As regular port-swillers will know, I launched into a pretty heavy-duty Lenten reading project this year, immersing myself in multiple previously-unread works by C.S. Lewis and Ronald Knox, with some Augustine, Aquinas, Chesterton, Buckley and Belloc thrown in, too.

Well, friends, I tell you truly that I simply can’t keep this sort of thing up without a break from time to time.

To this end, my hand fell this week on my copy of Patrick O’Brian’s The Golden Ocean.  Written in the mid-50’s, it was his first sea novel and tells the story of Commodore Anson’s round-the-world cruise in the Centurion in 1740 to prey upon the Spanish in the Pacific.  The main characters of the book are a young midshipman named Peter Palafox and his family retainer, Sean, both of them Irish Protestants from the Back of Beyond.  (Anson was successful, by the bye.  While four of the five original ships in his squadron were either lost or scuttled, among other victories on land and at sea he succeeded in capturing the Spanish galleon Neustra Señora de Covadonga, carrying better than 1.3 million pieces o’ eight and a big dosh of silver as well, eventually getting back to Britain in 1744.)

Once done with this, I intend to move on immediately to O’Brian’s The Unknown Shore, also published in the 50’s.  It tells the story of another young midshipman, Jack Byron, and his friend Tobias Barrow, who is a surgeon’s mate.  They are among the crew of HMS Wager, which was attached to Anson’s squadron but was shipwrecked on the coast of Chile coming around the Horn.  The novel relates their various adventures both on ship and shore.

Each of these books is fairly entertaining and both offer a fascinating foreshadowing of many of the ideas O’Brian later brought to maturity in his Aubrey/Maturin novels.  (Indeed, Byron and Barrow are easily recognizable as early sketches of Aubrey and Maturin themselves.)  The writing and pacing are not as rich and masterful as they are in the A/M novels (at least the ones up to The Wine-Dark Sea, after which O’Brian fouled his own hawse and eventually scuttled himself, apparently out of a mix of exhaustion and cussedness), but they do already display signs of a quality I just could never find in Forster’s Hornblower series, a quality that later elevated the A/M novels to the level of literature, while the Hornblower books will forever remain simply fiction (not that I don’t enjoy them, of course).

As I say, I’m rereading these books mostly to give myself a breather from the more heavy-duty load.  But I’m also reading them in order to limber up for a post-Easter plunge back into the Aubrey/Maturin series, which I have not read for several years now.  And when I start that project, I plan to take the opportunity to do a series of posts here on a topic that has long burned, like slow-match, in the tub of my brain, viz, why Russell Crowe was so completely and utterly miscast as Jack Aubrey in Master and Commander.  Certain smarty-pantsed blog friends (yeah, I’m looking at YOU, Kathy!) have been taunting me about this for some time.  Well now I’m going to run out the guns and finally give you the broadside you’ve been asking for.