Patrick O'Brian Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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).

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.