The Letter of Marque

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
The Letter of Marque
Cover by Geoff Hunt for The Letter of Marque.
1st edition
Author Patrick O'Brian
Cover artist Geoff Hunt
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 pages (first edition, hardback) & pages 284 (paperback edition)
ISBN ISBN 0-393-02874-7, (first edition, hardback) & ISBN 0-393-30905-3 (paperback edition UK)
OCLC 20825241
Dewey Decimal 823/.914 20
LC Class PR6029.B55 L4 1990
Preceded by The Reverse of the Medal
Followed by The Thirteen-Gun Salute

The Letter of Marque is an historical novel by Patrick O'Brian set during the Napoleonic Wars. It was first published by HarperCollins in 1988 and is the twelfth book in the Aubrey-Maturin series, concerning the adventures of naval commander Jack Aubrey, and his friend, ship's surgeon, naturalist and spy, Stephen Maturin.

Plot summary[edit]

In The Letter of Marque, Jack Aubrey, now a civilian, prepares the Surprise to sail as a privateer (the eponymous letter of marque is a legal document from the British government which gives his private vessel the right to capture ships from enemy nations). While Jack often associated "privateers" with legalised pirates, he agrees to sail the Surprise, but always refers to the ship under the more respectable term "Letter of Marque." Jack is bitter and low-spirited about his dismissal from the Navy List, and dreads affronts and disrespectful treatment from any Royal Navy vessels and their officers. However, he is strongly supported by his crew, primarily smugglers and followers of Sethianism from the fictional port of Shelmerston in southwest England.

The downfall of the traitors Wray and Ledward in the previous book has restored order in British intelligence circles, and Maturin—now the secret owner of the Surprise—plans to use her privateering as cover for a covert anti-Spanish mission to South America. The ship is therefore under official protection to an extent and Aubrey's innocence is known privately to many, though the spies are still at large and politics will make his rehabilitation impossible without extraordinary deeds on his part. They depart on a cruise, during which Maturin's servant Padeen becomes a secret laudanum addict after painful dental surgery. In order to obtain the laudanum secretly, Padeen begins diluting Maturin's own supplies with brandy. Maturin is thus unknowingly weaned off his own addiction (though he later substitutes it with the practice of chewing coca leaves).

The Surprise captures an American privateer's consort, the Merlin, and then boards the privateer Spartan itself, retrieving its valuable cargo of quicksilver, looted from the Spanish barque Azul, as well as tricking her five prizes out of Horta harbour. These, together with his success in the cutting-out of the frigate Diane from the French port of Saint Martin-de-Rey despite serious wounds, make Aubrey both wealthy again and a popular hero. He is offered the opportunity to seek a free pardon, but angrily declines on the grounds that he is innocent and that asking for a pardon would imply that he was guilty. His friends fear that this has dashed his chance of redemption. However, Aubrey's embarrassing father, a fugitive since his part in the stock-jobbing affair, is found dead in a ditch, and Aubrey is offered a Parliamentary seat by his cousin, Edward Norton, who owns the borough of Milport. This extra influence is enough for him to receive private assurances from Lord Melville, First Lord of the Admiralty, that he will indeed be restored to the Navy List as soon as the time is right.

Maturin, in possession once more of Diana's magnificent Blue Peter diamond, decides to take it to her in Sweden. He sails part of the way on the old Leopard, the setting for most of Desolation Island and now a lowly transport ship, before re-joining the Surprise. Away from the Surprise and his now diluted supplies he purchases a full-strength bottle of laudanum in anticipation of seeing his wife Diana again. He meets her in Stockholm and is unsurprised to learn that the letter he sent to her from Gibraltar via Wray, accounting for his supposed infidelity, was never delivered. She also tells him she has not been unfaithful with Jagiello, and has been supporting herself by ascending—whilst mounted on a small Arab horse—in a hot-air balloon before an audience. Maturin, still unaware that his tolerance for laudanum has been reduced by Padeen's covert thefts, takes a full strength dosage and becomes disoriented. He is seriously injured in a fall after losing his bearings in Jagiello's household. Diana nurses him back to health and they become reconciled once more. When the Surprise returns from a trip to Riga to buy poldavy, Maturin hears from Aubrey about Padeen's laudanum addiction, discovered after he was caught siphoning laudanum from one of the carboys and replacing the tincture with brandy. Stephen is well enough to be finally transported back to the ship, accompanied by Colonel Jagiello's escort, and Diana embarks with him and Jack for home.


  • Jack Aubrey - Captain of the Surprise.
  • Stephen Maturin - ship's surgeon, friend to Jack and an intelligence officer.
  • Sophie Aubrey - Jack's wife.
  • Philip Aubrey - Jack's younger half-brother.
  • Diana Maturin (née Villiers) - Stephen's estranged wife.
  • Sir Joseph Blaine
  • Mr Nathaniel Martin
  • Preserved Killick
  • Barret Bonden
  • Padeen Colman - Stephen's Irish servant; loblolly-boy on the Surprise
  • Captain Tom Pullings - a volunteer King's officer on board the Surprise.
  • Captain William Babbington - Captain of HMS Tartarus; commander of the St Martin blockading squadron; made Post Captain; lover of Fanny Wray.
  • Fanny Wray - daughter of Admiral Harte and wife of Andrew Wray.
  • Andrew Wray - works for the Admiralty; a French agent.
  • Charlotte, Fanny and George Aubrey - Jack's three children.
  • The Duke of Clarence - the Regent's younger brother.
  • Ledward - works for the Treasury; a French agent.
  • Mrs Broad - landlady of The Grapes.
  • Mr Davidge and Mr West - officers on the Surprise.
  • Slade - a follower of Seth and crew member of the Surprise.
  • Colonel Gedymin Jagiello - a Colonel in the Swedish armed forces.
  • Countess Tessin - Jagiello's grandmother.


  • British
    • Surprise - a private man-of-war or letter of marque
    • HMS Tartarus
    • HMS Dolphin
    • HMS Camel - a transport ship
    • HMS Vulture - a slop-ship
    • HMS Leopard - a transport ship
  • Spanish
    • Azul
  • American
  • French
    • Diane

Scientific references[edit]

Whilst in Stockholm, Stephen Maturin visits an apothecary's shop to buy laudanum. He inquires about the coca or cuca leaf from Peru, which he learned about in a previous mission, detailed in The Far Side of the World and the apothecary replies, "It is said to dissolve the gross humours and do away with appetite." Maturin buys a pound and the coca leaf eventually comes to replace his opium habit in later novels. He carries the leaves in a pouch and lime in a small silver box. When he feels the need for it, he rolls the leaves into a ball and pops them into his cheek with lime.

The book also discusses the nascent science of ballooning, contrasting hot air and gaseous balloons and with many descriptions thereof. Stephen has an extended dream sequence, while recovering from his fall, involving a balloon and his wife.