Post Captain (novel)

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Post Captain
Post Captin cover.jpg
Lippincott First edition
Author Patrick O'Brian
Cover artist Dell'Orco[2]
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 414 first edition, hardback & 416 - 496 paperback editions[1]
ISBN 0-00-221657-4 first edition hardback
OCLC 38885590
LC Class PZ3.O1285 Po PR6029.B55
Preceded by Master and Commander
Followed by HMS Surprise

Post Captain is the second historical novel in the Aubrey–Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian, first published in 1972. It features the characters of Captain Jack Aubrey and naval surgeon Stephen Maturin in the early 19th century and is set in the Napoleonic Wars.

The naval captain is put on land with the brief Peace of Amiens, allowing both him and his friend to meet the women they love, then have life turned upside down by decisions of the prize court, a dishonest prize-agent and Napoleon. When the war begins afresh, Aubrey has a command.

The novel was received well at its initial publishing, but received more and better notice after its re-issue in 1990. That much of the story is set on land drew some to consider it O'Brian's homage to Jane Austen, one of his favorite authors.

Plot summary[edit]

With the Peace of Amiens, Jack Aubrey returns to England and rents a house with Stephen Maturin, with shipmates running the household, spending time in the hunt. He meets the Williams family. Aubrey courts Sophia Williams, the eldest of three daughters, while Maturin pursues Diana Villiers, Sophia's cousin. Aubrey wants to marry Sophia, but she delays making a firm engagement. His fortune abruptly disappears when his prize-agent absconds with his funds and the prize court finds his capture of two merchant ships was not lawful. The court demands he repay the prize money, a sum beyond his means. Mrs Williams takes her daughters away to Bath on this news. Aubrey dallies with Diana, straining his friendship with Maturin and showing himself indecisive on land, a contrast with his decisive ways at sea. Aubrey and Maturin flee England to avoid Aubrey being taken by the bailiffs.

In Toulon to visit Christy Pallière, the French captain who had captured Aubrey's first command Sophie before the peace, they learn that war is imminent. French authorities round up all English subjects. Aubrey and Maturin escape over the Pyrenees to Catalonia with Maturin disguised as an itinerant trainer with Aubrey in a bear suit as his dancing bear. After reaching Catalonia, where Maturin has property, they make their way to Gibraltar where Aubrey and Maturin take passage aboard a British East India Company ship. The ship is captured by the privateer Bellone, but a British squadron overtakes them and rescues Aubrey, Maturin and the other passengers.

In England, Aubrey is offered a letter of marque by Mr Canning, a wealthy Jewish merchant. At the same gathering at Queeney's, Mrs Williams and Cecilia are among the guests; Sophia did not realize he would be there, so she stayed home with Frances. Mrs Williams learns of Maturin's castle in Spain and his training as a physician, raising his status in her eyes. An inadequate thief approaches Aubrey as he walks outdoors; Mr. Scriven proves to be a useful friend, knowing the law of debt and where Aubrey can be safe from bailiffs. He and Maturin move to The Grapes, safe in the Liberty of the Savoy.

Aubrey is given command of HMS Polychrest, so he turns Canning down. Polychrest is an odd ship that was purpose-built to launch a secret rocket weapon whose development was abandoned when its designer was killed during a test firing. He is allowed a request, that Tom Pullings, a midshipman with whom he had previously served, be promoted to lieutenant. Polychrest is structurally weak and sails poorly, and its first lieutenant, Parker, is free with punishment. Aubrey is given a free hand by Admiral Harte, who stands to benefit personally from any prizes taken. To the disappointment of the Admiral, Aubrey captures no prizes though to great approval from merchants he drives the privateer Bellone aground outside a Spanish port. Harte assigns Aubrey the thankless task of escorting convoys in the English Channel. Aubrey gains a reputation for lingering in port as he carries on a furtive affair with Diana. Maturin is sent on an intelligence gathering mission in Spain. On his return, Maturin is advised by Aubrey's friend Heneage Dundas to warn Aubrey about his reputation with the Admiralty. When Maturin does so, Aubrey gets angry and the two agree to fight a duel. Aubrey calls on Diana, but finds her with Canning. Aubrey is ordered to raid the French port of Chaulieu to sink the assembled French troopships and gunboats and to destroy the Fanciulla. The crew plans to mutiny because of their harsh treatment at the hands of Parker. Maturin overhears their plans and warns Aubrey - the first time they speak since the challenge. Aubrey quashes the mutiny by putting the instigators and some loyal crew in a ship's boat and then begins the attack on the moment. He rues his angry words with Maturin. During the engagement in Chaulieu, Polychrest runs aground. Aubrey leads three of the ship's boats to board and capture Fanciulla. The successful mariners refloat Polychrest, which founders soon after leaving Chaulieu, and the crew transfer to Fanciulla. After the battle, Aubrey and Maturin resume their friendship.

Aubrey returns to England in Fanciulla and is promoted to Post-captain. Not wanting to remain ashore, he asks for any command. He is assigned as temporary captain for HMS Lively whose Captain, Sir Graham Hamond, has taken leave to sit in Parliament. Returning from Spain, Maturin tells the head of naval intelligence, Sir Joseph Blaine, that the Spanish will declare war as soon as four ships full of bullion from Montevideo arrive safely in Cadiz. At Maturin's urging, Sophia asks Jack Aubrey to transport her and her sister to the Downs. While on board, Aubrey and Sophia come to an agreement not to marry anyone else; Aubrey is too poor to propose a satisfactory marriage settlement to Mrs Williams. Maturin is close friends with Sophia, but does not take up her advice to propose to Diana. While attending an opera, he sees that Diana is being kept by Canning; his pain is deep.

Maturin takes no pay for his intelligence work, but he does ask a favour: that Lively be included in the squadron sent to intercept the Spanish. The Admiralty agrees, and asks Maturin to negotiate the treasure fleet's surrender. Because of Maturin's temporary rank and his connection to the Admiralty, Aubrey realizes that Maturin has been involved in intelligence work for Britain. Aubrey recalls Maturin's practice on board with pistols and with swords, and understands at last that there is a side of his friend that he did not know. The Spanish convoy refuses to surrender, and battle breaks out. One Spanish frigate (the Mercedes) explodes and the other three (Fama, Clara, Medea) surrender. Clara, carrying the treasure, strikes her colours to Lively, greatly pleasing its captain. Then he chases Fama. He invites two of the Spanish captains to dinner, along with Dr Maturin, and they all toast Sophia.


See also Recurring characters in the Aubrey–Maturin series

  • Jack Aubrey - Commander of Polychrest and later appointed Captain of HMS Lively.
  • Stephen Maturin - ship's surgeon, natural philosopher, friend to Jack and intelligence officer; son of Irish and Catalan parents, knows both countries well.
  • Sophia Williams - eldest daughter of three, fair haired beauty of strong character, who lives in the neighborhood where Jack Aubrey takes a house during the brief peace. Aubrey falls in love with her but is indecisive with her in contrast to his decisive nature at sea.
  • Mrs. Williams - Mother of Sophia, Cecilia, and Frances Williams, widowed. She is protective of her daughters while working to find a suitable husband for each. An unpleasant personality.
  • Diana Villiers - Same age cousin of Sophia Williams, both orphaned and widowed in India, now living with her Williams cousins. Both Stephen Maturin and Jack Aubrey are attracted to her dark-haired beauty and abrupt ways. Stephen surprises himself that he can fall in love again.
  • Heneage Dundas - Close friend of Jack Aubrey.
  • Lt. Parker - 1st Lieutenant in Polychrest, about 50.
  • Lt. Tom Pullings - young 2nd Lieutenant in Polychrest, after his stint with the British East India Company during the peace, on the ship Lord Nelson Aubrey and Maturin board at Gibralar.
  • William Babbington – midshipman in Polychrest.
  • Christy Pallière - Captain of the French ship that took Sophie, with cousins in Bath whom Jack Aubrey visited when also visiting Sophia. He is affable and sociable, and a good ship captain.
  • Lord Melville - First Lord of the Admiralty when war resumes.
  • Sir Joseph Blaine - Head of naval intelligence, Stephen Maturin's contact at the Admiralty, and an entomologist.
  • Mr. Adam Scriven - An unemployed literary man and translator who instructs Aubrey and Maturin in the laws of debt and the safe haven of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Liberty of the Savoy in the midst of London.
  • Mrs. Broad - Runs The Grapes, the inn in the Savoy, where Aubrey is safe from bailiffs wanting to take him for debt. He and Maturin set up there.


The British
The French
  • Fanciulla - corvette
  • Bellone (Privateer)
The Spanish
  • Medea - frigate
  • Fama - frigate
  • Clara - frigate
  • Mercedes - frigate


References to events in history[edit]

Stephen Maturin, in presenting his radical position against the tyranny of the navy, says that he would "certainly have joined the mutineers" had he been at the Spithead Mutiny.[3]

The Treaty of Amiens was signed 25 March 1802 by Joseph Bonaparte and the Marquess Cornwallis as a "Definitive Treaty of Peace". The consequent Peace of Amiens lasted only one year, ending on 18 May 1803. It was the only period of peace during the so-called 'Great French War' between 1793 and 1815. Captain Christy-Pallière, whom Jack and Stephen visit at Toulon, was a real French Navy officer who did command the naval base at Toulon, though not in 1803.

For a few hundred years beginning in the 14th century, the Duchy of Lancaster was not subject to the King's laws, including pursuit for debt, having its own courts, laws and power of decision. Savoy was part of the lands in that Duchy. Though it was adjacent to the City of London and to Westminster, the Liberty of the Savoy, sometimes called the Liberties of the Savoy, was a safe haven from debt collectors acting under the King's law until sometime in the 19th century, after the Napoleonic Wars. The author explained this from his own knowledge at a publisher's web page.[4]

The last action in the novel is based on a real action, the Battle of Cape Santa Maria, in which four British frigates – HMS Indefatigable, HMS Lively, HMS Medusa and HMS Amphion – successfully intercepted a Spanish flotilla carrying gold from South America. Captain Hamond, later Sir Graham Hamond, 2nd Baronet, was not in fact a member of Parliament and was in command of Lively in the action.[5]

Allusions to Literature[edit]

Further information: Ossian and James Macpherson

In a conversation with MacDonald, Stephen Maturin argues about the various qualities of the Gaelic poet Ossian's writing and authenticity.[6] This references similar controversy which had arisen during the period about the true authorship of James Macpherson's translation of his epic cycle, and continues to be questioned today in literary circles. In this same conversation, MacDonald references the Roman legal principle "falsum in unam, falsum in omnibus",[6] which translates to "false in one thing, false in all things".

Literary significance and criticism[edit]

"One of the finest seafaring novels of the Napoleonic wars." — R. W., Taranaki Herald (New Zealand), on Post Captain[7]

Mary Renault had high praise for this novel:

Master and Commander raised almost dangerously high expectations, Post Captain triumphantly surpasses them. Mr. O'Brian is a master of his period, in which his characters are finely placed, while remaining three-dimensional, thoroughly human beings. This book sets him at the very top of his genre; he does not just have the chief qualifications of a first-class historical novelist, he has them all. The action scenes are superb; towards the end, far from being aware that one is reading what is, physically, a fairly long book, one notes with dismay that there is not much more to come....A brilliant book.[8]

Library Journal found this to be a "rich blend of adventure, romance, and intrigue", reviewing an audio book version read by John Lee[9]

The backdrop of this novel is the temporary cessation of British-French hostilities in 1803 and the consequent stalling of British naval officer Jack Aubrey's promotion from commander to post captain. As he wonders if he will ever be promoted or get another ship, Jack learns that his business manager has absconded with his investments and that collection agents are now after him. Jack still manages to pursue a woman who is a member of a very proper English family, and this affair in turn fuels a potentially lethal breach between him and his closest friend, Dr. Maturin, who is involved in high-level espionage. To avoid debtor's prison, Jack eventually goes to France, only to be trapped there when Napoleon resumes hostilities. This rich blend of adventure, romance, and intrigue will satisfy listeners of many different tastes. John Lee's strong narration is flawed only by his tendency to pronounce "forecastle" so it sounds like "foxhole." Recommended for most collections.[10]

Frank Prial wrote about Post Captain, in an article about the author in 1998, that "The Aubrey-Maturin series has been said to rival the sequential novels of Trollope and Anthony Powell. Mr. O'Brian is particularly pleased when he is compared to Jane Austen, whom he reveres as the finest of all English novelists. First editions of most of her novels share shelf space in his small library here with first editions of Gibbon and Dr. Johnson and a battered but still useful 1810 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The second book of the series, Post Captain, set mostly in country houses and as much a novel of manners as a sea story, has been said to be Mr. O'Brian's homage to Ms. Austen."[11]

In a more recent review, Jo Walton finds this the book in the series with the poorest plot structure:

There’s no shape to this plot, and while the characters and incidents are as good as anything in the series, the book as a whole is broken-backed. The duel and then the fact that they never mention that they’ve reconciled feels very strange. Usually when O’Brian has a lacuna like that it helps to shape the story, here it’s just an odd absence. The duel is the last real obstacle between Jack and Stephen—they quarrel from time to time, but it never comes to this kind of thing. The main theme is the difference between land and sea, and to illustrate this we see a lot of Jack ashore—far more than in the first book. It may be the most England we get in any of the books. Jack isn’t very good at life ashore—he’s everything he isn’t at sea. He’s easily taken in, confused, indecisive and frightened. There’s a wonderful scene where he runs from the bailiffs back to sea and calls back “Mr Pullings, press that man!” He presses the bailiffs who have come to arrest him for debt![12]

Publication history[edit]


  • A.E. Cunningham, ed. (1994). Patrick O'Brian: A Bibliography and Critical Appreciation. British Library Publishing Division. 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 Ltd. 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. 


  1. ^ Bruce Trinque. "Pagination of Various Aubrey-Maturin Novel Editions". Retrieved 28 November 2014. 
  2. ^ "Book Covers". 24 November 2010. Retrieved 28 November 2014. 
  3. ^ Patrick O'Brian. Post Captain. W. W. Norton. p. 234. 
  4. ^ "Patrick O'Brian Answers Your Questions". The Patrick O'Brian Newsletter: Volume 2, Issue 2. October 1993. Retrieved 14 June 2015. 
  5. ^ George Clement Boase. "Graham Eden Hamond". Dictionary of National Biography 1885-1900 24. Retrieved 8 April 2014. 
  6. ^ a b Patrick P'Brian. Post Captain. W. W. Norton. p. 268. 
  7. ^ R. W. (1972). "Post Captain reviews". Taranaki Herald. New Zealand: W W Norton Patrick O'Brian. Retrieved 2007-02-15. 
  8. ^ Renault, Mary. "Post Captain reviews". W W Norton Patrick O'Brian. Retrieved 2007-02-15. 
  9. ^ Patrick O'Brian; John Lee (January 1, 2004). Post Captain. Books on Tape, Inc. ISBN 1-4159-0245-3. 
  10. ^ Kent Rasmussne (2010). "Post Captain". Library Journals Review. Thousand Oaks, California: Villanova University Library. 
  11. ^ Prial, Frank J. (19 October 1998). "The Seas of Adventure Still Beckon a Storyteller; At 83, Patrick O'Brian Journeys Into History". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 June 2015. 
  12. ^ Walton, Jo (11 October 2010). "Out of his element: Patrick O’Brian’s Post Captain". Retrieved 10 December 2014. 

External links[edit]