadth of his sympathies. He has sexual common sense, which he can plausibly attribute to his 19th- century characters in a way in which his heroine Jane Austen could not. He understands the charm of swear-words, which he can use where Forester could not, and put memorably into the mouths of children. He is deeply non-judgmental, and has a proper loathing of what is arguably the most dangerous of all human emotions: righteous indignation. Finally, he tells wonderful stories, in which events on land are as important as those at sea.

If O'Brian's popularity continues to grow, some will feel impelled to attack. The O'Brians will be interested, but not concerned; they have the habit of victory. They hope that O'Brian will continue to write well into the next century, and that Jack Aubrey - like Cochrane, one of his main models - will be instrumental in the liberation of Chile and Peru (1819-22) and then of Brazil (1823-5). There are several websites devoted to O'Brian's work, and is worth a hit. There is also a newsletter available from the Marketing Department, HarperCollins, 77 Fulham Palace Road, London, W6 8JB.

! `The Yellow Admiral' is published by HarperCollins at pounds 16.99. Also re-issued: `The Golden Ocean', Patrick O'Brian's first novel of the sea (HarperCollins pounds 14.99)