HMS Surprise (novel)

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HMS Surprise
HMS Surprise cover.jpg
First edition
Author Patrick O'Brian
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series Aubrey-Maturin series
Genre Historical novel
Publisher Collins (UK)
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback) & Audio Book (Cassette, CD)
Pages 416 pp
ISBN 0-00-221316-8
OCLC 722008
LC Class PZ3.O1285 Hac PR6029.B55
Preceded by Post Captain
Followed by The Mauritius Command

HMS Surprise is the third historical novel in the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian, first published in 1973. The series follows the partnership of Captain Jack Aubrey and the naval surgeon Stephen Maturin during the wars against Napoleon's France.

Maturin is tortured gathering intelligence. On the HMS Surprise, Aubrey and Maturin make a long voyage to bring an ambassador to a place in the south Pacific, rounding the southern tip of Africa.

Plot summary[edit]

The Admiralty debates the rules of prizes under a new First Lord of the Admiralty. A convoy seized the ships carrying the gold deemed necessary by Spain to agree to join the war on the side of France. On the quibble that Spain had not yet entered the war, the First Lord decides the vast sum is a droit of the Admiralty, not of the Crown so thus not shared out with the captors. Smaller amounts will be distributed to the captains, including Jack Aubrey. The First Lord blunders into mentioning the name of intelligence agent Stephen Maturin during the proceedings, very risky for Maturin.

Maturin goes on a mission to Spain, and is to be picked up by Aubrey, now on convoy duty near Toulon, on HMS Lively at Port Mahon. At the rendezvous point, Aubrey learns from a Catalan revolutionary that Maturin has been captured and is being tortured by French intelligence in Port Mahon on Minorca, returned to Spain in the Peace of Amiens. Aubrey leads a rescue mission, saving a ravaged Stephen and killing all but one of the French interrogators (Captain Dutourd). In England, Aubrey is taken by bailiffs and is held in a sponging-house. Maturin returns to Sir Joseph and tells of his capture and Jack’s predicament. Aubrey's arrest for debt defers his marriage to Sophia Williams, as her mother insists that he is debt-free. Maturin gets Aubrey an advance on his grant of money. Aubrey is released. Sophia meets Aubrey before he takes command of his new ship HMS Surprise. They meet in a coach in the middle of the night, and promise to marry no one else.

Aubrey and Maturin leave in the Surprise to ferry an ambassador to the Sultan of Kampong on the Malay Peninsula. Aubrey hopes to find the French squadron commanded by Admiral Linois, who once took him prisoner. On the outbound voyage, Surprise gets caught in the doldrums north of the equator, and the crew, especially those who had recently come from long service aboard another ship, show signs of scurvy. On a very hot Sunday, Maturin takes a short stop on St Paul's Rock. Two serious storms strike; the crewman who rowed him out is drowned and the ship is damaged and driven out of sight. Maturin survives on bird-fouled water and the blood of boobies, and claims that these days under the hot sun have restored his health after the torture. The ship makes an emergency stop along the coast of Brazil for fresh foods and supplies, and a sloth; this is Maturin's first time in the New World. They put in at Rio for mail.

Refitted and repainted, the Surprise goes wide around the Cape of Good Hope, held by the Dutch who are allied with Napoleon. In the waters of the Antarctic Ocean, they endure a severe storm. The ambassador becomes very ill. The Surprise puts into Bombay in India to refit after the storms and to rest the ambassador. Maturin meets a local street-wise child, a girl named Dil, who eagerly shows him around the city. Maturin is watching a parade with Dil when he sees Diana Villiers, who has returned to India ahead of her companion, Richard Canning. They agree to visit, and spend several days together, at the end of which Maturin asks her to marry him. She does not reply immediately, but promises she will when Surprise stops in Calcutta. Maturin finds Dil dead and robbed of the silver bracelets that he had given her; he supervises her cremation on the shore.

The ambassador dies before reaching the Sunda Strait so the Surprise turns around, setting sail for Britain. They encounter the East India Company's China Fleet, returning to England unescorted. A day after leaving the China Fleet the Surprise spots Linois's squadron cruising the Indian Ocean. Surprise engages the smallest ship of the squadron, the corvette Berceau, shredding her rigging, then speeds back to the China Fleet to warn them and organize a defence. Choosing the largest ships of the China Fleet, Jack dresses them as men-of-war and sends some of his officers to help them fight. The French squadron closes on the Surprise and the large Indiamen. The Surprise engages the largest French warship, the 74-gun ship of the line Marengo, and exchanges broadsides with the heavier ship, but is outgunned and in peril when one of the Indiamen engages the French ship from the other side, forcing her to disengage. Damage incurred during the action forces the French squadron to abandon the chase in order to refit.

Ashore in Calcutta, Aubrey receives an enthusiastic welcome from the merchants, including Canning, who are happy to refit the Surprise. As a personal reward, they allow him to transport jewels as freight, which will earn him a small percentage of the immense value of the China Fleet upon his arrival in England. During the refit, Canning finds Maturin in the company of Villiers. In a fit of jealousy Canning slaps Maturin, and Maturin challenges him to a duel. Canning intends to kill Maturin, but wounds him. Maturin intends to wound Canning, but kills him. Maturin convinces Villiers to return to England on a merchant ship that will leave immediately, rather than tend to him as he recovers aboard the Surprise. With the help of Aubrey and M'Allister, Maturin stoically operates on himself, removing the bullet near his heart. Aubrey tends to his friend in the worst period of fever, where the secretive man speaks all his secrets.

Aubrey sends a note to Sophia, asking her to meet at Madeira, having had news of funds to clear his debts. In port, Maturin finds that Villiers left him a note returning the ring he gave her, and travelled with Mr. Johnstone from America, who had visited her in Calcutta. Sophia is not there. Within a day’s sailing, Aubrey overtakes the frigate HMS Ethalion under Heneage Dundas and finds that Sophia is aboard. She promises to marry him once they return to England.


See also Recurring characters in the Aubrey–Maturin series

  • Jack Aubrey - Captain in the Royal Navy and appointed Captain of HMS Surprise
  • Stephen Maturin - Ship's surgeon, physician, natural philosopher, intelligence agent and close friend to Aubrey
  • Sophia Williams - Young beautiful woman promised to Jack Aubrey, of good family and good marriage settlement
  • Mrs. Williams - Sophia's mother, a woman of unpleasant ways who wants her daughters well married
  • Cecelia and Frances Williams - Younger sisters of Sophia, each married before the Surprise reaches Bombay
  • Diana Villiers - Cousin to Sophia, escapes the Williams household to be kept by Canning, and the love of Stephen Maturin
  • Sir Joseph Blaine - Head of naval intelligence, entomologist, and Maturin's contact
  • Mr. Waring - Assistant to Sir Joseph and his likely successor upon Blaine's retirement
  • Juan Maragall - Catalan, friend of Maturin who leads Aubrey to him on Port Mahon
  • Captain Dutourd - The lead French interrogator and torturer at Port Mahon, and the one who escaped death when Aubrey rescued the prisoners
  • Mr Stanhope - Sent as ambassador to the Sultan of Kampong, the reason for Aubrey's mission on the Surprise
  • Mr Atkins - Secretary to Mr Stanhope, then in the employ of Canning upon reaching Calcutta, an agent for Maturin
  • Dil - Girl about 10 years old, Stephen's exuberant Indian guide
  • Richard Canning - Rich Jewish merchant, Diana Villier's protector in India
  • Tom Pullings - Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, third of the Surprise
  • Barrett Bonden - Aubrey's coxswain, who learns to write by lessons from Maturin on the Surprise
  • Preserved Killick - Aubrey's steward
  • Mr. M'Alister - Assistant surgeon to Stephen Maturin in sick room, and in Maturin's surgery on himself
  • Charles-Alexandre Léon Durand Linois - French Admiral
  • General Aubrey - Father of Jack Aubrey
  • Mrs Aubrey - Second wife of General Aubrey, previously a dairy maid at the family estate of Woolcombe
  • Philip Aubrey - Son born to General Aubrey by his second wife.
  • Mr Johnstone of America - man who Villiers joined in Madeira (called "Mr. Johnson" in later books)
  • Heneage Dundas- Captain in the Royal Navy and close friend to Aubrey, carried Sophia to meet him near Madeira


The British:

  • HMS Lively
  • HMS Surprise - frigate
  • Addington - Indiaman
  • Ocean - Indiaman
  • Camden - Indiaman
  • Bombay Castle - Indiaman
  • Alfred - Indiaman
  • Wexwood - Indiaman
  • Lushington - Indiaman
  • Royal George - Indiaman

The French:

Allusions to Literature and Events in History[edit]

Allusions to Literature[edit]

The capture of the Spanish treasure fleet features in Hornblower and the Hotspur, the last-published full length novel in C. S. Forester's Hornblower series. Forester adds Hornblower in the Hotspur as an extra to the five British ships in the squadron sent to intercept the fleet.[citation needed]

Allusions to Events in History[edit]

At the opening of the novel, the Admiralty discusses what to do with the Spanish gold seized by the convoy including Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. In the previous novel, the fictional characters assumed they would get a share of what they seized, as was usual. The huge amount of the gold led the Admiralty to see this otherwise, as in the novel.

Aubrey gains command of HMS Surprise, a fictional version based on the historical HMS Surprise, but with a different back story. She becomes the most important fictional ship in the Aubrey-Maturin series.

The "cutting out" (capturing while in port, either at anchor or berthed) of HMS Hermione refers to an actual event involving HMS Surprise in 1799.

The capture of the Spanish treasure fleet, with Jack in command of HMS Lively, is based on the 1804 Battle of Cape Santa Maria (story recounted in Post Captain).

Aubrey's attack on the French squadron is a fictionalization of the 1804 Battle of Pulo Aura.


Valerie Webster writing in the Scotsman finds that "His books can absorb and enthral landlubbers like myself who do not even know the difference between a jib-boom and a taffrail." [1]

Library Journal reviewed this novel as part of an abridged audio edition, finding "superb depictions of life" and highly recommends it. In full:

These two selections represent a series of abridged audiobook versions of O'Brian's works narrated by Robert Hardy, that most blustery and unstudied of British actors. Hardy reads the stories cold, but here it works. He uses his voice to evoke everything from brutality to mannered drawing-room excesses to the physical threat of a storm at sea. The stories are superb depictions of life on a British man-of-war and incorporate O'Brian's exquisitely accurate historical detail (Testimonies, Audio Reviews, LJ 7/96). The friendship of protagonists Capt. Jack Aubrey and ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin plays out against an expanse of ocean, from India to the Atlantic, with a full complement of battles and adventures at sea for devotees of naval fiction. Highly recommended.--Mark Pumphrey, Polk Cty. P.L., Columbus, NC[2]

Publishers Weekly likes the plot but finds the nautical detail sometimes overwhelming:

This long-out-of-print naval adventure in the series that started with Master and Commander ... finds Captain Jack Aubrey in charge of the H.M.S. Surprise. His ship's surgeon and friend, Stephen Maturin, sidelines in espionage and natural science. Through Maturin's eyes we see the environment in great detail--down to the species of beetle that inhabits an area. The Surprise is commissioned to deliver an English envoy to India[sic]. It is the early 19th century, when England fought for supremacy over France and Napoleon's navy, and Aubrey itches for an engagement with the crafty old French admiral Linois. He hopes to capture the French ship and earn the prize money that would clear his debt and allow him to marry Sophie, his true love. O'Brian knows his history and sailing, as is evident in the rich particulars--sometimes overwhelming. Those who don't know their foretopsail from their maintopsail will at times be as lost as landlubbers on a stormy sea. Stretching its genre but never escaping it, the novel will impress those who enjoy swashbucklers. May[3]

Helen Lucy Burk writing in the Irish Press said "Few, very few, books have made my heart sag with excitement. 'H.M.S. Surprise' managed it. I read it cruising through the tame Adriatic, in Silver Ponds found myself forced to pace about the deck to calm my pulse....Patrick O'Brian's erudition is phenomenal, as is his capacity for creating another completely believable world. He convinces that his total accuracy even in tiny detail."[4]


The novel was adapted in three parts in the Afternoon Play strand on BBC Radio 4, adapted by Roger Danes and directed and produced by Bruce Young, with Aubrey played by David Robb and Maturin by Richard Dillane. The rest of the cast was:

Publication history[edit]


  1. ^ Webster, Valerie (19 January 1974). "Review of HMS Surprise". Scotsman. 
  2. ^ "HMS Surprise". Editorial Reviews. Library Journal. Retrieved 24 April 2014. 
  3. ^ "HMS Surprise". Editorial Reviews. Publishers Weekly. Retrieved 24 April 2014. 
  4. ^ "HMS Surprise". Editorial Reviews. Irish Times. Retrieved 24 April 2014. 


  • A.E. Cunningham, ed. (1994). Patrick O'Brian: Critical appreciations and a bibliography. British Library. ISBN 0-7123-1071-1. 
  • Anne Chotzinoff Grossman, Lisa Grossman Thomas (2000). Lobscouse and Spotted Dog: Which Is a Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey/Maturin Novels. W. W. Norton & Co. ISBN 0-393-32094-4. 
  • Dean King (2001). A Sea of Words: Lexicon and Companion for Patrick O'Brian's Seafaring Tales. Henry Holt. ISBN 0-8050-6615-2. 
  • Dean King (2001). Harbors and High Seas: Map Book and Geographical Guide to the Aubrey/Maturin Novels of Patrick O'Brian. Henry Holt. ISBN 0-8050-6614-4. 
  • Brian Lavery (2003). Jack Aubrey Commands: An Historical Companion to the Naval World of Patrick O'Brian. Conway Maritime. ISBN 0-85177-946-8. 
  • David Miller (2003). The World of Jack Aubrey: Twelve-Pounders, Frigates, Cutlasses, and Insignia of His Majesty's Royal Navy. Running Press Book Publishers. ISBN 0-7624-1652-1. 
  • Richard O'Neill (2003). Patrick O'Brian's Navy: The Illustrated Companion to Jack Aubrey's World. Running Press. ISBN 0-7624-1540-1. 

External links[edit]