Post Captain by Patrick O’Brian, 1972.

About half-way through the second Aubrey-Maturin novel, the thought of fourteen more in the series made my heart sink. The jargon and indirect exposition (like the relationship between Jack Aubrey and Diana Villiers, initially cloaked in an allusive fog) put me off. But then the characterization grabbed me again and although I want a breather, I’ll probably go on to number 3. The difficulties of supervising people, especially those who manage others, the politics of advancement, and the ups and downs of friendship are all particularly well-handled. Maturin and Aubrey are very different, each admirable in their own way; one of the most striking aspects of the book is the clarity with which the two see each other, strengths and flaws, and yet how invisible the nature of each is to himself. As reader one can identify with both and yet find both exasperating. Particularly funny: Stephen Maturin bringing his glass beehive complete with 60,000 bees on board the Lively.

[Aubrey] went below, noticed the smell of midshipmen in the fore-cabin, walked through the after-cabin, and found himself in total darkness.

‘Close the door,’ cried Stephen, swarming past him and clapping it to.

‘What’s amiss?’ asked Jack, whose mind had moved so deep into naval life that he had forgotten the bees, as he might have forgotten even a vivid nightmare.

‘They are remarkably adaptable–perhaps the most adaptable of all social insects,’ said Stephen, from another part of the cabin. ‘We find them from Norway to the burning wastes of the Sahara; but they have not grown quite used to their surroundings yet.’

‘Oh God,’ said Jack, scrabbling for the handle. ‘Are they all out?’

‘Not all,’ said Stephen. ‘And learning from Killick that you expected guests, I conceived you might prefer them away. There is so much ignorant predjudice against bees in a dining room.’ … ‘Urge them to mount on your finger, Jack, and carry them back to their hive.’

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