Dear reader if you are anything like me you may on occasion grow tired of dealing with the daily inanity of what has come to be termed the political media. So for my next blog post I am going to deal with a subject dear and near to my heart: the works of Patrick O’Brian. Now like many fans of a nerdish bent I’m prone to overthinking the finer points of the fictional world.
Today’s point of analysis will be the birth year of Jonathan “Lucky Jack” Aubrey. Some spoilers may be contained within, so do be careful.
The series of course spanned 20 books (with parts of a 21) and chronicled the rise of Mr. Aubrey from a mere (if deserving) lieutenant on half-pay in Minorca to nascent Rear Admiral of the Blue ordered to hoist his flag with the South African Squadron.
The earliest reference we have to Jack’s age in the series is of course in the first book. He is described as being “between 20 and 30” which is vague enough in all conscience, though perhaps the assumption would be right smack in the middle at 25. This gives us a birth year of 1775 (one year prior to Horatio Hornblower, who was born on July 4, 1776).
This birth year is fits roughly with later references. For example Heneage Dundas (Jack’s childhood friend) takes his name from the real George Heneage Dundas (who unlike “Hen” is not actually related to Lord Melville, much less his son) was born in 1778 and was a 23 year old commander of the HMS Calpe (a position Heneage is given in Master and Commander).
Master and Commander also tells us that Jack Aubrey was looked after “Queeney” Keith (married to Lord Keith a good decade before our reality) who is described as a “nubile young woman” that towered over the fat little Jack Aubrey. The real Hester Marie Elphinstone (Viscountess Keith) was born in 1764, and moved to London out of protest from her mother’s remarriage to a Roman Catholic in 1781. This would square roughly with Jack Aubrey being born in 1775, as Jack describes being looked after at a young age by Queeney, and that he also recalls Queeney being upset when her mother married a Roman Catholic.
In The Fortune of War, Jack describes Philip Broke (captain of HMS Shannon) as a “sort of cousin” and someone he stayed with frequently as a child. The two of them left home at about the same time, Jack to sea and Broke to school. Broke was born in 1776, and was an Academite in 1788. Jack has been at sea since the age of 11 (nominally he was a “captain’s servant” from the age of 9) which would fit rather well with a 1775 birth date, meaning that he left for sea the same year Philip Broke left for school.
We further get a bit of confirmation of Jack’s age when he compares James Lawrence (Captain of the Chesapeake, b.1781) to himself and Stephen, describing him as “about our age”. This implies Jack is in his early-mid 30s during the War of 1812.
As the series progresses, however, Jack grows older while the year remains locked in the perpetual cycle of 1813. This begins to present problems about as early as Treason’s Harbour. Jack reflects upon the reputation of other captains compared to him, and the example of William Hoste is foremost in his mind. Jack describes Hoste as “Young Hoste” and implies that Hoste was made post after him. In reality of course William Hoste was made post (at Nelson’s urging) in 1802, while Jack Aubrey wasn’t posted until the Melville Admiralty of 1804.
Things take a stranger turn still in The Wine Dark Sea (or perhaps it’s Clarissa Oakes?) where Jack discusses the Spanish Armament with Stephen. He implies that 1789 was an important year because he was an unemployed Master’s Mate at the time. Of course he then goes on to say that he got his commission in 1792. If Jack were in fact born in 1775, this would make him a 17 year old lieutenant in 1792, somewhat young for the position, but he would have qualified given that he would have had sufficient “book” time by that point.
Finally the last concrete real reference to age seems to come in The Hundred Days where O’Brian states flat out that there were only around 7 years between Jack and Queeney in age. Since the historical Queeney was born in 1764, that would make Jack to have been born in 1771.
Given that the later books tended to have some very strange inconsistencies (such as the names of officers being mixed up, or dead officers cropping up a few chapters later) I think it might be prudent to go with the earlier established years. Given that the strongest account of Jack’s childhood is regarding his relationship with Philip Broke, it seems to me that putting his birthdate somewhere around 1775-1776 is the most reasonable course of action, much like his archetype, Thomas Cochrane.