The ruler of the waves

Stories of the sea have thrilled readers for generations. Claudia Pritchard salutes a master of the genre who is about to reach a new audience
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The Independent Culture

The spectacle of Russell Crowe bestriding the decks of a three-masted sailing ship in skintight breeches, his white shirt unlacing in the frenzy of a battle waged at sea, a blond ponytail pulled back over rakish sideburns to reveal a weatherbeaten face contorted by physical effort will bring no end of pleasure to the film star's admirers. But the long-awaited release of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, in which Crowe plays the Captain of HMS Surprise, will have other observers less easily satisfied. The adaptation of the sea stories by Patrick O'Brian will be scrutinised by his coterie of fans with less mercy than Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey would show to a deserter. One halyard out of place, one bogus order, and the worldwide militia that simply adores O'Brian will turn mutinous.

Appropriately for a film where water rushes relentlessly at, under and over the cast, Master and Commander has its genesis in a holiday so wet that 20th Century Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman alighted for amusement on the first book in the 20-volume roman fleuve and the one that gives the film the first half of its less than snappy name. Twelve years and $15m later, Master and Commander puts the Hollywood gloss on the writing career of O'Brian whom The New York Times once hailed as "the best novelist you've never heard of".

He was born Richard Patrick Russ in 1914, he claimed in Ireland, but it was actually in Buckinghamshire, and there starts the trail of obfuscation and secrecy that was the writer's hallmark. At pains to avoid comparisons between himself and his characters, he sheltered behind a cloud of contradiction and surmise. Such secrecy augmented the glamour of his marriage to a descendant of Tolstoy, the mother of the historian Count Nikolai Tolstoy, and his work in intelligence. He spoke French, Italian, Spanish and Catalan.

O'Brian wrote novels, stories, biographies of Picasso and of the botanist Joseph Banks; and he was virtually unknown until the American press began to champion his seafaring fiction. He had turned to the genre in 1970 when he was in his fifties, although he first experimented in the late 1940s with the story of an Irish midshipman's voyage with Commodore Anson. Anson's Centurion captured a Spanish vessel with more than a million pieces of eight. "I was more than usually penniless at the time, and even the vicarious contemplation of wealth was agreeable," O'Brian recalled later.

In embarking on naval fiction he was entering a congested shipping lane. Smollett had set sail first with the ripping voyages of Roderick Random in 1748. Captain Frederick Marryat, who had witnessed Nelson's funeral as a boy, launched his prolific career as an author in 1829 with the first of 26, mostly seafaring, novels. Many other retired seamen supplemented their incomes in retirement by putting pen to paper, and the public appetite for tales of heroism and valour was insatiable.

In the 19th century, fascination with the heroic and exotic life of the sailor was also translated into ballads, prints and patriotic songs such as "Hearts of Oak". John Masefield wrote of shaming conditions at sea with a political agenda; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a serial for the Strand magazine about a boy who sailed with Nelson. And then, in 1937, came C S Forester, an established novelist who introduced his blameless character Horatio Hornblower. "Forester wanted to study the question of the man alone, tormented by doubt and painfully shy," says the naval historian Colin White, an authority on Nelson and his navy.

So successful was Hornblower that his creator had to backtrack on his rapid rise through the ranks because he was running out of war. Forester had struck gold, and rival publishers were keen to get in on the act. Patrick O'Brian was only one of several writers who were steered in this lucrative direction, but he took the genre to a new level, with the accuracy of his research and character development. It is symptomatic of the novels featuring Aubrey and his ship's surgeon and spy Stephen Maturin, played in the film by Paul Bettany, that they open, not on the high seas, but at a musical soirée in Mahon. Aubrey who, like a duck, moves skilfully on water but clumsily on land, falls foul of his neighbour in the audience with his unrhythmical beating of time.

The unpromising start leads to an exceptional professional partnership and personal friendship. Aubrey, an enthusiastic amateur violinist, plays duets with Maturin, the brooding cellist. They are cheese and chalk respectively - fermenting and full-bodied, pale and arid. "The relationship between Aubrey and Maturin may not be homoerotic but it is a study of friendship," says White. "Right from the start when they almost get into a fight with each other until the end when they are like an old married couple, it is the sort of friendship that only men, straight or gay, can have with each other."

As befits an action blockbuster, the film Master and Commander does not open at a chamber music recital, but in the heat of battle during the Napoleonic wars, but the special bond between Aubrey and Maturin also intrigued director Peter Weir. He initially turned down the project in the 1990s, but was eventually persuaded by Rothman to undertake the formidable task of condensing the essence of 20 major novels into two hours' of film. "We have a little ship and we have a big ship, and within that very simple story, I thought I could be as detailed and as rich as I like," Weir says. "You will experience life on board a British frigate with the 197 men, boys, sheep and goats."

That life on board serves up plentiful rations of derring-do, close-quarter combat and repellent medical practices that have entertained generations of landlubbers in a language that has derived more expressions from the sea than any other source bar Shakespeare and the Bible.

In favouring attention to detail over an elaborate plot, Weir is treading in the footsteps of O'Brian whose meticulous scholarship is revered among the most exacting ranks of serving officers and naval historians. The writer was a familiar figure at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich where he drew on archive material and experts in order to recreate to perfection life on board a ship during the Napoleonic wars.

At a dinner in O'Brian's honour at Greenwich shortly before his death in 2000, serving naval officers rubbed shoulders with celebrity fans. Among the faithful was the actor Robert Hardy, who has recorded all of the books, in an abridged form approved by the author. The two became as close to being friends as seems to have been possible with O'Brian, and dined together regularly.

Another admirer of O'Brian , the playwright David Mamet, confessed to The New York Times that he was on the verge of writing a fan letter to his hero, but left it too late: "I sat at the breakfast table composing my note, and leafed through the newspaper and read of Patrick O'Brian's death."

Robert Hardy sums up the appeal of the books: "They are marvellous tales of the sea, simply thrilling, and the technical details reinforce that. The other great attraction is his portrayal of character. Take Maturin - his burning intellect and habit of taking opium. Sickliness, clumsiness and always getting everything wrong, always falling between the jolly boat and the ship. Patrick probably thought of himself as ugly, and I've a feeling that he thought of himself as Maturin, in that respect," he says.

Colin White agrees: "My theory, for what it is worth, is that Patrick O'Brian is Stephen Maturin, and that Jack Aubrey is the man he would like to be. What makes O'Brian unique is that as well as naval detail he writes with great truth about 18th-century music, botany, medicine, the role of women." In-jokes such as a discussion between Aubrey and Maturin on the obscure father (J S Bach) of the popular "London" (J C) Bach are designed to please, tease and flatter the well-informed and observant reader. "O'Brian spoke like a late 18th-century man and constructed his sentences with great care," White recalls. "He had no small talk, but if you got him talking on the 18th century he was scintillating."

Master and Commander, already on release in the US, is likely to have a direct knock-on to the future of ITV's Hornblower, encouraging more US investment in a third series, and more sales all around. All this interest in the sea is good news for Colin White, who as director of the organisation Trafalgar 200 will be presiding over a year-long celebration of Britain's relationship with the sea, Sea Britain 2005. The year 2005 marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, but it is intended that the programme of exhibitions, cultural events and collaboration overseas should be about valour rather than victory.

"We live in a time of moral uncertainty," says the producer of Hornblower, Andrew Benson, explaining the lasting attraction of naval heroism. "Loyalty, and duty, and standing by your comrades through thick and thin are very appealing." Such old-fashioned virtues certainly strike a chord with O'Brian's avid readers, and look set to be newly fashionable on the big screen.

'Master and Commander' by Patrick O'Brian is published by HarperCollins at £6.99. For more details about Trafalgar 200, visit