The Letter of Marque (novel)

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The Letter of Marque, originally published in 1988, is the twelfth novel in the Aubrey-Maturin series of historical novels by Patrick O'Brian.

SPOILER WARNING:  Plot or ending details for "The Letter of Marque"  follow.



For more details about the plot, which will contain spoilers, see Summary for The Letter of Marque

The back-cover blurb for the Norton paperback edition reads as follows:

Captain Jack Aubrey, a brilliant and experienced officer, has been struck off the list of post-captains for a crime that he did not commit. His old friend Stephen Maturin, usually cast as a ship’s surgeon to mask his discreet activities on behalf of British Intelligence, has bought for Aubrey his former ship the Surprise to command as a privateer, more politely termed a letter of marque. Together they sail on a desperate mission against the French which, if successful, may redeem Aubrey from the private hell of his disgrace.

LoM shows POB at the height of his authorial powers, taking the protagonists and a large cast of memorable supporting characters through a marvelous dance that is wonderfully imagined and intricately plotted.


The major theme of the novel is the struggle to cope with loss and to find redemption: at the beginning of the story, Jack has been stripped of his standing as a naval officer (as described in the previous novel of the series, The Reverse of the Medal), while Stephen’s wife Diana has left him after being informed of what appears to be a humiliating, highly public infidelity (as described in Treason's Harbour). The efforts of each character to regain his deepest desire propel the action at all times, but there are a number of fascinating currents and eddies in the narrative stream. Many of these ancillary themes have appeared in previous POB novels, but they find new depths of expression here. Some of the themes include:

  • Bringing oneself to accept help in a time of crisis
  • The difficulty of living up to expectations
  • Assuming and playing a role
  • The power of perception in determining reality
  • The painful process of recognizing and disengaging from one’s cherished illusions
  • The tension between the public trappings and the private satisfactions of success

Crew of the Surprise

  • Commander Thomas Pullings -- First Mate
  • West -- Second Mate
  • Davidge -- Third Mate
  • None -- Master (Mates: Smith and Kane)
  • Bulkeley -- Boatswain
  • Standish -- Purser
  • None -- Clerk
  • Bentley -- Carpenter
  • Barret Bonden -- Coxswain
  • Dr. Nathaniel Martin -- Surgeon's Mate
  • Preserved Killick -- Captain's Steward
  • Adi -- Captain's Cook


As readers of POB expect, the natural world is a major source of inspiration for the brilliant tapestry of LoM. Wind, water, plants and birds are frequently evoked, while horses predominate (including an Arabian mare that manages to be charming and charismatic without any hint of anthropomorphism). The imagery of theatre, music, poetry, and opera is used to great effect; in the most striking example, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro frames several key points in the book (especially the delightful final tableau). Another scene (which surely must have inspired at least one paper on authorial self-reflection) involves a discussion of the section of Aristotle’s Poetics which notes that dramatic reversal does not necessarily rule out a happy ending. Another source of marvelous images falls into the category of treasure, from silver dinner service to gold bars to coins and gems of many kinds. The highlight of all the precious objects is undoubtedly the fabulous diamond known as the Blue Peter, which is loaded with dramatic resonance after figuring prominently in earlier POB novels and could easily serve as the subject of a graduate thesis all on its own.


LoM is one of the richest and liveliest novels in The Canon and many readers of POB consider it their favorite. It takes great advantage of the possibilities sown in the previous eleven books and moves the saga along in new directions. The crisp narrative pace supports a brisk first reading, but it rewards any subsequent visits with both hitherto unnoticed gems (no pun intended) and new reflections on familiar ideas.

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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