Note - Spoilers ahead.
Years ago, when I was a little kid, my father read CS Forester's Hornblower novels, and liked them quite a bit. He did this for some time, and got through the whole series. Eventually I asked him what the Hornblower book he was reading was like, and he told me that this wasn't a Hornblower book, this was another book about a different Royal Navy captain, and it was better. This was my introduction to Patrick O'Brian.
Beginning towards the end of high school and going past the end of college I read all 20 complete novels of the Aubrey-Maturin series, or the 'Aubriad'* (the fan name that I prefer). And I adored them. Being bookish and feeling none too smooth with the ladies I loved Stephen. I suppose it's similar to the way many smart high school girls love Elizabeth Bennet. And I loved the long, meandering internal monologues, the slow subplots of Stephen and Jack's domestic lives, and the nautical minutia.
But (along with a bunch of book critics) I'd say that these are the best historical novels I've ever read. More than that, I'd say that taken as a whole they're some of the best literature I've ever read, and that includes all those more famous dead folks I read while in college. Why?
In brief I would say that the novels are truer to life than almost anything else I've read -- maybe Middlemarch comes close. A couple of points in that line:
1) Patrick O'Brian makes full use of the series as a literary work, and this lets him avoid unrealistically rapid character development or rushed plots. It's a cliche to say that the Aubriad is one big novel, and one that a friend pointed out isn't quite true. Master and Commander has a clear storyline of it's own, as do later novels like The Far Side of the World, Desolation Island, etc. Yet at the same time the novels are united with the others in the series in a complicated manner.
Desolation Island, for instance, is the story of the Leopard's disastrous voyage and near-wreck, and also the story of Stephen and Michael Herapath's friendship and it's betrayal and dissolution. This is the single-novel plot, and it's excellent. But it's also the beginning of a larger arc that doesn't finish until the end of The Surgeon's Mate, about Jack and Stephen's disastrous and circuitous voyage from England to Desolation Island to America to Paris to England. This larger story arc plot can be a voyage, or it can last even longer, like the Ledward/Wray (a significant slash, that) arc that is hinted at toward the beginning of Desolation Island and doesn't resolve until The Thirteen-Gun Salute some 8 novels later.
At an even larger level, though, Desolation Island is part of the larger development of Jack and Stephen as individuals and as friends. This development of character is the story of the entire series. The brilliance of this breadth is that it allows Jack and Stephen to develop at a natural pace -- as a result of his betrayal of Herapath, Stephen gets a bit more melancholy and bitter, and as a result of the Leopard's near loss and the near mutiny of his lieutenant Jack's skills as a commander are deepened (especially as regards dealing with times when "lucky" Jack's luck runs out). But there are no epiphanies, no sudden changes like there are in many/most novels. Jack and Stephen change by degrees, just as they do throughout the series**. This makes the development of Jack and Stephen the most realistic character development I've ever seen. Thus the length of the series makes this realistic portrayal of how people change possible.
2. O'Brian's points are subtle and do not contort his characters. Oh, there's a lot of philosophical digressions in the novels, particularly by Stephen. And O'Brian himself has some issues that seem to be of interest to him -- the nature of authority and it's effect on people, the relationship between men and women*** and other things. But at no time does a philosophical agenda seem to be driving the actions of the characters -- O'Brian is content to let them be themselves. The main insights contained in reading O'Brian are those gained from watching two characters grow and relate to each other for 4,000+ pages.
3. O'Brian doesn't like endings. Plots end, characters go away (or die...generally off screen and traumatically)
but through all of this O'Brian seems more interested in capturing the flow of life than in a conventionally 'satisfying' dramatic resolution. The character deaths are probably the most striking example of this -- beloved shipmates are found dead at the end of the boarding action, and both the novel and the characters pass over the matter largely in silence. In Master and Commander, James Dillon dies when the Cacafuego is taken -- he never resolves his inner turmoil about the Navy, the United Irishman or anything else, and he's never reconciled to Jack. Rather like life -- few ends are completely tied up when people die suddenly -- people have to make do with what's basically a sudden exit.
And of course O'Brian refused to give Jack and Stephen resolution in their own lives. Neither Jack's nor Stephen's relationships with their wives ends with their marriages, nor do the various reconciliations (like between Stephen and Diana after she leaves Bridgit) truly resolve the underlying conflict. People just move on and their conflicts gradually mutate as their relationship changes. It's possible that had O'Brian finished 22 or 23 books we would have seen Stephen married to Christina Wood and Jack stuck ashore with no more wars to fight. But I can't picture a clean epilogue, just Jack and Stephen playing their fiddles and the scene fading to black.
All this is not to say that there's not artifice to the novels. Any work of fiction isn't going to be life, unmodified by the demands of drama. In the end, fiction is true enough to give us the illusion that we're seeing what life is really like. But by making the distortions that drama creates smaller and less noticeable, O'Brian creates a richer and more satisfying illusion of lifelike action and characters. It's interesting that this happens in novels that are historical fiction, because the same subtle dramatization is what makes great narrative history.
I think I'll make these 'the greatness of x' posts into a regular thing. They'll be a space where I can get effusive about some art or entertainment (or something uncomfortably on the art/entertainment line) that I like.
*You will show yourself to be a bit of a lubber if you call them the Master and Commander books, since that instantly shows that you only know about them via the movie.
**They change more rapidly in the down time between the early books, because these periods cover several years appiece.
***The guy translated Simone de Beauvoir, after all.