A Book of Voyages

Overview

Honoring Patrick O’Brian’s centenary, a collection of his favorite travel pieces, replete with perils, discomforts, and exotic pleasures.
Never previously published in this country, A Book of Voyages presents writings by various travelers, annotated and introduced by Patrick O’Brian. Most are taken from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; O’Brian felt that, unlike Elizabethan or Victorian accounts, these writings were relatively unknown ...

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Overview

Honoring Patrick O’Brian’s centenary, a collection of his favorite travel pieces, replete with perils, discomforts, and exotic pleasures.
Never previously published in this country, A Book of Voyages presents writings by various travelers, annotated and introduced by Patrick O’Brian. Most are taken from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; O’Brian felt that, unlike Elizabethan or Victorian accounts, these writings were relatively unknown in our time.
On her journey through the Crimea, Lady Craven witnesses barbaric entertainments in the court of the Tartar Khan. John Bell tells us of his day’s hunting with the Manchu emperor in 1721 outside Peking. An English woman in Madras gives us a detailed description of the extraordinary costume and body decoration of a high-born Indian woman, wife of a nabob.
These and other selections are glimpses of a world, now gone forever, that few readers would ever see for themselves. They are also quite possibly the inspiration for the travels and adventures of O’Brian’s own fictional heroes Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Joshua Hammer
…rediscovers the extraordinary accounts of seafarers and other adventurers from the 17th and 18th centuries.
Richard Snow
“This isn’t like any other travel anthology: it is the miraculously provided answer to the now unaskable question, 'Mr. O’Brian, what are you reading?' And what he was reading wasn’t boring. Here is both a glimpse into a vanished era and a complex and, alas, equally vanished mind.”
Richard Snow
“This isn’t like any other travel anthology: it is the miraculously provided answer to the now unaskable question, 'Mr. O’Brian, what are you reading?' And what he was reading wasn’t boring. Here is both a glimpse into a vanished era and a complex and, alas, equally vanished mind.”
Kirkus Reviews
A curiously engrossing collection of travel writings from the 17th and 18th centuries, collected by the deceased author of the Aubrey/Maturin series. The writings, grouped in a somewhat forced fashion by travels pleasant, unpleasant or exotic, preserve their antiquated spelling and stylistic flourishes, providing readers both challenge and hilarity. The purpose of the collection is to inform and edify, as well as entertain and titillate, yet some extracts are so fantastic--such as the description of the queen's jewel-laden outfit in "The Nabob's Lady" (1745) or the decision by the starving crew in "The Distresses of the Unfortunate Crew of the Ship Anne and Mary in the Year 1759" to cast lots to eat one passenger in order to support the rest--that they stretch credulity. Lady Craven's percolating letters to her second husband, the Margrave of Anspach, recording her extensive travels from Vienna to the relatively unknown Crimea, form a marvelous account of provincial and courtly mores, as well as a reflection of her egotism. Dr. Gemelli-Careri's descriptions of carnival in Venice ("Travels Through Europe," 1686) are ironical and pedantic. Philip Thicknesse gives some precious "General Hints to Strangers Who Travel Through France"--e.g., "Never let a Frenchman with whom you live, or with whom you travel, be master. An Englishman cannot possibly live twenty-four hours with a Frenchman who commands." For sheer strange reading, there are ambassador Sir Thomas Roe's depictions of Eastern courts in "The Mogul's Birthday" and John Bell's elaborate "Hunting with the Emperor K'Ang Hsi," recording a long day of killing everything from hares to tigers. Plenty of shipwrecks, from the Arctic to Virginia, round out the adventures. O'Brian's fans and armchair travelers will naturally gravitate to this eclectic work.
The Barnes & Noble Review

One of the many pleasures of the late Patrick O'Brian's novels about the British navy during the age of sail is O'Brian's sense of enchantment with the fascinatingly diverse world we inhabit. Travel widely enough with him and you encounter sultans and pashas, geographical marvels and zoological specimens, bejeweled parasols, Hamlet's grave, hussars, Cossacks — maybe even a unicorn. Not to mention the vast blue sea and the splendid vessels that traverse it! O'Brian's twenty-volume Aubrey-Maturin series — published from 1970 to 1999 — is beloved by its many devotees because its wonders seem endless: its pages span the globe as they fill the heart. It does not hurt that O'Brian has a finely wrought prose style that is as powerful in its way as Jane Austen's or Henry James's. But with more cannon.

O'Brian drew inspiration, as his novels' charmingly fastidious prefaces suggest, from firsthand accounts: of naval actions, certainly, but also of leisurely travels. A Book of Voyages is a collection of excerpts from his favorite civilian primary sources; it has just been published for the first time in the United States. It is well worth having, and for much more than the sheer joy of finding a new book with O'Brian's name on the cover. Its main contents are travel diaries and correspondence from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. O'Brian's dry section titles — "Pleasant Voyages," "Unpleasant Voyages" (most of these end in cannibalism), "Oriental Splendor," "Inefficient Pirates" — give a sense of the delights within.

Editing the volume for its British publication in 1947, O'Brian set out the ground rules. These are half the fun. The collection's purpose is to give pleasure: "If the reader draws instruction or edification from it as well as pleasure that is his own affair, and beside the bargain." As in the Aubrey- Maturin novels, block quotes from the Latin or French are not translated; one must be cosmopolitan and lettered enough to muddle through. As to footnotes: "There are no footnotes except those of the original authors. Editor's footnotes seem to me out of place in a work of this kind; they spoil the impression of reading the original text, they ruin the appearance of a page, and if they tell you anything new it is often annoyingly trivial."

Did you ever meet a curmudgeon so near to your own heart? Ellipses — "the usual dots" — are to O'Brian "the scars of editing," and also best avoided.

For the beginning of a voyage — and to rib his continental neighbors — O'Brian includes Philip Thicknesse's "General Hints to Strangers who Travel through France." Staying in hotels is particularly perilous. "When fine cambric handkerchiefs, &c. are given to be washed," Thicknesse writes in rule number ten, "take care they are not trimmed round two inches narrower, to make borders to Madame la Blanchisseuse's night caps." And stay on your guard: "Always carry a machine to secure the bedchamber doors at inns where you sleep, and see that there are no holes behind large pictures in the room, large enough for a man to creep through."

A Book of Voyages' loveliest contributor is the Right Honorable Elizabeth Lady Craven, who sent her brother a series of letters describing her journey from the Crimea to Constantinople in 1786. "Lady Craven managed to attract a great deal of ill-natured scandal," O'Brian notes, for she was both beautiful and indiscreet. Her letters are observant, funny, and acerbic. "The Russian peasant is a fine, stout, straight, well-looking man; some of the women, as I said before, are uncommonly pretty; but the general whiteness of their teeth is something that cannot be conceived." The Germans "are naturally musicians" — so said she, traveling through the very same Germany and Austria where Mozart and Haydn then lived and where Bach had lately died. In her amusement with foreign customs and her intolerance of bureaucratic rites, she perhaps provided O'Brian material for the character Diana Villiers: raven-haired beauty, impetuous lover, wife to Stephen Maturin, and inspiration to men everywhere.

The Aubrey-Maturin novels feel thoroughly authentic, and some of O'Brian's favorite eighteenth- and nineteenth- century tricks are on display here, ripe for stealing. The words handsome and pretty are given their full meanings, rather than reduced to measurements of men's and women's attractiveness: the emperor's hunting tents "made a very pretty appearance," for example. Correspondents, writing in longhand, would occasionally augment a description under the guise of self-correction: "she had a girdle, or rather hoop"; "the aforesaid vest, or upper-garment," etc. And Lady Craven herself would use a handful of disembodied impressions separated by dashes; this impatient, kaleidoscopic method was one of O'Brian's favorite devices: "The Polish ladies seem to have much taste — magnificence — spirit and gaiety — they are polite and lively — excessively accomplished — partial to the English." But O'Brian's writing style was all his own and featured many idiosyncrasies that make no appearance in A Book of Voyages, such as his fondness for a string of adjectives, unsullied by commas, like the "fine great monstrous sea pie" that Jack Aubrey planned to make from the contents of his larder.

Some writings in the collection seem apocryphal. A priest traveled to the Congo in 1666 and was attacked in the night by ants. He lived with a fragrant monkey, whose skin smelled of musk. After being saved by local Congolese, who burned the ants alive, "I was carried back into my chamber, where the stink was so great that I was forced to hold the monkey close to my face." And others yet contain prose of a strange beauty, like that of the member of a party of whalers stranded in the Arctic in 1630. "Even the glorious sun (as if unwilling to behold our miseries) mask[ed] his lovely face from us, under the sable veil of coal-black night."

A Book of Voyages is a wonderful companion to Aubrey and Maturin and belongs in every happy library that has an O'Brian shelf. But the collection does lack one indispensable element of the novels: their tender and wise celebration of friendship, evoked through beautiful writing and indeed, if literature can be said to call upon this art, through music. Sometimes the mysteries of a very old composition stir the imagination, in its ignorance of antiquity, to perceive for a moment the reassuring constancy of the human experience. In O'Brian such magic is found in every volume, and stumbling across it, you realize that these special books are about much more than boats — as when Jack with his violin invites Stephen with his cello once again to play their beloved Corelli in C major:

"With all my heart," said Stephen, poising his bow. He paused, and fixed Jack's eye with his own: they both nodded: he brought the bow down and the 'cello broke into its deep noble song, followed instantly by the piercing violin, dead true to the note. The music filled the great cabin, the one speaking to the other, both twining into one, the fiddle soaring alone: they were in the very heart of the intricate sound, the close lovely reasoning, and the ship and her burdens faded far, far from their minds.
Michael O'Donnell is a lawyer who lives in Evanston, Illinois. His reviews and essays appear in The Nation, the Washington Monthly, and the Christian Science Monitor, among other publications.

Reviewer: Michael O'Donnell

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393089585
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/20/2013
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 388,352
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Patrick O'Brian

Patrick O'Brian's acclaimed Aubrey/Maturin series of historical novels has been described as "a masterpiece" (David Mamet, New York Times), "addictively readable" (Patrick T. Reardon, Chicago Tribune), and "the best historical novels ever written" (Richard Snow, New York Times Book Review), which "should have been on those lists of the greatest novels of the 20th century" (George Will).Set in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, O'Brian's twenty-volume series centers on the enduring friendship between naval officer Jack Aubrey and physician (and spy) Stephen Maturin. The Far Side of the World, the tenth book in the series, was adapted into a 2003 film directed by Peter Weir and starring Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany. The film was nominated for ten Oscars, including Best Picture. The books are now available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book format.In addition to the Aubrey/Maturin novels, Patrick O'Brian wrote several books including the novels Testimonies, The Golden Ocean, and The Unknown Shore, as well as biographies of Joseph Banks and Picasso. He translated many works from French into English, among them the novels and memoirs of Simone de Beauvoir, the first volume of Jean Lacouture's biography of Charles de Gaulle, and famed fugitive Henri Cherrière's memoir Papillon. O'Brian died in January 2000.

Biography

In addition to the twenty volumes of the highly-respected Aubrey/Maturin series, Patrick O'Brian's many novels include Testimonies, The Golden Ocean, and The Unknown Shore. O'Brian has also written acclaimed biographies of Pablo Picasso and Sir Joseph Banks and has translated many works from the French, among them the novels and memoirs of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Lacouture's biography of Charles de Gaulle. Born in 1914, he passed away in January 2000.

Patrick O'Brian was one of the great authors of the twentieth century, whose novels were often compared by critics to the work of Jane Austen and even Homer. A writer of breathtaking erudition, Mr. O'Brian evoked in complete and dazzling detail an entire world -- that of the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. In addition to formidable scholarship, Mr. O'Brian brought to his work keen psychological insights, a sharp wit, and fast-paced, heart-stopping action.

In a cover story in The New York Times Book Review published on January 6, 1991, nine years to the day before Mr. O'Brian's death, Richard Snow wrote that Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin naval adventure novels are "the best historical novels ever written. On every page Mr. O'Brian reminds us with subtle artistry of the most important of all historical lessons: that times change but people don't, that the griefs and follies and victories of the men and women who were here before us are in fact the maps of our own lives." In a Washington Post article published August 2, 1992, Ken Ringle wrote, "The Aubrey/Maturin series far beyond any episodic chronicle, ebbs and flows with the timeless tide of character and the human heart."

W.W. Norton & Company began publishing Patrick O'Brian's books in 1990. The previous year, Norton's editor-in-chief, Starling Lawrence, had read The Reverse of the Medal on a trans-Atlantic flight, fallen hard for the series, and had become convinced that Norton ought to publish Mr. O'Brian's works in the U.S. Norton decided to publish each new book in hardcover as it was completed and to bring out the earlier books in the series in paperback until they had caught up. The first season, Norton published The Letter of Marque (# 12) in hardcover and Master and Commander (# 1) and Post Captain (# 2) in paperback. Most recently, Norton published Blue at the Mizzen (# 20) in hardcover in 1999 and in paperback in 2000. At present, Norton has all of the books in the series available in uniform hardcover and paperback editions.

In addition to the twenty books in the Aubrey/Maturin series, Norton has published a short story collection (The Rendezvous and Other Stories) and three of Mr. O'Brian's other novels: Testimonies, The Golden Ocean, and The Unknown Shore. O'Brian has also written acclaimed biographies of Pablo Picasso and Sir Joseph Banks and has translated many works from the French, among them the novels and memoirs of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Lacouture's biography of Charles de Gaulle. In April of 2000, Norton published Caesar: The Life Story of a Panda-Leopard, his very first book, begun when he was just twelve, and Hussein: An Entertainment, written when he was about twenty years old. Both of these books had long been out of print.

Starting in the early 1990s, Mr. O'Brian achieved, at long last, the critical and popular recognition that was his due. All of his new books published since 1993 have appeared on national bestseller charts, and his books have sold well over three million copies in the U.S. alone.

Mr. O'Brian once said, "Obviously, I have lived very much out of the world: I know little of present-day Dublin or London or Paris, even less of post-modernity, post-structuralism, hard rock or rap, and I cannot write with much conviction about the contemporary scene." [Patrick O'Brian: Critical Essays and a Bibliography, edited by Arthur Cunningham]. In fact, Mr. O'Brian often seemed to have walked out of another era, and in his interactions with his publisher, he displayed a level of courtesy and civility rarely seen in our times.

Author biography courtesy of W.W. Norton & Company.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Richard Patrick Russ
    1. Date of Birth:
      December 12, 1914
    2. Place of Birth:
      Chalfont St. Peter, Buckinghamshire
    1. Date of Death:
      January 2, 2000
    2. Place of Death:
      Dublin, Ireland

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