|Dr Maturin's puffin
||[Jul. 2nd, 2015|05:54 pm]
Help me, internet: do you know of any sort of concordance to Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey / Maturin novels?
As I said, while I was in Berwick I picked up The Mauritius Command and Desolation Island, and swallowed them straight down in long draughts. I am not the reader they deserve, because most of the carefully researched nautical detail passes me straight by, and I am content to let it do so; I skip or at best skim the scholarly essays included in the backs of my paperback editions, pausing only to curse that they bulk out the number of pages remaining, so that the end of the book always comes as a surprise. I can usually tell from the narrative that Jack Aubrey has done something particularly clever with the arrangement of his sails, without any need to know what it is - and I suspect that the author is resigned to this, since he provides in Stephen Maturin a similarly uncomprehending observer, to whom may be explained as much - or as little - as is required.
It is the details of daily life, on ship and ashore, which make me wish for an easily accessible glossary. Sometimes a decent dictionary will do. In Desolation Island, transported convicts bring an outbreak of gaol-fever on board the Leopard (I don't think this is a spoiler; it is referred to in the back-cover copy). I'd heard the name before, and thought of it as any of the diseases that could break out and spread in the crowded and unsanitary prisons of the time: but here it seemed to refer to one specific disease, and I looked it up - yes, it's typhus.
The Branco puffin which appears in the same book was more elusive. Stephen goes ashore in search of physic-nuts (in the dictionary) and a Branco puffin (definitely not). He finds it at the house of a vendor of salted-preserved Branco nestlings (honorary fish, and so permitted food in Lent), and has the body of an adult nailed to his door as a sign. Stephen is delighted with this trophy, which is an authentic, true Branco puffin and not, as he had feared, a cormorant or gull. All the internet could offer me on this passage is this archived blogpost from Tom Watson, who dismisses it: "O'Brian was clearly inventing; even this non-birder knows a Puffin looks nothing like a Cormorant - that the two could hardly be confused. I suspect the great writer merely liked the sound of the words."
The sound of the words, that's the thing, and we have been here before: Martin Martin, writing at the end of the seventeenth century, does not attach the name 'puffinet' to what we now call a puffin, but to a shearwater. This was a more fruitful search topic. The first possibility I came across was the White-chinned or Spectacled Petrel, because in French it is a Puffin à menton blanc ou P. à lunettes, and I am delighted to learn that 'puffin' is a French word - but it won't do, it lives too far south - Dr Maturin is ashore in the Cape Verde islands (and the wonderful Patrick O' Brian Mapping Project helped me here).
Never mind, other shearwaters and petrels are also available: and charming though the Christmas shearwater (Puffinus nativitatis) is, the prime suspect is obviously the Cape Verde shearwater. The clue is in the name - and while it isn't all that like a a cormorant or a gull, Dr. Maturin probably doesn't expect too much accuracy from his informant.
So I'm glad we've got that cleared up. But does anyone know of any sort of concordance?