The Letter of Marque

The Letter of Marque

First edition
Author Patrick O'Brian
Cover artist Geoff Hunt
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series Aubrey-Maturin series
Genre Historical novel
Published 1988 Collins (UK)
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback) & Audio Book (Cassette, CD)
Pages 284 paperback edition
ISBN 0-393-02874-7 first Norton edition, hardback
OCLC 20825241
823/.914 20
LC Class PR6029.B55 L4 1990
Preceded by The Reverse of the Medal
Followed by The Thirteen-Gun Salute

The Letter of Marque is the twelfth historical novel in the Aubrey–Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian, first published in 1988. The story is set during the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812.

Aubrey faces life off the Navy List, as the captain of a letter of marque, finding heart to endure and train yet another ship's crew, but of volunteers, with no Marines aboard. Maturin travels to meet his wife.

Plot summary

Jack Aubrey, now a civilian, prepares the Surprise to sail as a letter of marque. The loss of his place on the Navy list is the hardest blow. He is stoic and figures he will get used to it, but appears harsh instead of his normal happy outlook. His reputation brings him a full crew, and he takes the men on liking. He runs the Surprise on Royal Navy lines, including regular pay to the men, in addition to any prizes they might take. He is supported by his crew of old Surprises, privateers and smugglers, the latter groups recruited in Shelmerston, on the western coast of England. It is let out that a group of his friends purchased the ship at the auction, as Stephen Maturin, who is the sole owner, wants to play his same role of surgeon and natural philosopher on the ship. The mission to South America will happen after Aubrey takes the new crew on a short cruise in the Atlantic.

The downfall of the traitors Wray and Ledward restores order in British intelligence circles, returning Sir Joseph Blaine to his position in the Admiralty. The traitors managed to flee England, so they still have a friend in the government. Duhamel, the French agent who gave them away, never did reach Canada, as he died in a fall boarding Eurydice. Blaine says it will be difficult to clear Aubrey of the charge and restore him to the Navy, even with solid evidence left behind by Wray showing how he profited in the stock market scheme and set Aubrey up. Maturin's servant Padeen becomes a secret laudanum addict after a painful burn during gunnery practice, where he learned its benefit, followed by an infected painful tooth that Maturin could not treat. Padeen dilutes the ship's supply with brandy. Maturin is thus unknowingly weaned off his own addiction.

During the short cruise, the Surprise captures an American privateer's consort, the Merlin. Learning where the American/French privateer Spartan seeks its next quarry – the valuable cargo of quicksilver aboard the Spanish barque AzulSurprise sails to intercept. Azul is struck on rocks, with Spartan adjacent following a fierce battle between the two; Surprise meets them and boards first Azul and then Spartan. Aubrey tricks the Spartan's five prizes out of Horta harbour, making him and his crew wealthy, improving his reputation further, and earning him a gift of silver plate from the merchants who had been so harried by Spartan. Blaine tells Maturin of a mission to intercept the frigate Diane, a French ship ready to voyage to South America. Aubrey plans the attack at night in ship's boats, cooperating with the Navy, specifically William Babbington of HMS Tartarus, who has made post Captain, thus removing pressure on him to take credit for success. Surprise takes the Diane and all other vessels in the French port of Saint Martin-de-Rey the night before Diane planned to sail. Maturin imprisons the intelligence agent aboard, taking his papers. In the short clash on the Diane, Maturin kills her captain. Aubrey took a bullet near his spine. The second success makes Aubrey a popular hero. He is offered the opportunity to request a free pardon, but angrily declines on the grounds that he is innocent. Aubrey's father, a fugitive since his part in the stock-jobbing affair, is found dead in a ditch. Aubrey organizes the funeral for him, which takes him to his boyhood home of Woolcombe, now his by inheritance. After the funeral, Edward Norton (a friend of Aubrey's grandfather) offers Aubrey a seat in Parliament, from the borough of Milport. This gain in position leads Lord Melville, First Lord of the Admiralty, to assure Aubrey of his restoration. Aubrey is a changed man.

Maturin travels to Sweden to speak to his wife Diana Villiers. Aubrey will meet him there for the return voyage. In Stockholm, Maturin purchases a bottle of full-strength laudanum and some coca leaves from a well-stocked apothecary. He meets Diana near her home in Stockholm. He learns Wray lied about not finding Diana in London to deliver the letter; she saw Wray, and no letter was given her. Maturin explains why he was seen with Laura Fielding. Villiers assures him she has not been unfaithful with Jagiello, who is soon to be married. She makes some money by ascending in a hot-air balloon before an audience, unsuccessful in her plan to breed horses. He gives her the Blue Peter, the diamond she gave up to save him, which pleases her greatly. He tells her of his sudden increase in wealth. Maturin takes two doses of laudanum and becomes disoriented. He is seriously injured in a fall, breaking his leg. Diana nurses him and they are reconciled. Surprise returns from a stop in Riga to buy poldavy. Martin tells Maturin that he caught Padeen diluting the laudanum supply with brandy, and that Padeen is addicted and in irons. They carry Maturin out to the ship in style, accompanied by Colonel Jagiello's escort, and Diana embarks with him for home.


See also Recurring characters in the Aubrey–Maturin series


Series chronology

This novel references actual events with accurate historical detail, like all in this series. In respect to the internal chronology of the series, it is the sixth of eleven novels (beginning with The Surgeon's Mate) that might take five or six years to happen but are all pegged to an extended 1812, or as Patrick O'Brian says it, 1812a and 1812b (introduction to The Far Side of the World, the tenth novel in this series). The events of The Yellow Admiral again match up with the historical years of the Napoleonic wars in sequence, as the first six novels did.


The events of The Letter of Marque follow directly from the events of The Reverse of the Medal, the prior novel in the series. In The Reverse of the Medal, Aubrey is found guilty of manipulating the stock exchange. By custom, the finding of guilt puts him off the list of Royal Navy captains, in order by seniority. Further, Maturin's godfather died, leaving his fortune to Maturin, who finds the large amount of wealth to change his ways in small things, and in large. The first use of his new wealth is to bid for the ship Surprise as the it is not wanted in Navy service, and like nearly all his efforts, it is meant to help his friend Aubrey survive the blow of the court verdict. Ledward and Wray were exposed as spies for France by Duhamel, who returns the valued diamond, the Blue Peter, to Maturin as was long ago promised. Duhamel is tired of his life in intelligence and wants to retire to Canada, away from this long war. All the Surprises were paid off when the ship was put up for auction, so Aubrey needs to start again with his crew.


Kirkus Reviews finds the novel authentic and engaging, and O'Brian a brilliant stylist:

O'Brian (Desolation Island, 1979, etc.) brings back Captain Jack Aubrey, who is no longer in the Royal Navy but nonetheless still sails against Napoleon. Aubrey is a stern man these days, having been dismissed from the service for false charges of stock fraud. His old friend Stephen Maturin, however, having bought Aubrey's old frigate Surprise, now uses her as a private ship of war (a letter of marque) to cruise upon the enemy and gives Aubrey command of it. The brainy Maturin, secretly an agent in British naval and political intelligence, is the perfect foil for Aubrey, a man socially unsure of himself and pursued by creditors when ashore but on deck beloved by his crew and revered as Lucky Jack Aubrey. Maturin himself has become estranged from his wife, Diana, and hopes to win her back while Aubrey, also married with children, must dig his way out of disgrace. These personal worries add fiber to the characterizations, and the play of strengths and frailties between the two seamen (Maturin is overly fond of tincture of brandy-and-opium) glows with humanity. Indeed, O'Brian is a brilliant stylist of sea-historicals, his every sentence sensuous and emerging from saltwater as naturally as the leap of a flying fish. After a few preliminary skirmishes at sea, with his privateer painted up for deception of the enemy, Jack takes a pistol ball in the back and loses half his blood at St. Martin's, where he has triumphed over the French. While the House of Commons entertains reinstating Jack, who sails to the Gulf of Riga, Maturin goes off to Sweden to find reconciliation with Diana. Authentic and engaging.[1]

Library Journal finds this long-awaited sequel (in the US) to be an exciting sea story with good character development:

Originally published in England in 1988, this U.S. publication is the long-awaited sequel to Master and Commander (LJ 12/15/69) and Post Captain (LJ 8/72). It continues the adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, ship's doctor. Jack, who has been unfairly dismissed from the British Navy, continues his sea career under a "Letter of Marque," a polite term for a privateer. Stephen struggles to balance his scientific interests, his own inclination toward addiction to laudanum, and his concern for his friend. The author has created two wonderfully contrasting characters in bluff, hearty Aubrey and reedy, intellectual Maturin. Readers will be glad to see these unlikely friends in action again. The historical background of the Napoleonic era, as well as the details of early 19th-century naval warfare, are authentically depicted. An exciting sea story with good character development. Recommended for public libraries.[2]

Publishers Weekly finds this a swift, witty tale of money and love:

If Jane Austen wrote Royal Navy yarns, they might read like this sequel to Master and Commander and Post Captain (which Norton issues in paperback in August). In the early 1800s, Captain Jack Aubrey, unjustly drummed out of service, is now master of the "letter of marque" (privateer) frigate Surprise, secretly owned by Stephen Maturin, ship's doctor/naturalist/abandoned husband/opium-eater and intelligence agent. The major events here are two great sea victories that make Jack a rich folk-hero, and Stephen's winning back of his wife and breaking his laudanum habit. Jack's seamanship and heroism are complemented by Stephen's absent-minded brilliance, their friendship cemented by their shared music-making (violin and cello, respectively). The early-19th-century locutions are fascinating, as are the evocation of period shipboard life (including ship-provisioning and naval lingo), Whitehall politics (rotten boroughs, etc.) and drug addiction (coca leaf-chewing as well as opium-eating). Seafarers and landlubbers alike will enjoy this swift, witty tale of money and love.[3]

Allusions to science and history

Whilst in Stockholm, Stephen Maturin visits an apothecary's shop to buy laudanum. He inquires about the coca or cuca leaf from Peru, which he learned about in a previous mission, detailed in The Far Side of the World and the apothecary replies, "It is said to dissolve the gross humours and do away with appetite." Maturin buys a pound and the coca leaf eventually comes to replace his opium habit in later novels. He carries the leaves in a pouch and lime in a small silver box. When he feels the need for it, he rolls the leaves into a ball and pops them into his cheek with lime.

The book also discusses the nascent science of ballooning, contrasting hot air and gaseous balloons and with many descriptions thereof. Stephen has an extended dream sequence, while recovering from his fall, involving a balloon and his wife.

Aubrey wanted to be in Riga to get poldavy, which was a coarse canvas favored for making sails.[4][5]

Allusion to real events

Ships in private ownership were privateers, doing some of the tasks of a national navy vessel. For permission to take enemy ships with full authority, the government issues a letter of marque. That is a legal document from the British government which gives the private vessel the right to capture ships from enemy nations.

Publication history

In August 1990, The Letter of Marque was the first of the series novels to be issued by W. W. Norton in paperback in the US, two years after the first edition was published in the UK, and it was an instant success.[6] This drew a new, large audience to the series, and new attention to the author, as well as positive reviews such as in Library Journal and Publishers Weekly, shown above. Novels prior to this were published rapidly in the US for that new market.[7] Following novels were released at the same time by the UK and US publishers. Collins (name of UK publisher in that year) asked Geoff Hunt in 1988 to do the cover art for the twelve books published by then, with The Letter of Marque being the first book to have Hunt's work on the first edition. He continued to paint the covers for future books; the covers were used on both USA and UK editions.[8][9] Reissues of earlier novels used the Geoff Hunt covers.[10][11]


  1. "The Letter of Marque" (15 Aug 1990 ed.). Kirkus Reviews. 4 April 2012. Retrieved 26 November 2014.
  2. C. Robert Nixon, MLS (1990). "The Letter of Marque" (1990 ed.). Lafayette, Indiana: Library Journal. Retrieved 26 November 2014.
  3. "The Letter of Marque" (1990 ed.). Publishers Weekly. Retrieved 26 November 2014.
  4. "Poldavy, defined". Merriam Webster. Retrieved 10 June 2015. (subscription required (help)).
  5. "Poldavy defined". Retrieved 10 June 2015.
  6. Anthony Gary Brown (2014). "Patrick and Mary O'Brian". The Patrick O'Brian Muster Book: Persons, Animals, Ships and Cannon in the Aubrey-Maturin Sea Novels. Retrieved 26 November 2014.
  7. Ken Ringle (January 8, 2000). "Appreciation". Washington Post. Retrieved November 27, 2014.
  8. Bob Frost (1993). "The Interview: Geoff Hunt". Retrieved 28 November 2014.
  9. Patrick O'Brian: A Life (paperback ed.). Henry Holt, Owl Edition. 2001. pp. 285, 306. ISBN 0-8050-5977-6. Retrieved 28 November 2014.
  10. "HarperCollins Covers by Geoff Hunt". Retrieved 28 November 2014.
  11. Bruce Trinque. "Pagination of Various Aubrey-Maturin Novel Editions". Retrieved 28 November 2014. The first three Patrick O'Brian Aubrey-Maturin novels were published in the US by Lippincott and the next two by Stein & Day. US publication of the novels was not resumed until 1990 until W.W. Norton began the reissue of the series, at first in trade paperback format but later in hardcover. In the UK all the novels until Clarissa Oakes (The Truelove) were published by Collins until the publishing house, through a merger, became HarperCollins.
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