There’s been some unrest at home lately.
I’ve started reading (for the second time) the masterful 20-novel series that is set in the Napoleonic era aboard a British naval ship, commanded by Capt. Jack Aubrey and accompanied by his friend, the physician and eminent natural scientist (and British spy), Dr. Stephen Maturin. Material from three of the novels formed the basis for the Oscar-winning 2003 “Master and Commander” movie, starring Russell Crowe.
I confess I find the books all-consuming and addictive. Hence the unrest; because time in the evening I would normally spend with my wife and children I find myself stealing away — not unnoticed, I have discovered to my regret — to plunge myself into the world of high adventure, heaving decks in roiled seas, the smell of gunpowder smoke from thundering cannons, the taste of saltwater on the lips and the messy work of military intelligence in the days before satellite surveillance.
Not only is the plot and the prose wonderfully crafted, it is filled with references to the ancients and their wisdom and gives a glimpse into the early, heady days of science and medicine, when all manner of flora and fauna and human illness the world over had barely been observed, measured and classified.
And there’s even an explicitly Catholic angle. The doctor, Maturin, is an Irishman (with a Spanish mother) who naturally is a “papist,” despite the fact that officers in the British navy at the time had to swear an oath not only to the king, but also in renunciation of “popery.” His Catholicism is a subtle background to his character, but you see him throughout the book — despite his being the most scientific mind of all the main characters — popping into churches in various ports for Liturgy of the Hours or Mass, going to confession, not eating meat on Fridays, making a visit to the patriarch of Lisbon, Portugal, and even at least once drifting off to a troubled sleep with his rosary beads in his hands.
Another explicitly Catholic subtext is Aubrey’s illegitimate black son, conceived when he was an extremely junior officer aboard a British warship, well before the novels begin. The boy was raised by Irish missionaries in Mozambique, and when he surfaces years later to Aubrey’s shock, he receives, with Maturin’s help, the necessary dispensation of one born out of wedlock to be ordained a priest and missionary himself. Aubrey is proud of his son, who looks like an ebony version of himself, but not so happy about the “papist” part.
As with all good novels, the Aubrey and Maturin series touch on truths that are universal to the human condition: integrity, good humor, learning, perseverance, courage, leadership, fortune and grace.
Absenting myself from my family is neglect I will have to repair, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I emerge from reading a better man.