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Commander

Stephen Taylor offers insight into the complicated world of the British Royal Navy.

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Commander
By Stephen Taylor
Norton, W. W. & Company

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Reviewed by Katherine A. Powers for Barnes & Noble Review

There was a time when aficionados of the "wooden world" became dangerously worked up over the historical precedent for Patrick O'Brian's Jack Aubrey. The subject threatened to become as acrimonious as the long-standing dispute, in other quarters, over the real-world origin (if any!) of King Arthur – dividing families, severing friendships, and flooding the letter columns of history journals with vitriol. I marvel when I think of the commotion Stephen Taylor's Commander: The Life and Exploits of Britain's Greatest Frigate Captain would have caused had it been published 15 years ago. The captain, so extravagantly described, is Edward Pellew, whose similarities to Jack Aubrey are striking enough that readers, as Taylor puts it diplomatically, "will judge for themselves whether O'Brian was ignorant of his hero's resonance with Pellew." Still, the shocker is not that Pellew has been entered into the lists to vie with the likes of Thomas Cochrane and George Anson as model for Aubrey, but that Pellew himself – or rather, his fictional self – is the captain under whom C. S. Forester's Mr. Midshipman Hornblower served. The mere suggestion that O'Brian might have availed himself of a character, however real, from the Hornblower novels would have found his loyal partisans reaching for billhooks and belaying pins.

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