Patrick O'Brian 1914-2000
(Has also written under the pseudonym Richard Patrick Russ) Irish novelist, short story writer, translator, nonfiction writer, and biographer.
The following entry presents an overview of O'Brian's career through 2000.
O'Brian is a noted scholar and biographer, however, it is his historical fiction novels that have garnered him the most critical and popular attention. While the genre of historical fiction has been ignored by some literary critics, several reviewers have argued that O'Brian transcends the genre with his extensive knowledge of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century naval life, botany, history, and music. His Aubrey/Maturin series of novels, set during the Napoleonic Wars, combined his historical expertise with tightly-constructed adventure narratives. The series is comprised of twenty novels and spans over thirty years of writing, beginning with Master and Commander (1969) and concluding with Blue at the Mizzen (1999).
O'Brian was born in 1914 in Galway, Ireland. His mother died while he was still young and he moved several times to live with various relatives throughout Ireland and England. O'Brian suffered from a recurrent childhood illness which would plague him for years. O'Brian began writing short stories and fiction in his youth, and was fascinated with the eighteenth century, reading authors such as Samuel Richardson, Samuel Johnson, and Jane Austen. In the 1930s, O'Brian studied the classics and philosophy in both England and France. He was denied active service duties during World War II due to medical reasons, but served as an ambulance driver in Chelsea. He also worked for a period in British intelligence with his wife, Mary. After the war, O'Brian focused on developing his writing career and began publishing short stories and novels. He was awarded a CBE award and a Heywood Hill literary prize. O'Brian moved to the Roussillon region of France in the 1950s where he lived in relative seclusion until his death in 2000.
O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series of historical novels traces the relationship between Captain Jack Aubrey, a naval officer, and Stephen Maturin, a naturalist, doctor, and occasional spy for Great Britain, as they adventure across the high seas during the Napoleonic Wars. The two characters have contrasting personalities whose differences play off each other throughout the series. Jack Aubrey is an accomplished sailor and confident leader of his crew, but on land, his skills are limited and he lacks social refinement. Maturin has difficulties adjusting to life at sea, but he is suave, diplomatic, and intelligent when on land. The first novel, Master and Commander, opens as the two men first meet at a musical performance in Spain, where Maturin riles Aubrey with a remark about his lack of musical timing. Although this first encounter does not end well, the two encounter one another again the next day, and Aubrey, who has been offered command of a ship in the British navy, recruits Maturin as the vessel's surgeon. The series contains a wealth of nineteenth-century historical detail—particularly nautical information about life onboard a ship and the mechanics of sailing. The Aubrey/Maturin novels typically create an adventure narrative set against a backdrop of events that actually occurred during the Napoleonic Wars. For example, The Wine-Dark Sea (1993) finds Aubrey's ship, the HMS Surprise, delivering Maturin on a secret mission in Peru and Chile, where he helps independence movements beneficial to the British Crown. In The Yellow Admiral (1996), Aubrey is awaiting a fateful decision about his career, and is hoping for a promotion to rear admiral of the Blue Squadron. He dreads the other possible outcome—a promotion to a post that carries no command—sometimes called a “Yellow Admiral.” Aubrey threatens his promotion with his criticism of naval policy and his inability to get along with his superiors. The Aubrey/Maturin series eventually spanned twenty novels, ending with Blue at the Mizzen. This last volume opens with Napoleon being defeated at Waterloo. Aubrey and Maturin are sent to Chile to help free the country from their occupation by Spain. During the voyage, half of Aubrey's crew deserts the ship and the under-staffed Surprise is forced to battle the Spanish Armada.
Although the Aubrey/Maturin series comprises O'Brian's best known and most acclaimed works, he is also an accomplished short story writer, biographer, and translator. In the short fiction collection, The Rendezvous and Other Stories (1995), only the story “Billabillian” focuses on nautical history. The rest of the stories in the volume examine the relationship between nature and humankind, as in “The Chian Wine,” which deals with a medieval European town on its emergence into the twentieth century. O'Brian has produced several translations of the works of French authors, including Simone de Beauvoir and Henri Charriere. He has also published two well received biographies, one of artist Pablo Picasso, the other about naturalist Joseph Banks. In Joseph Banks: A Life (1987) O'Brian uses journal entries, letters, and reports from Banks' contemporaries to recount the life of the naturalist who served as the president of the Royal Society for more than forty years.
Although the Aubrey/Maturin novels were critically and commercially popular in England for many years, they received a lukewarm critical reception upon their publication in the United States in the 1970s. The series did, however, gain a renewed popularity in the 1990s when the entire run was released in paperback. Reviewers have often discussed the Aubrey/Maturin novels as though they are interlinked into one epic saga, or treat them as separate chapters within an ongoing novel. Many critics have favorably compared the novels to C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower series. Others have compared O'Brian to Jane Austen because of his precision of language and ability to flesh out nineteenth-century characters. James Hamilton-Paterson asserted, “Patrick O'Brian is unquestionably the Homer of the Napoleonic wars.” Reviewers have debated about the categorization of O'Brian's seafaring novels, with some calling them adventure stories and others historical novels. In fact, much of the criticism surrounding the Aubrey/Maturin novels revolves around this question of genre and a debate over their legitimacy as literature. A number of critics have also disagreed about the quality of O'Brian's characterization in the Aubrey/Maturin series. John Mullan stated in a review of The Yellow Admiral, “While the information is dense, characterization is primitive. Aubrey and Maturin scarcely exist except to voice knowledge and exhibit wearying abilities.” However, several reviewers have cited the portrayal of the main characters and their relationship as the strongest feature of the series. While many reviewers were enthusiastic about the first novels in the series, several critics began to tire of the repetition found in the later novels. Christopher Claussen asserted, “The […] disadvantage to so long a series is that the characters and action become too predictable. What began as a set of premises hardens into formula.” Despite these complaints, O'Brian has been consistently lauded by critics for his extensive historical knowledge and his ability to infuse his work with the minutia of nineteenth-century life. Patrick T. Reardon praised O'Brian's “wonderfully exact language, his erudition, his delight in human idiosyncrasy, his fine hand with character, his zest for the nitty-gritty of life and for life itself, his love of the sea and his ability to infect even committed landlubbers with a touch of that love.” Critics have generally lauded O'Brian's biographies, particularly for their ability to condense a tremendous amount of research into a readable narrative. Yet several reviewers have criticized O'Brian's reverence for his subjects—especially Joseph Banks—and claim that such reverence limits his ability to accurately portray them.
A Book of Voyages [editor] (nonfiction) 1947
The Last Pool and Other Stories (short stories) 1950
Three Bear Witness (novel) 1952 [published in the U.S. as Testimonies]
The Frozen Flame (novel) 1953 [published in the U.S. as The Catalans]
The Walker and Other Stories (short stories) 1955 [published in the U.S. as Lying in the Sun and Other Stories]
The Golden Ocean (novel) 1956; revised edition, 1970
The Unknown Shore (novel) 1959
Richard Temple (novel) 1962
The Wreathed Head [translator; from the novel by Christine de Rivoyre] (novel) 1962
*Master and Commander (novel) 1969
*Post Captain (novel) 1972
*HMS Surprise (novel) 1973
The Chian Wine and Other Stories (short stories) 1974
Men-of-War (nonfiction) 1974
Picasso: A Biography (biography) 1976
*The Mauritius Command (novel) 1977
*Desolation Island (novel) 1978
*The Fortune of War (novel) 1979
*The Surgeon's Mate (novel) 1980
*The Ionian Mission (novel) 1981
When Things of the Spirit Come First: Five Early Tales [translator; from the short stories by Simone de Beauvoir] (short stories) 1982
*Treason's Harbour (novel) 1983
*The Far Side of the World (novel) 1984
*The Reverse of the Medal (novel) 1986
Joseph Banks: A Life (biography) 1987
*The Letter of Marque (novel) 1988
*The Thirteen-Gun Salute (novel) 1989
*The Nutmeg of Consolation (novel) 1991
*Clarissa Oakes (novel) 1992 [published in the U.S. as The Truelove]
*The Wine-Dark Sea (novel) 1993
*The Commodore (novel) 1995
The Rendezvous and Other Stories (short stories) 1995
*The Yellow Admiral (novel) 1996
*The Hundred Days (novel) 1998
*Blue at the Mizzen (novel) 1999
*Part of the Aubrey/Maturin series of novels.
SOURCE: “In Which We Serve,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. 38, No. 18, November 7, 1991, pp. 7–8.
[In the following essay, Bayley discusses O'Brian's series of novels about Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin and praises the author's gifts as a novelist.]
In Aldous Huxley's first novel, Crome Yellow, a man of action recounts an escapade of his youth, and comments that such things are only really agreeable to look back on after the event. Nothing is exciting as it happens. Warriors in heroic times only knew what they had been through when they heard about it from the bard in the mead-hall. Armchair warriors who have never performed such feats can...
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SOURCE: “The Very Social Scientist,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 4, 1993, p. 9.
[In the following review, Stewart praises O'Brian's ability to skillfully condense large amounts of biographical material in Joseph Banks: A Life, but complains that O'Brian shows too much deference to his subject.]
When Captain James Cook returned from his first great circumnavigation of the globe in 1771, the British public was wild with admiration. We have forgotten, though, that public adoration at the time was not for James Cook at all but for his young naturalist passenger, Joseph Banks, whose life Patrick O'Brian recounts in Joseph Banks: A Life. As...
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SOURCE: “So Much They Talked, So Very Little Said,” in Spectator, Vol. 271, No. 8609, July 10, 1993, pp. 28–29.
[In the following positive review, Rogers explores the vast amount of historical detail included in The Wine-Dark Sea.]
The Wine-Dark Sea has to be the most extraordinary work I have read by a contemporary. It is the 16th in a series about the sea wars against Napoleon, a series so interlinked that to come for the first time on one of these books is like finding a solitary surviving fragment from a lost cycle of heroic saga.
I am reminded of those fragments written by Taliesin in the sixth century about the doomed Welsh kingdoms...
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SOURCE: A review of Joseph Banks: A Life, in Smithsonian, Vol. 24, No. 5, August, 1993, p. 106.
[In the following review, Dirda offers a positive assessment of Joseph Banks: A Life, calling the biography “well-researched.”]
Anyone who regularly reads historical novels or remembers with pleasure C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower sea stories probably already knows about Patrick O'Brian. Over the past two or three years O'Brian's adventure novels about Captain Jack Aubrey and surgeon-spy Stephen Maturin—there are about 15, all set during the Napoleonic Wars—stopped being coterie classics and found a wide, appreciative audience. Reviewers competed...
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SOURCE: “Patrick O'Brian's Profoundly Addictive Tales of the Sea,” in Chicago Tribune Books, December 19, 1993, p. 4.
[In the following review, Reardon offers a positive assessment of The Wine-Dark Sea, noting that—although the novels in O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series are similar—each installment remains enjoyable on its own.]
The Wine-Dark Sea, is the 16th in Patrick O'Brian's series of addictively readable Aubrey/Maturin novels of the British Navy at sea and at war in the early 19th Century.
For those already caught in the thrall of the exploits of Captain Jack Aubrey and his particular friend, Stephen Maturin, a surgeon,...
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SOURCE: “Vivid Adventures of Two Friends,” in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 86, December 31, 1993, p. 11.
[In the following review, Pratter offers a positive assessment of The Wine-Dark Sea, calling the novel a good introduction into the world of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.]
The Wine-Dark Sea is a perfect sampler of O'Brian's distinctive style. It begins with a chase across the South Seas from New South Wales to Peru, a chase interrupted by a submarine volcanic eruption—the portent of which is the lurid orange of the sky and the deep purplish tinge of the swell. The novel ends as vividly among the blue ice mountains of the Antarctic seas...
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SOURCE: “Regressive Pleasures,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 2, 1994, pp. 4, 11.
[In the following review, Balzar offers a positive assessment of The Wine-Dark Sea and the Aubrey/Maturin series.]
Ned Ludd is said to have been an apprentice stocking maker in England 175 years ago. In a fit one day he grabbed a hammer and smashed his newly invented knitting frame to pieces. They called him a half-wit, though you can decide for yourself if this is a fair characterization of the man whose name came to symbolize the idea that technological advancement is not necessarily or always for the good.
Encyclopedia references suggest the...
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SOURCE: “Delmore Schwartz Was a Fan,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 2, 1994, p. 4.
[In the following review, McGonigle discusses the moral difficulties explored in Testimonies.]
Questions are being asked as Testimonies opens. Something terrible must have happened. Questions do not get asked when something good has happened. Does one believe the testimony that is given? Well, that depends on the telling, on the sense of veracity that the author creates within the voice of the character.
Testimonies, published more than 40 years ago to mostly very good reviews, has been returned to print because of Patrick O'Brian's recent...
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SOURCE: “Seaworthy,” in National Review, Vol. 46, January 24, 1994, p. 65.
[In the following positive review, Abrams argues that The Wine-Dark Sea is first and foremost a straightforward adventure story.]
Patrick O'Brian [author of The Wine-Dark Sea] is a 79-year-old Irishman who has lived in the south of France for four decades. In addition to translating all of Simone de Beauvoir, a bit of Colette, and Jean Lacouture's recent biography of de Gaulle, he has written well-received biographies of Picasso and Joseph Banks, and many other novels. In 1969 he began publishing a series of sea stories set in the Napoleonic period. The series relates the...
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SOURCE: “Napoleonic Complex,” in New Republic, Vol. 211, December 26, 1994, pp. 31–35.
[In the following review, Hamilton-Paterson discusses O'Brian's writing style, focusing on The Rendezvous and Other Stories, The Commodore, and Patrick O'Brian: Critical Essays and a Bibliography.]
Here we have that not unfamiliar figure: the first-rate writer who has worked consistently and prolifically for almost the past half-century, whose books have been greatly praised by famous people while remaining unknown to a wide audience, but whose time—at last—has come. No one whose time has not come is treated to his own bibliography fleshed out with admiring essays....
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SOURCE: “Battling Slavers Off the West Coast of Africa,” in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 87, May 2, 1995, p. 14.
[In the following review, Pratter offers a positive assessment of The Commodore, calling it a welcome addition to the Aubrey/Maturin series.]
One of the best storytellers afloat sets sail again in the pages of The Commodore. This 17th novel in Patrick O'Brian's series about adventure in the British Royal Navy is as finely trimmed as the ships he writes about.
The legion of fans who have savored the unfolding story of Captain “Lucky Jack” Aubrey and the saturnine Dr. Steven Maturin can be of good cheer. The old...
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SOURCE: “An Eighteenth-Century Voice,” in Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 276, July, 1995, pp. 92–96.
[In the following mixed review, Powers argues that The Commodore is not as impressive as the earlier books in the Aubrey/Maturin series, but the novel is still better than most contemporary fiction.]
The noise accompanying the publication this spring of The Commodore, the seventeenth novel in Patrick O'Brian's Napoleonic naval-war series, demonstrates that this ancient Irishman, long the object of reverence for a small, fanatically devoted sect, is now the center of a booming industry. And yet there remain cautious readers who would not consider taking up...
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SOURCE: “On the High Seas with the Royal Navy and Patrick O'Brian,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. 104, No. 2, Spring, 1996, p. R40.
[In the following review, Pickering argues that although Men-of-War is an interesting look at life in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, he believes that the Aubrey/Maturin series offer a more-rounded portrayal of the era due to the fictional narrative.]
“Thick weather in the chops of the Channel and a dirty night, with the strong north-east wind bringing rain from the low sky and racing clouds: Ushant somewhere away on the starboard bow, the Scillies to larboard, but never a light, never a star to be seen; and no...
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SOURCE: “The O'Brian Touch,” in Raritan: A Quarterly Review, Vol. 16, No. 1, Summer, 1996, pp. 116–31.
[In the following essay, Edwards offers a positive assessment of the Aubrey/Maturin series, stating that the novels transcend mere genre writing.]
Admirers of Patrick O'Brian's historical novels sometimes think of the literate English-speaking world as divided into three parts: themselves, people who haven't yet read the books, and those—so few as to be negligible—who do know but don't like them. The second group may need to hear that there are now seventeen novels dealing with the adventures during the Napoleonic wars of Captain John Aubrey, R.N., and his...
(The entire section is 5793 words.)
SOURCE: “O'Brian Back at the Helm,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 20, 1996, p. 3.
[In the following review, Balzar offers a positive assessment of The Yellow Admiral.]
The Yellow Admiral is Patrick O'Brian's 18th novel in the British seafaring adventures of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin—that most improbably wonderful series of grown-up literary-historical flights of escapism. Here, in the year 1814, “The Yellow Admiral” refers not to a cowardice in battle but to an admiral without ships to command.
No use dwelling on the plot, though. The no-longer secret is that plots of O'Brian's tales are like grapes to wine: pretty...
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SOURCE: “Ahoy! Patrick O'Brian Sails Again,” in Commonweal, Vol. 123, No. 19, November 8, 1996, pp. 9–10.
[In the following positive review, Wheeler compares The Yellow Admiral and the entire Aubrey/Maturin series with Homer's epic tales of ancient Greek life.]
The enormous success of Patrick O'Brian's historical novels defies any simple explanation. Perhaps the current interest in film adaptations of Jane Austen's works offer some explanatory clue. Indeed, the two authors share a loving devotion to the Royal Navy at the time of the Napoleonic campaigns, but O'Brian sails with hindsight into waters which Miss Austen could only imagine, landlocked as she...
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SOURCE: “Up and Down with Stephen and Jack,” in New Leader, Vol. 79, No. 9, December 16, 1996, pp. 22–23.
[In the following negative review, Clausen complains that The Yellow Admiral is repetitive and that O'Brian should have stopped the Aubrey/Maturin series after the seventh novel.]
It's been a long voyage, but Captain John Aubrey, RN, and Dr. Stephen Maturin seem to be heading, if at a leisurely pace, for their final port. Aubrey and Maturin, as millions of readers know, are the co-protagonist of Patrick O'Brian's 18 novels about life on the high seas during the Napoleonic Wars. By the end of The Yellow Admiral, Napoleon has at last been exiled...
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SOURCE: “Something Happened on the Way to Chile,” in Spectator, Vol. 278, No. 8788, January 4, 1997, pp. 30–31.
[In the following review, Teacher offers a positive assessment of The Yellow Admiral, complimenting O'Brian's great knowledge of English country life.]
Fourteen years have passed since the acrimonious exchange between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin during the interval of the first and second movements of Locatelli's C-major quartet in the music-room of Government House, Port Mahon on 1 April 1800. The period covered by The Yellow Admiral (the 18th novel in the series chronicling the careers of these remarkable fictional characters) is...
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SOURCE: “Nicely Culled,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4893, January 10, 1997, p. 20.
[In the following review, Mullan offers a negative assessment of The Yellow Admiral, criticizing the novel's weak plot and sparse characterization.]
Auscultation, calidarium, fulvous, grego, grigs, horchata, leet, mumping, sillery, wariangle, xebec: just a small sample from the diction of Patrick O'Brian's The Yellow Admiral, the latest in his series of novels of nautical derring-do, set during the Napoleonic wars, which began with Master and Commander in 1969. Help is at hand for curious readers, who will soon be able to reach for the Patrick O'Brian...
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SOURCE: “In Full Sail,” in Books Magazine, Vol. 11, No. 4, October, 1997, p. 5.
[In the following review, the critic offers a positive assessment of The Yellow Admiral and notes that he believes O'Brian's work is finally getting the recognition it deserves.]
Tom Stoppard, Mark Knopfler, Professor John Bayley, Nicholas Soames, William Waldegrave, Charlton Heston, Michael Grade, Warren Christopher … What could possibly link such an eclectic group of people? The answer is not what but who—Patrick O'Brian, a reclusive octogenarian who has been described as “the finest novelist now writing in the English language.”
For close on...
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SOURCE: “Summer Reading,” in Commonweal, Vol. 125, No. 12, June 19, 1998, p. 20.
[In the following excerpt, Finn argues that O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series is perfect for summer reading.]
I've always wondered what's meant by “summer reading.” Must it consist of books too lightweight to admit to reading during the rest of the year? Do we really want to spend a season leafing through books of ponderous humor, memoirs about pets, accounts of the foibles of the royal family? Certainly one doesn't want to lug the complete Remembrance of Things Past to the beach, where it has to compete with the sun beating down, saltwater sticky hands, sand between the...
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SOURCE: “Those in Peril on the Sea,” in Spectator, Vol. 281, No. 8872, August 22, 1998, p. 32.
[In the following review, Judd offers a positive assessment of The Hundred Days, praising the novel's characterization, action, and credibility.]
The creation of a convincing imaginary world, one whose power to convince rests not only on the truth of history but the truth of experience, compelling assent—yes, this is what it is like to doubt, fear, love, thirst, hope and despair—is itself a significant literary achievement. To sustain that world over 19 sequential novels, as Patrick O'Brian has now done with The Hundred Days, goes beyond significance....
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SOURCE: “A Genuine Romancer,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4979, September 4, 1998, p. 10.
[In the following review, Everett offers a positive assessment of The Hundred Days.]
Manifestly successful at last, often described now as the greatest historical novelist of the century, and awarded prizes and honours as well as accolades, Patrick O'Brian still doesn't convince quite everybody. For some old admirers, the excitement has not survived a second reading; there are readers who call him second-rate on the first. What is lacking is real agreement as to what the writer is first- or second-rate at doing.
Part of the confusion may derive from...
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SOURCE: “A Credible Shivering of Timbers,” in Observer, September 6, 1998, p. 16.
[In the following positive review, Jacques praises the writing and sense of history in The Hundred Days.]
Historical novels are an extraordinary genre. They have the ability to convey the feel, the detail, the language, the etiquette, the technology of the time like no conventional history book can ever do. While historical works are strong on explanation and fact, only historical novels can transport your soul and your senses back to the period in question. Their only rival is a good television historical drama, or its big screen equivalent, but the experience is somehow less total....
(The entire section is 577 words.)
SOURCE: “O'Brian's Great Voyage,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. 47, No. 4, March 9, 2000, pp. 11–16.
[In the following essay, Hitchens compares and contrasts O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series to C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower saga, and discusses the personal insights found in Dean King's biography Patrick O'Brian: A Life Revealed.]
On any approximately proportionate view of history, of the kind that may become more gradually available to us as the long day of the twentieth century wanes, the Napoleonic conflict would deserve to be called the First World War. Never before had two great powers and their volatile allies mobilized...
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Ewan, Joseph. Review of Joseph Banks: A Life, by Patrick O'Brian. Isis 85, No. 3 (September 1994): 523.
Ewan offers a positive assessment of Joseph Banks: A Life.
Gordon, Neil. “The Admiral: Patrick O'Brian's Poseidon Adventure.” Voice Literary Supplement 136 (June 1995): 15–19.
Gordon explores the major characteristics of O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novel series and discusses how the novels have been received in within their genre of historical fiction.
Gray, Paul. “Sailing Off to the Past.” Time 142, No. 19 (8 November 1993): 90.
(The entire section is 248 words.)