Summary for Desolation Island

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SPOILER WARNING:  Plot or ending details for "Desolation Island"  follow.

Summary for Desolation Island

The novel opens long enough after Jack Aubrey's adventures in The Mauritius Command that Aubrey has tired of his lengthy shore-bound existence (and his wife, Sophie, longs for her husband to be happily at sea once again). Moreover, Aubrey is in grave danger of squandering his fortune on an ill-considered scheme to refine silver from ancient Roman lead workings to be found on his estate. From the discussion of external events in Desolation Island it would appear that the novel takes place over the span of several months in 1811 and/or 1812, although before the beginning of the war with America.

Soon after the start of the novel Jack Aubrey is given command of the Fourth Rate, 50-Gun ship HMS Leopard to proceed to Australia to restore order after Governor William Bligh (of HMS Bounty fame has come into conflict with the colonists). As with the Lively in Post Captain and HMS Boadicea in The Mauritius Command O'Brian placed Aubrey aboard a genuine historical Royal Navy warship, although unlike in the preceding novels the ship and captain in Desolation Island do not follow a direct historical template for their experience. Although known in the Service as "the horrible old Leopard," Aubrey's new command is in fact adamantly defended by her new captain as having been greatly improved by being rebuilt. However, he is fiercely unhappy about one aspect of his mission: the Leopard is charged with carrying a group of prisoners for transportation to the penal colony. Unknown to Aubrey, Stephen Maturin has been tasked by Naval Intelligence with keeping an eye on one of the prisoners, Louisa Wogan, an American citizen with evident connections to American Intelligence.

The beginning of Desolation Island finds Stephen Maturin in a low state of mind, his abuse of laudanum (taken to dull his pain over the absence of Diana Villiers) negatively affecting his performance as a physician. However, upon his discovery that Diana Villiers has returned to London, Maturin's hopes for a renewed relationship soar, until she flees England under suspicion of espionage. Villiers was an acquaintance of Louisa Wogan and at least an unwitting collaborator in Wogan's intelligence activities. Although Maturin's spirits might be expected to plunge again with Villiers's disappearance, he instead finds a renewed sense of purpose in his mission to uncover Mrs. Wogan's secrets.

To a considerable extent, including but not limited to physical resemblance, Louisa Wogan is a diminished copy of Diana Villiers, even extending to her own ever-hopeful obsessive lover (in this case, young Michael Herapath, another American, whose ability to delude himself is surpassed only by Maturin's own demonstrated history of irrational deep attachment to Diana Villiers). Hiding his Intelligence connections from Wogan and making use of Herapath (who has been appointed surgeon's mate after stowing away aboard the Leopard), Maturin eventually fulfills his mission and is able to use Wogan to transmit documents that will falsely implicate supposed French double agents and disrupt French Intelligence organizations.

The central portion of the novel is dominated by three successive crises: First, the Leopard is ravaged by by a long siege of gaol fever, leaving the ship's crew severely depleted. Second, the Leopard is relentlessly pursued by the Dutch ship-of-the-line Waakzaamheid, until in heavy seas the enemy ship is sunk in a deadly duel. Third, after the Leopard's rudder is lost in a collision with an iceberg and the hull badly holed, Jack Aubrey and his crew fight a lengthy desperate battle to save their vessel. Any one of these episodes would have supplied a strong narrative anchor for any nautical novel; the combination of all three of them in Desolation Island raises that book to great heights of drama and excitement.

Desolation Island ends with a stay upon its namesake island in the southern Indian Ocean, where Jack Aubrey is able to make his ship seaworthy again, and Stephen Maturin is able both to explore an untouched world of animal life and to complete his Intelligence mission (through permitting and even arranging Wogan's escape with the falsified documents to an American whaling vessel also at the island).

Through the novel Jack Aubrey shows continued growth as a leader, not only in battle but in the long struggles for survival complicated by the lack of cooperation from and near mutiny by his first lieutenant, Grant, while Stephen Maturin's skills as an Intelligence operative are given new opportunities for employment. Although Diana Villiers remains an off-stage presence only, it is evident that her hold on Stephen Maturin remains undiluted and something undoubtedly to be revisited in future novels in the series.

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