Sir Joseph Banks and the Aubrey/Maturin Novels of Patrick O’Brian

  • Jeremy Strong Writtle College


Set in the Royal Navy of the early Nineteenth Century, Patrick O’Brian’s twenty one historical novels featuring Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend Stephen Maturin have countless connections with the life and work of Sir Joseph Banks, the famous botanist and naturalist. Maturin, a physician and secret intelligence agent, is also devoted to natural history, using their many shared journeys to document the fauna of numerous countries; though the rigours of naval life (not to mention the structural imperatives of the historical novel) frequently demand that he abandon his observations so the ship may hurry on. Both Aubrey and Maturin are Fellows and, opportunity permitting, attendees at the Royal Society of which Banks was President. Navigation, mapping, astronomy, the furtherance of trade and empire, scholarly exchange between England and France during the Napoleonic Wars, relations between the Navy and the East India Company, colonies (penal and otherwise), and the passion for creating collections are all themes that link the Aubrey/Maturin novels and the life of Joseph Banks. It is also notable that O’Brian produced a biography of Banks in 1987, and that research for this project is evidently deployed in his historical novels too. This paper traces some of these connections as well as examining a key character in the novels, Sir Joseph Blaine. In addition to being Head of Naval Intelligence, Blaine is also a noted Natural Philosopher and ardent collector of zoological specimens. Rarely traveling, he delights in the discoveries of others and is a busy correspondent with other learned men around the globe. In key respects then, the fictional Blaine is a double of Banks himself.