21: The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey

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21: The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey is the final episode of the Aubrey-Maturin series, an unfinished novel consisting of two chapters and the greater part of a third; written in November-December 1999 and published in 2004.

Page references are to the HarperCollins hardback edition


The manuscript

O'Brian left 61 hand-written A4 sheets, including a few which were deleted and replaced, and a further leaf of notes, together with a typed transcript (with some revisions) which breaks off nine pages from the end. A substantial passage of chapter 1 exists only in the typescript; evidently the author was experimenting with composition directly at the keyboard.

A radio interview of 17th November 1999 ( [1] ) suggested that the author had written three chapters; however, chapter 3 as it stands is incomplete. A marginal note on page 81 refers to "a sudden flurry [?] of hail 3.xii.99". After this point O'Brian still had time to proceed some way further in Chapter 3 and to type out the greater part of the material (there are internal indications that he alternated between writing and typing instead of beginning to type after breaking off the manuscript itself). It appears, therefore, that he must still have been at work within three weeks at most of his death on 2nd January 2000.

Plot introduction

For more details about the plot, which will contain spoilers, see Summary for 21: The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey

For a transcription of the handwritten pages see Transcription for 21

After the Chilean adventure detailed in Blue at the Mizzen, Jack Aubrey is on his way to take up his appointment as Rear Admiral of the Blue. Fortune seems to be set fair for both him and Stephen Maturin: the one is arrived at the height of a sea-officer's ambition, the other has high hopes of a second and far more congenial marriage with the beautiful Christine Wood, and their great enemy is fallen for ever. Jack finds his squadron off Buenos Aires and the two friends are joined by their nearest and dearest. But trouble awaits them both. For Jack it takes the form of a cantankerous Commander-in-Chief and an ominous suggestion of bad blood within his own family, while Stephen has to deal with an influential and potentially dangerous rival.

Major characters in 21

Ships of 21

  • Ringle Schooner acting as tender to Surprise
  • HMS Suffolk (74) Jack Aubrey’s flagship as Rear-Admiral. (The Suffolk was a real ship, built in 1765. As with Surprise, the author has considerably extended her life, the real-life Suffolk having been broken up in 1803. There is plenty of historical precedent for the use of very old ships on outlying stations; compare the 50-year-old Victory in the Baltic and the 95-year-old French Canonnière in the Indian Ocean [mentioned in The Mauritius Command]). It is noticeable that O'Brian specifies 24-pounders as her main armament (p.52) whereas the historical Suffolk carried 32-pounders; this may be a deliberate change, based on the fact that an old ship could be seriously damaged by the recoil of very heavy firing. See Bruce Trinque’s website "The Ships of Jack Aubrey", [2] .
  • Surprise (28) Former naval frigate, lately on hire to the Navy as a survey vessel

Themes and motifs

It seems clear that 21 was to be in great measure an exploration of personal relationships, and that in particular it would have concentrated on the tensions among the women and children. O'Brian had already prepared the way for this by mentioning the growing ill-feeling between Jack’s children and Brigid in Blue at the Mizzen, and the rather artificial device of bringing the entire Woolcombe household out to accompany Jack to the Cape can best be explained as setting the stage for some major domestic episodes which would have depended on our being able to observe the whole family group together.

One element which must surely have loomed large in the book, but which is curiously absent from the fragment which we have, is Stephen’s courtship of Christine. In Blue at the Mizzen he has proposed marriage, with no conclusive result. In the present book there is no clue whatever to Stephen’s progress in this matter; but the treatment of Stephen in this book is important enough, and unusual enough, to demand a section to itself (see below).

Another motif which is tantalisingly hinted at, but never in fact developed, is Napoleon. On 106 Lord Leyton instructs Jack to "weigh on the ebb and to proceed to Saint Helena . . . and there to wait in that damned uneasy roadstead until you see me plain. Then you must weigh and carry on for the Cape." Four pages later, in the very last sentences of the typescript section, we learn the reason for Leyton’s particular interest in St. Helena: "Dr. Maturin was listening sullenly to Lord Leyton’s harangue – his detailed explanation of how he was going to tell Napoleon how he could have avoided defeat at Waterloo." The curious thing is that not only is this interview with Napoleon (which would have been unique in the Canon, "glimpses of the great" never having been manifested as part of the author's technique hitherto) never narrated, but even the proposed visit to St. Helena seems never to take place; the only incident on the voyage across the Atlantic is a severe storm near the African coast which forces the squadron to call at the Portuguese outpost of Loanda, apparently for the purpose of repairs. In this connection it is notable that, in the radio interview mentioned above, the author repudiates any idea of actually portraying Napoleon but does not contradict the interviewer's reference to a scene in which the characters observe St. Helena through a telescope; even of this there is no trace in the material as it stands.

The greying of Stephen Maturin

Perhaps the most striking feature of 21 is its treatment of Stephen. Until now, being in Stephen's presence for any length of time has always implied sharing in his thoughts; he may be writing to Diana or Christine, speaking frankly to Jack or Sir Joseph Blaine or the ship’s cat, or simply thinking, but always the workings of his mind have been laid before the reader. But now we meet a Stephen who appears to have no mind: a kind of servant or functionary who does his duty, plays his cello and talks sensibly about the political situation in Chile or the management of fractious children, but who shows no glimmer of any kind of inward life. The keynote is set at the very beginning; Stephen is writing a letter to Christine but does not know what to say – "the mind itself was in a singular state of absence, hesitation, even stupidity" – and if he ever emerges from this dulled condition, we are not allowed to see him do so. Even his one and only moment of interaction with Christine does not stir him into life. She asks him to be her emissary to Miller, his rival for her hand, and tell the man that he is not to call upon her again unless invited – a painful and delicate errand which might well have put Stephen's life at risk, Miller being a boundlessly conceited man and a notorious duellist. The earlier Stephen – the man who, in Post Captain, tormented himself with inner debate when he saw Diana debasing herself, as he perceived it, by posing and flirting at the opera – would surely have argued with himself at equal length and with equal bitterness over this (as it may well be seen) flippant and exploitative treatment of him by the woman he loves; this Stephen, however, simply delivers his message like a footman, deals efficiently with the consequences and walks away, apparently quite unmoved throughout.

We have no supplementary notes to throw any light on O'Brian's intention in all this. It may be that in his growing weariness (see next section) he no longer had the strength to explore the intricacies of this, his most complex character; or that this treatment is deliberate and that some pivotal event, presumably involving Christine in some way, would have been introduced to jar Stephen into life again; or simply that the author had not yet made up his mind what was to become of Stephen's courtship, and that he could not ink in Stephen's reactions because he was not sure what the situation was to which Stephen was reacting.

How "unfinished" is it?

The "incompleteness" of 21 is of a different order from that of (for example) Dickens’s Edwin Drood, in which the author was arrested in full flow by a premature death. O'Brian turned 85 whilst working on this fragment, and one may feel not only that he was at last growing weary and unable to maintain complex developments of plot and exploration of character (indications of this had already appeared in Blue at the Mizzen, with the oddly premature exit of Sir David Lindsay), but that even his grasp of narrative and syntactical cohesion was fading. There are still some vivid moments, such as the unfurling of Jack's flag for the first time, the twins' resentful reaction to finding Brigid established in high favour with their mother, or the squashed corpses of colourful birds blown into Surprise's rigging by a squall. But alongside these there is (especially in the final untyped pages) some very ungainly and even incoherent writing, as when the phrase "There were no two ways about it" emerges as "There was no true ways about" (p.127). However, it is noticeable that O'Brian’s handwriting (despite occasional difficulties) remains well-formed and well-spaced to the very end, and this gives some ground for arguing that these lapses are not simply evidence of approaching dissolution. They may rather be signs that at the end he was tending to make notes about the story instead of actually writing it. Thus the very last words he wrote are "and it was (sic, for "may") well have been during the conversation" – altered from "and it was possibly during these hours of sitting in the cabin that"; having applied the convention of authorial omniscience in a more than commonly lofty and impersonal form for most of his career, O'Brian has now abandoned it entirely and allowed his uncertainty about where the story was going to percolate into the writing itself. Better, perhaps, to leave him (just a few lines earlier) with a last personal portrait:

Killick delighted in pineapple-shrub and in pigs' trotters; but they did not nearly reach his high and exalted pleasure in very specifically obscene stories, however improbable (which alas he could never remember accurately or even at all) and accounts of high life.

Anomalies and irregularities

  • Wantage, the master’s mate who was taken back on board Surprise in Blue at the Mizzen after deserting at Funchal and who later died at sea, reappears alive on page 28.
  • Amos Jacob, Stephen’s medical assistant and brother agent, has left the ship to compile a report on Argentine politics. Page 119 mentions his reappearance as a very recent event (Stephen expresses an intention to operate on a hernia "now that Jacob is returned"); but by this time the ships are, and apparently have been for some days, off the African coast, so that Jacob would appear to have crossed the Atlantic on his own!
  • Lord Leyton’s plans for a stop at St. Helena are never executed (see Themes and motifs above).
  • Edward Heatherleigh, Christine’s brother, accompanies her and Sophie in Ringle; we hear Jack’s welcome to him (p.84), but Edward himself never speaks and is never afterwards mentioned. The task of warning off Miller would have fallen much more naturally to Edward (as male head of Christine’s family) than to Stephen, and it seems likely that the author, having decided on the duel incident, had more or less unconsciously rejected Edward's presence which was now redundant.
  • Don Seltzer has pointed out that the course of the journey from Buenos Aires to the Cape via Loanda makes no sense, involving as it does a long detour north-eastward which does not correspond to any prevailing wind or current.
  • Where is Jack at the time of the duel? He is mentioned on page 119 as being preoccupied with refitting, but a night intervenes between challenge and combat and there must be a lapse of some more days before the final paragraphs, in which the fleet has evidently put to sea. In fact Jack simply fades out of the story after the reference just quoted.

A last echo of Dr. Johnson

[Lord Leyton has served an "ancient burgundy" which proves to be corked; Stephen is surprised at the guests' failure to comment on the fact.] '"Stoicism?" asked Stephen privately. "Dislike of offending the great man? Discipline? Stark insensibility?"' (Cf. Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, ed. Hill & Powell (1964), vol. I p.60)

Books in the Aubrey-Maturin Series by Patrick O'Brian

Master and Commander | Post Captain | HMS Surprise | The Mauritius Command | Desolation Island | The Fortune of War | The Surgeon's Mate | The Ionian Mission | Treason's Harbour | The Far Side of the World | The Reverse of the Medal | The Letter of  Marque | The Thirteen-Gun Salute | The Nutmeg of Consolation | Clarissa Oakes/The Truelove | The Wine-Dark Sea | The Commodore | The Yellow Admiral | The Hundred Days | Blue at the Mizzen | 21: The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey

Other books by Patrick O'Brian
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