Thursday, July 03, 2014

A question - Is Patrick O'Brian the 'rightful heir' to Jane Austen?

I ask - who is reading these classic works?

Though their stories are set in a similar era, there is a gulf between the historical novels of maritime fiction writer, Patrick O’Brian and English romance novelist, Jane Austen. The divide between these two extends beyond obvious gender difference to the readership they attract.
Jane Austen is acknowledged as the quintessential Georgian Romance writer, while Patrick O’Brian and CS Forester are recognised as the masters of nautical fiction set in the Napoleonic period. Born 100 years after Miss Austen’s death, Patrick O’Brian has been called ‘her rightful heir’ (Kirkus Reviews).

Jane Austen's empathy for naval officers stemmed from having two brothers who served in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Both rose slowly through the ranks from mere midshipman to Admiral. But despite her close affiliation with, and reasonable knowledge of life in the navy, Austen did not attempt to write in the sub-genre of maritime fiction though she endowed some of her characters with naval connections.
Similarly, though Patrick O’Brian (Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin series) allowed love interests to filter into his novels, as did CS Forester (Horatio Hornblower), neither wrote genre romance.

In the past, writing romance in the Austen-style has been and, for the most part, still is mainly the domain of female authors. Conversely, writing in the sub-genre of nautical fiction set in the age-of-sail has been, and still is, the domain of male writers.

But it was not only the writers who fell into this distinct divide. In the past, the readership they attracted reflected a similar distinct male/female split. Generally, females read romance and male readers read maritime fiction. These unsubstantiated variants still appear to apply to a greater extent, however, very slowly the tide is turning.

Of late, more male readers are attracted to Austen’s novels, and an increasing numbers of women are savouring heroic sea stories set during the Napoleonic wars. No doubt movie and TV presentations of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Sense and Sensibility’ have introduced men to Miss Austen. Similarly, the ‘Hornblower’ series, and the epic movie ‘Master and Commander’ have brought nautical fiction to the screen and introduced this genre to a general, rather than a mostly select male audience.

So, apart from the media, what other factors are bridging this gulf?

Today, women feature strongly in ocean racing and sea-faring activities and achievements. Only a few decades ago, women who enlisted in the navy did not step aboard a ship, yet recently, a woman was appointed as commander of a British Royal Navy Frigate and in May 2014 the first women were appointed to serve as submariners.
Today, the navy is no longer an exclusive male domain, and maritime fiction is no longer just read by men.
Pic: RN submariners: Left to right: Lieutenants Maxine Stiles, Alex Olsson and Penny Thackray


pdr lindsay said...

Please don't tar Jane Austen's works with the Romance label. Romance these days is usually sex and more sex, very boring.

Austen wrote intelligent, and quite brilliant social commentary about her era.

It's bad enough that so many people have latched on to her fame and works to promote themselves and their works and I won't say what I think of all those who have plagiarised her characters and settings.

M. C. Muir said...

In classical English literature – Sir Walter Scott is credited with being the forerunner of the genre of the modern historical novels.’
As a contemporary of this great ‘Romance' writer, Jane Austen would have been conversant with the true interpretation of the word ‘Romance’.
As you say, today the word ‘romance’ has been degraded.
I’m afraid, however, that I am old-fashioned and for me ‘romance’ still carries the old fashioned connotations.