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The Surgeon's Mate

The Surgeon's Mate, (1980) is a historical novel set during the Napoleonic Wars and written by Patrick O'Brian. From the title, the reader might expect the "Surgeon's Mate" to be Stephen Maturin's medical assistant. However, in the course of the novel (one in which Maturin has no assistant), it becomes clear that the "mate" is Maturin's long-time love-interest and future wife, Diana Villiers.

Plot summary

The story of The Surgeon's Mate starts in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Aubrey and Maturin, having escaped from the Americans in Boston on HMS Shannon, start their return journey to England aboard a packet ship. Two American privateer schooners - commissioned by Harry Johnson, an American spymaster - doggedly pursue the packet ship across the Grand Banks until one of them fortuitously hits an iceberg. On their return to England, Stephen receives an invitation to speak at the Institut in Paris on the extinct avifauna of Rodriguez and he and Diana visit the city. Stephen arranges for Diana, who is pregnant with Johnson's child, to stay with a friend Adhemar de La Mothe for her lying-in.

The British Admiralty are keen to capture the fortress at Grimsholm owing to its highly strategic location in the Baltic. Maturin, accompanied by Jack Aubrey and Jagiello, a remarkably talented and handsome young Lithuanian, embarks on a mission to persuade the Catalan garrison of the fortress to defect (it is likely that this episode reflects similar events in 1808 - see below). Aboard the Ariel, Aubrey manages to capture the Minnie, a swift Danish privateer cum merchantman, after a day long chase. Once Stephen Maturin and British hands are aboard, they pretend to give chase to her in order to deceive the Spanish garrison. Maturin is eventually landed and, in the absence of any French officers, warmly welcomed by his Catalan godfather, Ramon d'Ullastret. The next morning, the Catalan troops and their colonel are loaded aboard the transport ships and the successful expedition receives a warm welcome back at base from Admiral Sir James Saumarez.

Caught up in a storm in the English Channel, the Ariel spots the Jason pursuing a French two-decker, the Meduse. Aubrey decides to help the chase and blasts the Meduse with his carronades without suffering much damage, slowing her pace enough for the Jason to gain. After losing sight of them, the Ariel is caught up in two nights of dark, stormy weather and finds herself fifty miles off course in Gripes Bay with the wind dead on shore. Aubrey attempts to club-haul her but the Ariel ends up on the Thatcher and he has to beach her on the shore. After a brief period of imprisonment in Brittany, Jack, Stephen and Jagiello are taken to Paris, accompanied by a Monsieur Duhamel. Imprisoned in the Temple, Aubrey attempts to break out down the immense stone privy as Stephen is interrogated by French officers. In the meantime, Duhamel has approached Stephen with an offer - to take peace offerings to the King and English government (probably a plan hatched up by Talleyrand and some senior officials). Duhamel also gives Stephen some English newspapers to read and Jack learns from the Naval Chronicle that Ajax defeated the Meduse off La Hogue which buoys up his spirits enormously.

It also turns out that Diana Villiers has given her great diamond, the Blue Peter, to a Minister's wife to help secure their release. Just as Jack breaks through the privy, four Frenchmen enter their prison cell - D'Anglars, Duhamel, a foreign ministry official and a cloaked officer. After agreeing terms, the prisoners are taken down to two carriages and spirited out of Paris (accompanied by Diana who has lost her baby) to a waiting cartel at Calais, the Oedipus commanded by William Babbington. Safely away, Stephen proposes to Diana Villiers once again and they are finally married on board by Babbington, with Jack giving her away.

Characters in "The Surgeon's Mate"

  • Jack Aubrey - Captain.
  • Stephen Maturin - ship's surgeon, friend to Jack and intelligence officer.
  • Sophie Aubrey - Jack's wife.
  • Mrs. Williams - Sophie's mother.
  • Diana Villiers - Stephen's love interest, who becomes his wife.
  • Miss Smith - Jack's paramour in Nova Scotia.
  • Jagiello - a young Lithuanian cavalry officer, seconded to the Admiralty from the Swedish service.
  • Sir Joseph Blaine - senior figure at the Admiralty and Maturin's spymaster.
  • William Babbington - Jack's former lieutenant and captain of the Oedipus.
  • Ramon d'Ullastret i Casademon - a Catalan colonel and Stephen Maturin's godfather.
  • Admiral Sir James Saumarez - Admiral of the Baltic Fleet at Carlscrona.
  • Monsieur Duhamel - a French secret agent.

Ships in "The Surgeon's Mate"

The British:

  • HMS Ariel
  • HMS Shannon
  • HMS Humbug
  • HMS Oedipus
  • HMS Ajax
  • HMS Jason

The Danish:

  • Minnie

The French:

  • Méduse

Allusions/references to actual history, geography and current science

The fortress at Grimsholm:

In 1807, the Spanish government, at that time allied with France, had sent 15,000 troops to Denmark to act as a garrison against a possible British landing there. These troops, among the best in Spain, garrisoned offshore islands in small detachments and remained in the dark about political developments in Spain following Napoleon's invasion and occupation of Spain in 1807 (see Peninsular War).

The Duke of Wellington dispatched the Scottish Benedictine monk James Robertson (on the advice of his brother Richard Wellesley, 1st Marquess Wellesley). Robertson, brought up at the Benedictine abbey at Regensburg in Germany, managed to pass through occupied Germany under the guise of "Adam Rohrauer", a dealer in cigars and chocolate. Robertson made contact with the Spanish general, the Marquis de la Romana, on the island of Funen, where the two agreed that the Spanish troops would defect and return to Spain on British ships. Robertson escaped to Helgoland (then a British possession) to inform Admiral Richard Goodwin Keats of the agreement, and a fleet of transports escorted by HMS Superb embarked 9,000 Spanish soldiers.

The imprisonment of Aubrey and Maturin in the Temple prison in Paris:

This may echo the case of Captain Sidney Smith, captured on 19th April 1796 while attempting to cut out a French ship in Le Havre. Instead of exchanging him (as customary), the French took Smith to the Temple prison and charged him with arson for his burning of the fleet at Toulon in 1793. Smith remained held in Paris for two years, despite a number of efforts to exchange him and frequent contacts with both French Royalists and British agents.

In 1798, Royalists pretending to take him to another prison instead helped him to escape. They brought him to Le Havre, where he boarded a fishing boat and then transferred to a British frigate on patrol in the English Channel, arriving in London on 8th May 1798. Some historians have speculated that he allowed the French Republicans to capture him so that he could make contact with the Royalists.

Literary significance & criticism


"The high seas are his home place—as they were for Melville and Conrad. And his time, the age and era of the great Nelson, is the altogether gracefully resurrected past, in large and small and always in a wealth of shining details. But Patrick O'Brian is a novelist for here and now, someone who shares his splendid vision, his wonderful sense of character, with a growing number of lucky contemporary readers who have found his works." — George Garrett


Audio Edition Recorded Books, LLC; Unabridged Audio edition narrated by Patrick Tull (ISBN 1402591845)

Sources, references, external links, quotations


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