Magazine article The Spectator

Something Happened on the Way to Chile

Magazine article The Spectator

Something Happened on the Way to Chile

Article excerpt

Fourteen years have passed since the acrimonious exchange between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin during the interval of the first and second movements of Locatelli's C-major quartet in the musicroom of Government House, Port Mahon on 1 April 1800. The period covered by The Yellow Admiral (the 18th novel in the series chronicling the careers of these remarkable fictional characters) is that of the Brest blockade prior to Napoleon's abdication after the Battle of Toulouse, 10 April 1814, until his subsequent escape from Elba.

Jack Aubrey's most fervent wish, as he creeps to the top of the Captains' List, is for promotion to Rear-Admiral of the Blue Squadron. However, as long as the uneasy peace in Europe prevails so does the likelihood of his being yellowed increase - the ultimate naval humiliation for an ambitious naval captain, that of promotion to a post which carries no command, the Yellow Squadron, and whose officers, although entitled to the half-pay of a rear-admiral, have no further prospects of either employment or promotion.

And, of course, on the home front Jack Aubrey does nothing to improve his chances of promotion. In the House of Commons, to the intense irritation of their Lordships of the Admiralty, he is a constant critic of naval policy. At his country home he feuds with his neighbour whose uncle, Lord Stranraer, is the admiral commanding the Brest blockade to which Aubrey is posted. The quarrel is over the enclosure of common land. Those familiar with the writings of John Aubrey -- surely an ancestor of our hero - will recall a passage from the Wiltshire Collection:

The country was then a lovely campania. Since the Enclosures, these parts have swarmed with poor people. Enclosures are for the private, not public good.

Jack Aubrey is out of the same mould A generous landowner and a lover of the English countryside and its pursuits, he appears at the parliamentary committee hearing the petition for the enclosure of his favourite commons and succeeds in getting it rejected, much to the financial discomfiture of his admiral's nephew.

Domestic matters are dismal. Cash is in woefully short supply, the result of a spate of litigation arising from Aubrey's campaign against slave-traders in the Gulf of Guinea (see The Commodore). Finally Mrs Williams, the Medusa of mother-inlaws, sees fit to show her daughter a cache of letters she has found from a former lover of Aubrey who claims to have borne a child. Into this unhappy household steps Stephen Maturin fresh from a successful secret mission to France. He brings news that the Chileans, anxious to be independent from Spain. …

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