The Yellow Admiral – Patrick O’Brian

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The Yellow Admiral is Jack Aubrey’s flirtation with marital and maritime disaster. His outspoken defense of the traditional “commons” system of leaving vast tracts of land open, unenclosed and accessible to all, has alienated excessively greedy neighbors with powerful  family ties to the Admiralty.  As the war with the French winds down, Aubrey is in danger of “promotion” to yellow admiral–a title without a command and a death knell to a distinguished naval carer. Meanwhile, once he receives orders to patrol a blockade, an unhappy coincidence at home results in his wife Sophie reading a packet of old love letters from a flagrant indiscretion. Sophie threatens to leave him and nothing he can do or promise dissuades her.

Dr. Stephen Maturin fares much better in this book. His fortune is eventually recovered and his Diana is happy at home with a new stable full of thoroughbreds to raise and a newly restored, bright and normal daughter to enjoy. The first half of the book is landlocked as Aubrey and Maturin cope with local and Navy politics and the considerable efforts to regain their former prosperity. Maturin comes up with a solution to Aubrey’s career dilemma that will accommodate the good surgeon-naturalist’s interests as well–the Chileans need an elaborate coastal survey and an able commander for their fledgling navy. Jack Aubrey, surveyor and sea captain, is the perfect candidate and Stephen Maturin can renew his acquaintance with the creatures and plants in a relatively undocumented ecology, thus burnishing his academic reputation. 

Lots of wonderful domestic detail–hunting, shooting, the issue of the preservation of the commons, economies in the face of a shortage of funds, speeches before Parliament, the raising of intrepid, boisterous children, attendance at private clubs and general social engagements, fills the time on terra firma. Battles, strategies, preparations, maneuvers and adaptations to changeable weather conditions spice up things at sea. Whatever Aubrey does to carry out his orders and distinguish himself and his ships backfires–it seems he is being set up to fail. Maturin carries out a very successful spy mission and saves some patients in extremis so his hero quotient is high. And then Napoleon surrenders and is exiled to Elba and the Navy ships are decommissioned.  The Chilean option gets very real–as does the threat of being “yellowed.”

The Yellow Admiral is full of wonderful twists and turns and as satisfying as its prequel, The Commodore.  Patrick O’Brian’s yarns are terrific and his engaging trick of building up to a key event and then hopping over it to deal with the resolution allows for repeat episodes of tension and relief that are enjoyable. No nailbiting necessary but a sense of the action of time and life in the English countryside and on board during the Napoleonic Wars that creates the feeling of being there. These are dense books and I probably won’t tackle too many while I am trying to finish a book a day. But I will revisit the entire series when I have time to savor them. They recall the pleasures of my brief yacht racing career and all the joys and challenges of coping with currents, winds and navigation. Not quite as good as being there but a pleasure nonetheless.

The Yellow Admiral (Vol. Book 18) (Aubrey/Maturin Novels)   Patrick O’Brian | W.W. Norton & Company  1996


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