Knit to This: Still Afloat with Jack Aubrey

By Ann Shayne
September 19, 2020

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88 Comments
  • I owned a sailboat for several years (best years of my life) and the next volume in the Patrick O’Brian series was always on board. Delighted to hear they are on Audible – can’t wait to get started on them again!

    • What a splendid way to read these books. #envy!

  • I loved the movie Master and Commander so I will try these books. Thanks for this great newsletter. Don t know what I would do without it!

  • Audio-readers may also want to check the O’Brian audiobooks’ availability from their local libraries via the (free) Libby app. I just placed a request for Master and Commander. It’ll be available soon, and, amid so much sadness, I look forward to setting sail.

    • I second the free library app called Libby, excellent!!

    • I was gonna say that too. Libby makes borrowing audio books easier than ever. I just put hold on M&C. That means I’m waiting my turn for the book. That’s actually not so bad. Just make sure you have a nice selection in the pipeline.

    • Did not know about Libby. What a resource that is!

    • The narrator, Simon Vance, in the Libby versions is awesome. I prefer him to Patrick Still by a mile. Everyone had their preference but to me Simon Vance can’t be beat

      • Simon Babe is definitely excellent.

        • Ah! I don’t know if he’s a ‘babe’ or not, but Simon VANCE is a great voice actor!

  • I don’t know this series, though this post intrigues me enough to give it a try. I would suggest that if you choose to buy the books, you use libro.com, where your purchase will support local independent bookstores—a resource as rare and precious as any sunken ship’s treasure. And I echo the library suggestion, equally precious and truly endangered.

    • One of my all time favorite series – I’m happier reading than listening but have kept the books for years. I also recommend the Horatio Hornblower series

      • Horatio Hornblower! My secret crush since I was in my teens….
        I heard an interview once with Patrick Stewart about the Star Trek series, and he said when he took the role the producer made him read all the Hornblower books as inspiration.

        • This is the best bit I’ve read in days, and thanks so much for passing it on. I‘ve been a Trekker since the beginning, and I own and have read (several times!) all the Hornblower books. The connection of Picard with Hornblower now seems obvious to me!

        • Horatio Hornblower is the best! I have read and reread those books over the years.
          Couldn’t quite sustain my interest in the Master and Commander series after plowing through the first one.

        • Thank you for that! I’ve read the Hornblower series many times, and often wondered why watching Patrick Stewart in Star Trek reminded me of him. Now I get it! Great acting!

    • Libro.fm not libro.com, a great suggestion!

      • I wholeheartedly agree.

      • Yes, my error, libro.fm. Thanks for the correction.

    • Thanks for the heads up about libro.com–I didn’t know about it! Very cool.

  • Toasted cheese, Killick!

    I love these books!

    • OMG every time I hear “toasted cheese” I totally want toasted cheese.

  • I too love these books, so will try them as audiobooks. And I second the Horatio Hornblower novels as well.

  • This series was on my list as a “must read” for 2021. It might be moving up to a 2020 slot. If you are not sure about this series. start with the stunning Master and Commander movie directed by Peter Weir. I have listened to some parts of the audio books (in the car, thanks to my husband) and agree totally with your observations. At one point the narrator is reading a letter from Jack’s wife to Jack. Essentially, she is happy that his raise in pay will mean they can move to a home with more sunlight. It is a brilliant combination of loving correspondence between husband and wife and sharply observed social commentary on the effects of living in dark and crowded housing. That moment, pure Jane Austen. And it’s not all sea. The ship’s surgeon provides enlightening commentary on intellectual and scientific discoveries.

    • The movie is so fantastic. I forgive them for casting the very beautiful Paul Bettany as Dr. Maturin, rather than going with the Steve Buscemi-esque image I have of the good doctor. O’Brian never tires of describing Maturin’s pallor, untidy wigs, and general lugubriousness. I love him anyway.

      • Before Raul Julia passed, I thought he would make a perfect Maturin. Now I think I’d like to see Matthew Rhys tackle the role – he’s got the darkness.

  • Part of what I love about these books is that they just don’t deal with any topics that I expect to care about, and yet they are completely enthralling! I can’t think of a better recommendation.

    • Yes! They’re stepping new masts at the moment, and I have no idea what’s going on except it’s really hard to do and Aubrey’s men are really good at it.

  • Dean King’s A Sea of Words is available as “a lexicon and companion” to the series.

    • Overdrive gives you access to your local library. It helps, when getting started to have a library card and know the password to you local library website.

    • JUICY. Would love to up my game on rigging and sails and naval ships circa 1805.

  • And lest we forget: LOBSCOUSE & SPOTTED DOG, a wonderful cookbook by Lisa Grossman, the late Tsarina of Tsocks (and her mother, Anne). It’s a “gastronomic companion to the Aubrey/Maturin novels,” packed with tested recipes and commentary. You want to know how to make such delectables as Portable Soup, Quaking Pudding, Stewed Boar, Boiled Baby and White Sauce Beautified with Cochineal? It’s all here, not to mention Syllabub from the Cow and Boiled Shit. Plus a foreward by Patrick O’Brien.
    Lisa was an extraordinary woman: a brilliant knitwear designer, founder of Art For Your Feet, a food scholar and writer, a choreographer, a legendary cook, a fearless knitter and spinner (19-ply homespun, anyone?), and a generous friend.

    • Oh my goodness, I remember the Tsarina of Tsocks–I was too intimidated by sock knitting to try her designs. Especially considering they are the most amazing sock patterns ever. And yes, I’m completely interested in Portable Soup. Can’t believe she made a cookbook, how fantastic. Ship’s biscuit, good lord. And grog. Hope there’s the recipe for that in there.

      • Yep, both. Testing for the grog recipe was epic.

  • Wine Dare Sea was the first one I read. Then, I started from the beginning. Have read them multiple times. My sister picked one up at my house, and next thing I new, she and her husband bought the entire collection and read them all. Love these books, so well written, even if he repeats the character intro in each book.

    • wow, rereading this shows the weakness of auto correct! Wine Dark! knew!

    • Yes, I like the reintroduction of characters, sort of as a recitation so we’re all up to speed on everybody. Makes me feel in the know!

  • My dad introduced me to Horatio Hornblower when I was ten, about the time he found them, as weekly serials. It was why he joined the navy. My mom thought we were just weird, arguing about sail rigging, on a ship of the line, in the Napoleonic Wars.
    Then we discovered Patrick O’Brien! And then Master and Commander the movie, when Russell Crowe was young and hot. I have all those books, and thanks for reminding me that it’s time to reread them (after finishing all the Louise Penny Inspector Gamache and Ellis Peters Brother Cadfael books).
    Preserved Killick! Which I’m doing it, ain’t I?
    And yes, Libby is very cool, and nationwide, too, largely.

    • Russell Crowe is indeed the perfect Jack Aubrey. Amazing casting. Really wish they’d made all 21 books into movies, but my understanding is that it was really tough to film the movie.

    • There’s a brand-new Louise Penny! “All the Devils Are Here.” I have my copy, but first I have to go back and reread all the other Inspector Gamache books. (She said with glee)

  • There’s an email list too, if that sort of forum is to your liking – – The Gunroom, hosted at http://www.HMSSurprise.org. Suitable topics of conversation are Patrick O’Brian, and everything else (though not religion or politics, which has contributed to the list’s longevity). New members are always welcome; lurkers too.
    Gunroom motto: “When you need to talk about it, we’ll be there.”

    • OH how fun is this. So great.

    • Seconding the Gunroom!

  • I’ve been reading these for the past twenty years, always turning to them for escape, comfort, and the thrill of O’Brian’s stellar prose and humor. I only went through all 21 books once; I usually get to about #15 and start over with #1.

  • I just finished reading the whole series, sparked by a visit to the sailing ship Constellation in Baltimore harbor last fall. I agree that you just need to let the language wash over you and soak in—it’s amazing how much you can pick up, although I admit I did some googling. Perfect escapist yet enlightening literature. I miss Jack and Stephen and the crew.

    • I had to detour my lads to a visit to the USS Constitution in Boston last year because I was into The Fortune of War, which features that Literal Actual Ship, so I had to go. It was so satisfying and amazing to stand on the quarter deck and look up at the web of rigging.

  • I’ve read these wonderful books twice and listened once. I agree, Patrick Tull is a gifted narrator, so much so that you fully believe all the characters, even the women. I’ll have to get the cookbook. Thanks to all the commenters for their insights.

    • Even the two little girls, Emily and Sarah, are memorable rendered.

  • I relistened to the entire series during this crazy Covid time and loved the books as much, the second time through.

  • Yes, Yes!! I just finished listening to the entire series for at least the 3rd time. Patrick Tull is incredible (he has also recorded some other books), unfortunately he has passed.

  • So happy to hear these are on audio books. I read through the series many years ago and have often wanted to revisit them. I was so thrilled by the stories and learned so much about history. The writing was so descriptive I felt every twist and turn of some of the ships during the sea squalls.Now I can go back to visit Jack and knit at the same time! Thank you for brining this to our attention.

  • Thank you for the recommendation – I love historical fiction.

    If anyone is looking for a great alterative to Audible, I recommend Libro.fm This audiobook service allows you to select a local independent bookstore to support with a portion of your purchases. Their selection is great and their monthly subscription pricing is the same as Audible’s pricing.

  • Stephen and Jack are some of my best friends!! My husband and I have both been through the series at least three times. The writing is amazing and the vocabulary! And we love toasted cheese.

  • If you like Patrick O’Brian, try the books of Frederick Marryat. I know at least one of his books, Peter Simple, is available as an audiobook from Audible. All of the books in the series are good, I am partial to Mr. Midshipman Easy. I had found a small book in an antique cabinet that I bought and there was a copy of Peter Simple in it, published in 1834, with no author’s name, because of copyright I think, but it was a good read!

  • The best type of series as it feels fresh and familiar every time I listen to it or read it! The hardest part of loving the series it trying to convince others of the joy that awaits!

  • I started listening to this series at least 15 years ago and have re-listened to the whole series at least four, if not five times over the years (including earlier this year). It never gets old. Started listening on library cassette tapes–then moved on to the CD versions, At the time, I was commuting/driving 100 miles a day– retired two years ago–this series helped me survive DC traffic. Must say, I found I could not listen to the last book, 21, because it is unfinished (Patrick O’Brian died while writing it) and it just made me too sad. Still, my favorite series of all time. Absolutely recommend listening rather than reading–especially if you don’t know your way around sail rigging :). The characters are so well drawn, the action riveting. Patrick Tull was an amazing narrator and when he died it was hard to get used to a new narrator, but Simon Vance did a good job, too. Happy sailing.

  • Hi there, I would recommend a different audio platform like Libro.fm for example instead of audible. This way you can also support the smaller independent booksellers.

  • YES YES YES!!! I *cannot* recommend these books more!! And the Tull readings are absolutely splendid. Any fan of Austen would adore these; when they necessarily delve into things nautical, as one devoted reader says, “then a bunch of men went up in the rigging and did something with sails.” It may be ignored if so needed. I have read all 21 at least once, and am due for a re-reading now. This may be the impetus I need.

    Meanwhile: May I invite the reader to join the Gunroom, which it’s the Patrick O’Brian List of the World? It is an email list of the most erudite folk ever, who discuss the works of Patrick O’Brian and everything else: [email protected].

    • Ahoy the Gunroom!

  • Oh, yes! Joining you as one who cherishes this series as no other! Your post is a reminder to download all of them to Audible now. The last reading of them all was via . . . .what are they called again? Oh, yes—paperbacks. Have become one of those people who now only buy actual paper books for poetry, art, cookery and of course—knitting! MDK Field Guides is a necessity in both digital and paper—love they way they look on my shelf.

  • Thanks for the recommendation. My dad passed away on Tuesday and RBG last night so “adrift” doesn’t even begin to encompass my state of mind. I’m having a very hard time concentrating on books so am only even attempting those recommended by a reliable source!

    Returning the favor, a couple of series that I can return to over and over again are Outlander by Diana Gabaldon and the Armand Gamache series by Louise Penny. Hopefully you might enjoy those as well.

    I’m continuing to knit on but have decided to only work on whatever moves me in the moment, which right now is a baby blanket – repetitive, soothing, and hopeful.

    • Or, for wild and wacky adventure, try the Lymond series by Dorothy Dunnett – truly picaresque! Thanks for the recommendation re Patrick O’Brien…

  • Toasted cheese, Jack, Stephen and music are the perfect way to spend an evening. These are wonderfully entertaining books,

  • You’re so right about Jane Austen! (I’ve read or listened to all of them, avidly.) A beloved columnist for the SF Chronicle, Jon Carroll, referred to O’Brian as “the Austen of the waves.”

    • These sound wonderful, and I will add my name to those looking them up! Thanks so much for all the recommendations. I recently finished the Poldark series by Winston Graham — 12 books set in about the same time period. The PBS series is based on the books, but of course doesn’t really compare (except for giving great visualizations of the Cornwall setting and the characters.) So I’d recommend that series, too.

    • Carroll also referred to the series as “literary crack.” His was the recommendation that got me started on the series. Had someone said, “British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars” to me I’d have gone to sleep.

  • So much inspiration to be found here! And I have to say that I find it wonderful that we, a group of predominantly women, are talking about historical fiction with such relish. Men would never deign to read romance novels (though many of us probably don’t ready them either), but we are so much less intimidated by venturing into the world of men than they are of venturing into ours. Much to our advantage, I would say.

    And I have to say that while I’m sure I would have loved Steve Buscemi in the role, the more good movies Paul Bettany can be in, the better! Swoon.

  • Oh wow, I was shocked and delighted to see this article, I love Aubrey/Maturin, and totally finished the series during quarantine while knitting! I too plan to start again. These books are pure joy, and your observations are right. You never want to leave.

  • I’ve lovdd ghese books for years, and my husband has read them all through several times. But I’d forgotten about the audio books!!!!! Thank you for reminding me!!!!

  • Thanks! It is time for another read/listen through. I love this series! Huzzah!

  • Master and Commander was good, but I’m a Richard Sharpe girl myself – excellent British Army in the Napoleonic Wars yarns. And the Sharpe in India miniseries starring Sean Bean was excellent as well.

    • My kids still remember long drives on family vacations listering to the series in the car. And they can always choose “the lesser of two weevils”.
      The movie lies about the identity of the enemy ship. It was an American ship, not a French ship that was preying on the English whalers.

  • I listened to every word of this series read by Simon Vance. He could read the phone book and I’d be enthralled. Thanks for the suggestion. I think I will listen again.

  • I have loved these books for years. I tried reading them, but was overwhelmed by the technical descriptions. I decided to try the recorded books and discovered what you describe – Jane Austen of the seas. I am captured by these characters and by the skill of the reader, I am intrigued by the story: I am … transported!! Most importantly, I am motivated to re-listen by your letter today! Thank you.

  • Oh my, new literary adventure. I love the film, Master and Commander, and look forward to autumn knitting while sailing away.

  • I am with you all the way. Read them all years ago and reread them again last year through early this year. They are a path to a different world and I still have a crush on Maturin!

  • I just discovered a podcast, two great fans discussing the books in great detail and with great humor. It’s called The Lubber’s Hole.

  • I. Love. Those. Books. I’ve read the series through at least three times. I hadn’t tied using an audiobook – I have a hearing disorder that makes it difficult for me to make sense of audio by itself – but since it would be time #4, I am tempted.

    I was FURIOUS about the mess of the movie “Master and Commander” – Russell Crowe was perfect as Aubrey but Paul Bettany was terribly miscast as Stephen Maturin — A “short, slight, and dark-haired” man who was half Catalan and half Irish. Movie came out in 2003 and I’m still mad, which I guess lets you know I’m completely irrational about this series of books.

    Personally, Blue at the Mizzen, Vol 20, comes to a satisfying stopping place (except of course no one wants to stop, ever.) I am sorry that I bought a copy of the “Final, Unfinished Voyage” because it was clearly not up to the quality of the rest of the series, and it was VERY unfinished. Patrick O’Brian died before he finished the series, and they should have left that fragment alone.

    Thank you for reminding me of these books that I love. It’s time to read them again.

    • Like you, I am a devoted reader of this series, many times over. As I reread the “Final, Unfinished Voyage”, I recognized the difference between writing and editing. O’Brian was a master and commander of both. The movie tells a lively tale; the books reveal the brilliant wordsmithing and storytelling that were O’Brian’s genius.

      With each rereading, I discover something new, something deeper in the arc of the series as characters and situations are introduced, recede, and then come forward several books later.

    • Initially, I was totally disappointed with the movie “Master and Commander” (I still want to see the scene where Jack and Stephen meet!), but as time and tide moved on, (and the fact no more have been made), I find “M&C” the perfect tonic as pure comfort watching. It really is well done and packs A LOT of content into an hour and a half. A clip of the initial battle scene in the movie was used as an introduction to touring the HMS Victory in Portsmouth in 2005.

  • I’ve read them all. More than once.5*

  • I’ve not read these yet. But my husband adored them. Read each book multiple times. I believe it’s time he and I listen to them together. Thx.

  • Please also consider getting your audio books through Libro.fm, which supports independent bookstores. Libro has the O’Brian books!

  • This Thursday’s NY Times crossword Puzzle, #35 Down: Novelist Patrick who wrote “Master and Commander”

    I had to look it up.

  • The HMS Surprise is docked at the San Diego Maritime Museum where I am a sail crew member. She is a gorgeous ship and her woodwork and craftmanship is amazing. Currently she is undergoing a re decking. The link below shows the figure head of the HMS Surprise wearing her mask and social distancing.

    https://sdmaritime.org/latest-news/covid-museum-opening-status/

  • Ann, you inspired me to get back to it. I had left off 2/3 through “The Mauritius Command” many months ago. I started the book over, and I’m enjoying it so much! I’ve still got a lot in front of me, but I like your idea of simply revolving it. I have a taste of hearing it for the second time, since I’m repeating quite a bit of this book, and guess what? It’s even better the second time! Thanks for the terrific nudge! xoA

  • I SO agree; I have listened all the way through the Simon Vance versions 3 times, starting way back in the 90’s when they came in the mail in cardboard boxes full of cassette tapes, while commuting over an hour each way from Oakland to Redwood City, California (huge and pregnant; I swear I stopped at every gas station restroom on that route); then in the early 2000’s, on my daily commute to downtown Minneapolis, while surviving a tough job transition and a sad divorce; and then again, in the 2010’s, just for the sheer pleasure of them.

    These books create a world that is as real to me as the one I live in, and I mourn and miss these characters like true friends. I just don’t know if any other books will ever come as close to my heart.

  • The series has inspired a couple of books to accompany it:Harbors and High Seas: An Atlas and Geographical Guide to the Complete Aubrey-Maturin Novels of Patrick O’Brian and A Sea of Words, : A Lexicon and Companion to the Complete Seafaring Tales of Patrick O’Brian Nice visual and jargon help to round out the experience of these fantastic novels.