The Yellow Admiral

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The Yellow Admiral
Cover by Geoff Hunt for The Yellow Admiral.
First edition cover
Author Patrick O'Brian
Cover artist Geoff Hunt
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series Aubrey-Maturin series
Genre Historical novel
Publisher Harper Collins (UK)
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback) & Audio Book (Cassette, CD)
Pages 282 pp (first edition, hardback)
ISBN ISBN 0-393-04044-5, (first edition, hardback) & ISBN 0-393-31704-8 (paperback edition UK)
OCLC 34943241
823/.914 20
LC Class PR6029.B55 Y45 1996
Preceded by The Commodore
Followed by The Hundred Days

The Yellow Admiral is the eighteenth historical novel in the Aubrey-Maturin series by English author Patrick O'Brian, first published in 1996. The story is set in the era of the Napoleonic Wars.

Plot summary[edit]

The novel opens with Jack Aubrey home at Woolcombe in Dorset on parliamentary leave. Once again, Jack’s fortune has come under threat — this time due to a number of legal disputes concerning captured slaving-ships. It appears that Sophie will have to sell Ashgrove Cottage to keep the family solvent. Stephen Maturin has returned from Spain with his family, but impoverished, Spanish authorities having seized his gold after his pro-independence revolutionary activities in Peru. Effectively penniless, Stephen and his retinue stay at Jack's manor.

Stephen and Jack spend time exploring Jack's estate, and Jack explains to Stephen the process of enclosing commons, something which Jack opposes. Many of Jack's wealthy neighbours plan to enclose the common land of Simmon's Lea, thus preventing the villagers from grazing their animals and increasing their dependency on paid employment. Jack becomes the villagers' champion, while Jack's neighbour, Captain Griffiths, fronts the wealthy land-owners. One day at a pub Barrett Bonden accepts a challenge to a boxing-match in the Dripping Pan with Griffith's gamekeeper, which he subsequently loses.

A message arrives for Jack recalling him to the squadron blockading Brest. Diana, understanding that Admiral Stranraer wants Jack to miss the parliamentary vote on enclosing Simmon's Lea, contrives for Jack to leave immediately for London without receiving his orders so that duty will not compel him to miss the vote. Jack prevents the enclosure of Simmon's Lea and returns to Woolcombe. Receiving his orders, he returns to the fleet blockading Brest. Lord Stranraer, who had been a driving force behind his nephew Griffiths' attempts at enclosing Simmon's Lea, was very displeased with Jack for voting against the enclosure and so punishes Jack by sending him to the inshore blockading-squadron. At the same time the Admiral consults Stephen for an ailment that Stephen treats. Before Stephen leaves the flagship he receives a covert mission involving landing on the French coast near Brest.

On the dark of the moon, Jack has Stephen rowed ashore for his covert mission with a Catalan informer, Inigo Bernard. Apparently at the same time, two French ships slip through the blockading squadron in the sector that Jack's ship, Bellona, should have patrolled. The Admiral rebukes Jack and has him return to the offshore squadron. During this time Jack receives a letter from Sophie, in which she, having seen a letter from Amanda Smith (Jack's lover in The Surgeon's Mate), accuses him of adultery and announces her intention of leaving him.

During manoeuvres in foggy weather the Bellona spots a French privateer chasing a merchantman and Jack decides to give chase (despite a lookout possibly making out a flagship-signal to Tack all together). The Bellona captures the privateer, Les Deux Frères (a rich prize which had captured two Guineamen), but not before a storm sets in, battering the Bellona to the point of needing repairs, and the ship heads for the docks in Cornwall. Jack returns to Woolcombe while waiting on repairs for the Bellona, and unexpectedly find his family still there. He asks Sophie for forgiveness, but she rebuffs him (Sophie having been exposed only to her mother's point of view, and that repeatedly). The Ringle leaves to report the situation to the Admiral and to retrieve Stephen from France.

With the Bellona repaired, Jack returns to the squadron, but finds that the Ringle has been ordered to retrieve Stephen early and has taken him to England. Stephen sets off for London, where he tells Sir Joseph Blaine about a plot by an outwardly laughable but potentially dangerous Spanish intelligence officer to burgle Blaine’s house. He also brings information about a Chilean plan for independence. Blaine sets a trap and, with the assistance of the invaluable Mr Pratt, captures the Spanish agent red-handed. Stephen presents a proposal to an Admiralty committee for an expedition to help Chilean independence with Jack in command, partly as a means of keeping Jack from getting yellowed. The proposal receives approval. Reference is made to Stephen's restored fortune, the inference being that it was returned to him during Spanish negotiations regarding the spy.

Stephen stops at Woolcombe to see his family and learns about Sophie and Jack’s problems. He also finds that Clarissa and Diana have enlightened Sophie as to the possibility of enjoying sex, and have suggested that she avoid feeling morally superior, perhaps by having her own affair. As Stephen departs to return to the fleet, Sophie writes a letter of reconciliation to Jack. Once Stephen returns to the fleet he once again treats Admiral Stranraer. The Bellona hears distant broadsides and rushes to find the inner squadron fighting two French ships. Upon seeing the Bellona and another British ship, the two seventy-fours turn and run for their harbour.

In the following months the Bellona endlessly sweeps the bay, blockading Brest. During this time Stephen tells Jack of his plan for Chile, which Jack agrees to. After a few more months, the flagship, the Queen Charlotte, comes to visit the inner squadron. The Admiral comes to the Bellona to thank Stephen for his treatment and also invites Jack to dinner with all the captains on the flagship. At the dinner the Admiral informs the captains of progress in the war on land and predicts Napoleon's imminent surrender.

This soon comes to pass, and the Bellona returns to port and into ordinary storage. Jack and Stephen spend time catching up on world-events at Black's and then meet the three men from the Chilean independence-movement at The Grapes in the Liberties of the Savoy. With the Chileans approving of Jack, he goes through the steps of getting suspended from the Navy List so that he can initiate the covert mission to Chile. Stephen finances the fitting-out of the Surprise, and Jack and Stephen set off with their families for Madeira, at which they will part company. The novel ends as they tour the island in company with the Chileans: a message arrives from Lord Keith, commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean, telling Jack that Napoleon has escaped from Elba. He appoints Jack a commodore and tells him to take command of the Royal Navy ships in the harbour of Madeira to blockade the Straits of Gibraltar.


See also Recurring characters in the Aubrey–Maturin series

  • Jack Aubrey - Post Captain
  • Stephen Maturin - ship's surgeon, friend to Jack and an intelligence-officer
  • Sophia Aubrey - Jack's wife
  • Diana Villiers Maturin - Stephen's wife
  • Brigid Maturin - Stephen's daughter
  • Mrs Clarissa Oakes - Stephen and Diana's companion
  • Preserved Killick - Jack's steward
  • Barret Bonden - Jack's coxswain
  • Padeen Colman - Stephen's servant
  • William Reade - Master's mate, in command of Bellona's tender, Ringle
  • Sir Joseph Blaine - Head of Intelligence at the Admiralty
  • Mr Callaghan - Midshipman on the Bellona
  • Mr Whewell - First Lieutenant on the Bellona
  • Charlotte, Fanny and George Aubrey - Jack and Sophia's children
  • Philip Aubrey - Jack's half-brother
  • Captain Griffiths - Jack's neighbour at Woolcombe
  • Mr Cholmondeley - a wealthy friend of Diana
  • Heneage Dundas - Captain of the Berenice
  • Lord Stranraer - Admiral of the Brest blockading squadron
  • Evans - Griffith's gamekeeper
  • Captain William Fanshawe - Post Captain of the Ramillies; commander of the inner squadron
  • Mr Geoghegan - Midshipman and oboist; dies from a fall from the yards
  • Mr Harding - First Lieutenant on the Bellona
  • Mr Miller - Third Lieutenant on the Bellona
  • Mr Walkinshaw - schoolmaster on the Bellona
  • Yann - former French fisherman and pilot
  • Inigo Bernard - wealthy Catalan merchant (from Barcelona); member of Spanish intelligence service
  • Mr Pratt - a private investigator
  • Mr Craddock - secretary to Admiral Stranraer
  • Captain Calvert - Captain of the Fleet
  • Garcia and two other Chileans - representatives of the Chilean independence movement


The British:

The Brest outer squadron:

The Brest inner squadron:

Re-inforced with:

Funchal harbour, Madeira:

  • HMS Pomone - thirty-eight, Captain Wrangham; Jack raises his broad pennant on her
  • HMS Dover - thirty-two; troop-ship
  • HMS Rainbow and HMS Ganymede - two corvettes (joined by HMS Briseis)


  • HM Hired Ship Surprise - twenty-eight - Privately owned by Maturin
  • HMS Dryad - thirty-six gun frigate
  • HMS Achates - sixteen-gun sloop
  • Ringle - Baltimore clipper (privately owned by Jack Aubrey, used as Bellona's tender by Aubrey)

The French:

  • Les Deux Frères - heavily armed privateer
  • Clorinde - frigate
  • two seventy-fours

Series chronology[edit]

This novel references actual events as any historical novel ought. In respect to the internal chronology of the series, it is the first to line up with historical years, as the first six novels did. Then follow eleven novels beginning with The Surgeon's Mate that might take five or six years to happen but are all pegged to an extended 1812. As Patrick O'Brian says it, consider an 1812a and 1812b, in the introduction to Far Side of the World, the tenth novel in this series. The events of Yellow Admiral again match up with the historical events of the Napoleonic wars.

Critical reception[edit]

The Telegraph called the Yellow admiral "an interim novel" with the best bits in the relations between Aubrey and his wife:

O'Brian has done good shore scenes in the past, though usually animated by Maturin's intelligence work. Aubrey's battle to preserve his local common from inclosure by a scheming neighbour is pedestrian in comparison. And the characters become flat: Diana, Maturin's wife, is reduced to a caricature of a "dem fine spirited woman"; even the exchanges between Stephen and Jack have little of their old zest.

Things revive on-board ship: the death of a midshipman has the authentic O'Brian tang of shocking maritime violence mingled with tenderness. The best bits are the relations between Jack and his wife, Sophie, who discovers proof of his infidelity: she is a good, kind woman whose virtue has a certain ungenerous narrowness.

Perhaps one should see this as an interim novel. Those who do not know the works of Patrick O'Brian should start at the beginning. By the time they reach this one, they will probably just be grateful that the series has not come to an end - and even more grateful that the ending of The Yellow Admiral promises more to come.[1]

By contrast, Kirkus Reviews finds that this another excellent adventure for oceanic literature's oddest couple:

The 18th voyage for Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, stormy-petrel protagonists of O'Brian's utterly addictive series on life in the service of His Britannic Majesty's navy during the Napoleonic Wars (The Commodore, 1995, etc.). Having returned from a distasteful mission in West African waters, where he commanded a squadron with orders to suppress the slave trade, Aubrey is fending off a welter of lawsuits filed by aggrieved ship-owners whose vessels he seized. Abandoned by his superiors, the aging ex-captain fears he may be passed over for promotion or, worse yet, yellowed (elevated and then retired on half pay). Obliged to play country squire, the cash-strapped Aubrey (a Tory MP) makes new enemies when (as lord of the manor) he opposes enclosure of a common abutting his Dorset estate. Finally sent back to sea with his steadfast shipmate Maturin, the polymath physician who doubles as a spy for the Admiralty, the embattled mariner encounters even tougher going. Assigned to wearisome blockade duty off of Brest, he captures a French privateer laden with treasure but is charged with leaving his assigned station. Aubrey is further dispirited by a letter from his usually complaisant wife who accuses him of adultery with a Canadian lass whose billetsdoux he has unwisely left about the house. Meantime, the Corsican usurper suffers a crushing defeat at Leipzig, and in anticipation of peace the Royal Navy launches the Georgian era's equivalent of a downsizing campaign. Back in England after a successful intelligence-gathering sojourn on the Continent, Maturin arranges for his old friend to assume a training command in rebellious Chile's fledgling navy. As the two sail off for South America, however, word reaches them that Napoleon has escaped from Elba and Aubrey is to head a task force patrolling the Straits of Gibraltar. Another excellent adventure, complete with period-piece arcana, for oceanic literature's oddest and arguably most appealing couple.[2]



  1. ^ "The odd couple all at sea". The Telegraph. 11 January 1997. Retrieved February 21, 2010. 
  2. ^ "The Yellow Admiral" (1 September 1996 ed.). Kirkus Reviews. 20 May 2010. Retrieved 6 July 2014.