Testimonies is the first novel written by then little known Patrick O’Brian. He later received worldwide acclaim for a seafaring series featuring Captain Jack Aubrey and his “particular friend” Steven Maturin, ship’s surgeon, philosopher, naturalist, and secret agent. Testimonies was unlauded at its publication in 1952, when the author was 38. The book eventually received attention only after O’Brian’s sea stories became popular. The success of these books and the notoriety of the author led to the republishing of Testimonies in 1992 by Norton. A tribute to O’Brian’s writing is summed up in these comments by a reviewer, “O’Brian couldn’t write a graceless sentence.”
As an author O’Brian was both brilliant and versatile. He wrote short stories, novels, biographies, translated works written in French and even produced several books for youthful readers. His personal life was an enigma. He changed his persona in mid-life changing from Richard Patrick Russ an Englishman to Patrick O’Brian said to be born in Ireland. This bizarre twist notwithstanding, Patrick O’Brian deserves to be listed among the finest authors of the 20th century.
This early (1952) novel from the author of the scintillating Aubrey/Maturin novels is very different from that seafaring series. For one thing, not much happens: Joseph Aubrey Pugh, university don and elliptical narrator of most of the book, comes into some money, leaves academia and buys a tiny cottage in the mountains of north Wales. There he plans to finish a book, take part in local life–fishing, sheep-shearing–and study the people, concentrating on the Vaughans, his nearest neighbors. Pugh admires the family: sturdy Emyr, his gentle parents, his six-year-old son and Bronwen, Emyr’s beautiful and practical wife, with whom Pugh falls in love, his first love in his 30-odd years. They are thrown together and Bronwen eventually reciprocates his affection. But they never “do”‘ anything or even talk of their emotions. Some readers may question Bronwen’s “testimony”‘ after a preacher’s spiteful rumor-mongering leads to a tragic end. This is a young man’s book, humorless and filled with romantic pessimism.
1. Does the author use language in a way that’s different or striking? Do you think the book is well written? What style or “voice” does the author use, and how is it effective (or not effective)?
2. Was there an inciting moment? What was it?
3. What does the title mean?
4. How does the structure of the book (flashbacks, varying points of view) affect the story? Why did the author choose to present the story in this way?
5. What did you learn in the book that you didn’t know before?
6. How does the setting affect the theme, characters and plot? Could it have happened anywhere, at any time? If so, how would the novel have changed?
7. Are the characters likable? What does that mean for the story? Which character do you most relate to?
8. Describe how the main character changed over the course of the book.
9. What themes did you notice? Self-discovery? Change of power? Inner versus outer strength?
10. What do you think the author is trying to say to the reader?
11. Did you pick up on any symbolism in the story? What do these objects mean? How do the characters interact with these objects?
12. What broader social issues does the book address?
13. Who was the inquisitor?
14. Could this book end in a different way and remain plausible?
An intellectually gifted but otherwise innocent and not robust Joseph Aubrey Pugh is rescued from an unravelling academic life at Oxford when a “cousin”, who didn’t like him and who Pugh didn’t like, died intestate and left his money in the thousands of pounds to Pugh.
Pugh decides to move permanently to a small town in Wales. He had rented a house a season earlier and now plans to purchase the house and settle permanently.
The book begins with Pugh renewing a friendship with a farm family, the Vaughn’s; Arimin Vaughn, the grandfather (Tain), his wife (Nain), his son Emyr, Emyr’s wife Bronwen and their son Gerallt. Also present are a series of young farm boys who stay until they must be paid adult wages.
The narrator paints a vivid picture of the ruggedly beautiful landscape and the special features of the Welsh, but this is just setting.
Pugh who has no need to work to support himself and who has not established any program for reading, re-establishes a friendship with the Vaughn family including clumsily but eagerly helping with the sheep shearing. At first Pugh recognizes that Bronwen, beautiful in a “special way”, is also “hard hearted” because she appears to be treating her in-laws unkindly while shirking her duty and putting the heavy chores on the old lady. Then recognizing the innocence and grace of Bronwen, Pugh falls in love with her. In so doing he hides his feelings successfully. The “love story” grows and later Bronwen entertains the same feeling in a love that is cerebral and not emotive or physical. They remain Mr. Pugh and Mrs. Vaughn throughout the book. They have one long conversation as told by Bronwen when he bemoans the ways of the world and society and she is upbeat and appreciates the way society has progressed.
Pugh becomes ill with the “gastric” (probably gastric ulcers) and moves in to the Vaughn house happily at first and gradually with increasing tension when Pritchard Ellis a renowned clergyman visited Gelli as a house guest while he made his annual ecclesial visit to the town. He is a despicable man who enlarged a rat hole to spy on Bronwen’s bedroom and assaulted her on the stairs. These things made Bronwen hate him, but she never told anyone what he did.
Ellis moved in with his cousin Mr. Lloyd and before leaving town gave a 2-hour sermon on adultery in the nonconformist chapel. This only confirmed rumors that he had started and were spread through Mr. Lloyd resulting in Bronwen being considered an adulteress. This wicked talk seemed to be known by everybody including Bronwen but not the Vaughn’s.
While Bronwen was suffering from the taunts of the town’s ladies and the “lights out” abuse of Emyr, Nain becomes upset with Bronwen because she was treating Emyr badly. Nain gave her daughter-in-law a physic that was poison used for the foxes who killed sheep. This poison given free by the government is no longer used by Emyr because it was too brutal. Bronwen knew it the minute she tasted it, but drank the entire bottle taking her life but holding on the bottle so as not to implicate Nain. We heard all of this in the testimony of Bronwen. That’s the story, but not the book.
The book is comprised of the testimony of three people.
Joseph Aubrey Pugh testifies as if to a magistrate in a coroner’s inquest after the fact. He is asked to write the account and does so in the first person describing the happenings from his point of view. He is sad but not distraught. His testimony as presented is honest but not all-knowing, especially some personal things about Bronwen especially details of her sexual travails with Emyr, although the night before Bronwen died he hears her sobbing in the next room and is tormented because he is unable to will himself to do something about it.
Mr. Lloyd, who is the cousin of Pritchard Ellis, is the useful tool who spreads the gossip, no doubt at the urging of Ellis. After being put down intellectually by Pugh, although Lloyd thinks it is the other way around, and his advances are rebuffed by Bronwen, Ellis retaliates first by spreading lies about Bronwen being an adulteress and then caps it with his vile sermon.
Mr. Skinner is a useful character who helps to fill out Pugh’s character and after a misunderstanding and split in their relationship returns to warn Pugh but to no avail.
Bronwen in my opinion is testifying to herself. She does not love her husband and never did. She married because she didn’t want to hurt him and wished to leave a home that became unhappy because of a mean sister-in-law. She describes Emyr as smart with figures, always worried about money, a good farmer, strong, hardworking but lacking in confidence and given to outburst. She describes these as happening when the lights go out. The episodes of implied sexual abuse drive her permanently away from her husband. The couple slept in the same room as Gerallt. Bronwen knows this rift is seen by his parents who don’t know why this estrangement is happening and she spares them. We never hear Emyr’s voice or that of Tain or Nain. Whereas the others testified after Bronwen’s death, Bronwen had to do this when alive and since she told no one of her travails she was testifying to herself.
Pugh’s well-meaning but clueless act of loaning 1,200 pounds to Emyr shortly before Bronwen’s death emphasizes his lack of awareness of the depths of despair wracking the Vaughn home.
The book ends with Pugh testifying that Bronwen sends him off with a lunch for a despairing walk in the mountains. The terrain treats him harshly.
Pugh tells of returning late in the evening going to sleep immediately and waking at noon the next day to find that Bronwen is dead.
There is no “getting even” in the book at least overtly. The bad guys get away with their evil ways and the collateral damage for the family will be just another episode in their long suffering.
Was Bronwen’s death suicide, murder, or both?
The reader is subjected to O’Brian’s description of the bad behavior of children who are “spoilt”, ill mannered, and noisy. He states, “I dare say the children bawl and scream, grownups are forced to shout words over the din of one self-willed child or suspend until the brat chooses to stop its noise. I do not like being pawed by jammy hands. I hate to see animals mauled about like stuffed toys. I do like a child of reasonable age to reply when I bid a good day and I do not like to hear a parent flatly contradicted in a scream as loud as the child’s lungs can make it.”
This harangue is typical O’Brian and is seen throughout the Aubrey-Maturin series. I don’t think Patrick liked children.
Because of the complex nature of the book this was read, with their permission, to the group before the opening began. After that, the discussion was lively. Two members of the group had read all twenty plus of the O’Brian seas stories and were inclined to like anything the author wrote. Others were not as sanguine. They registered some difficulty putting the pieces together or if put together deciding it made any difference. The ending was a downer, but it was agreed that life is that way for many people. The book was not graded on a 1 to 10 scale, but I suspect it would have been closer to 5 than 10. We should start doing this grading at the end of the discussion for future books. The person who recommended the book took some good-natured ribbing from the group who didn’t rate this book among their favorites. Nobody ventured into speculation about the “lights out” brutality. The group had an outside visitor who enjoyed the session and plans to return.
Despite the lukewarm reception for the book, several people said this was perhaps our best discussion.
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