Patrick O'Brian

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1904

Literary biography is risky to read. Apart from the damage a biographer may do to the writer’s reputation because of partial or mistaken information, the frank truth can disappoint and even disaffect fans, particularly so if they regard the writer with a cultish devotion. Such devotion frequently is the case for fans of Patrick O’Brian (1914-2000), novelist and translator, best known for the twenty novels about Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, Royal Navy officers during England’s war with Napoleon. Dean King’s Patrick O’Brian: A Life Revealed may well prove troublesome for O’Brian fans. Nonetheless, the author insists that only by knowing the truth about O’Brian’s life can one fully understand his literary achievement.

Despite King’s sympathetic and studiously evenhanded treatment, the book does not present an attractive portrait of O’Brian. Moreover, it raises a nettling side issue concerning literary biography: privacy. As King admits, O’Brian, who intensely disliked discussing his past, refused to cooperate in the project and instructed some of his friends not to help either. O’Brian wanted to be known solely through his writing. As well as complicating King’s research, this reticence forced him to rely on documents and literary evidence, second-hand accounts, and, for observations about O’Brian’s character, acquaintances and family, some of whom were bitter about his treatment of them. Little came directly from O’Brian, and that mostly through a few letters.

Perhaps because of this difficulty, the book conveys the impression that King undertook the project out of affection for O’Brian’s novels (an act of devotion and high hopes), but that he was dismayed by the facts his research unearthed. Even before he began, King was already as expert on the secretive O’Brian as anyone: He compiled a helpful lexicon to the prolific, recondite nautical vocabulary in O’Brian’s sea tales and in another book explained the geography of the stories. Moreover, the biography shows King to be a deeply perceptive reader of O’Brian’s fiction, a body of work which could come only from an author of immense learning, supple and expressive prose style, humane understanding of human relationships, and profound ability to bring to life a historical period for modern readers of widely different backgrounds. O’Brian was a fresh intellect, a literary genius. Despite King’s efforts to be evenhanded and his warning at the outset that the biography does not directly present O’Brian’s side of things, what King found as he researched the biography often tarnishes this image of O’Brian. He appears to have been cruelly cold to his family, prickly, curmudgeonly, and egotistical. In addition, he perpetrated a fraud on his fans: Contrary to his claims, he was not born Patrick O’Brian, he was not Irish, and he had never been to sea in a sailing ship.

Patrick O’Brian was born Richard Patrick Russ in rural Buckinghamshire County, England, in 1914. His parents were both English, although his father, a physician and inventor, was the grandson of a German immigrant. The next-to-youngest of nine children, young Patrick was asthmatic and lonely. His mother died when he was four, his father was distant to the children, and although he eventually acquired an attentive stepmother, he was often left to his own devices. He developed a lasting interest in nature; he also turned to reading and, later, to writing stories of his own. These were not puerile efforts, even though the main characters were animals; he began selling short stories to magazines in his early teens and published a book at fifteen. King frequently points out aspects of O’Brian’s childhood that turn up in his mature fiction and especially likes to describe places where the boy lived that are featured in the Aubrey-Maturin novels. In fact, the biography often treats O’Brian’s life as if it existed solely to prepare him for the nautical novels.

King was unable to verify O’Brian’s claims that he attended Oxford, and it seems that he accumulated his extensive knowledge largely through self-directed reading. He continued to write and publish into his twenties, but not without at least one failed foray away from literature: He washed out of Royal Air Force flight school. As O’Brian’s publication list lengthens, so do King’s plot summaries. He convincingly demonstrates that O’Brian’s interest in the theme of friendship between men sharing adventures began early. King identifies several precursors to Aubrey and Maturin.

One of O’Brian’s early books fooled reviewers into believing that O’Brian had been trained by Arab storytellers, and this facility for imitation turns up later in his skill at altering his own identity. The reason for the change reads like a romantic adventure itself, but O’Brian clearly was out to find a way to devote himself to writing without the distractions that had burdened him as a young man—namely, his family. He married young (at twenty-one) and in short order had a son, as well as a daughter who died in childhood of a lingering disease. The baby girl’s death was traumatic for him, but the marriage was already in trouble, and as World War II began he abandoned his wife and son to be an ambulance driver in London. There he met Mary Tolstoy, a married woman (and countess) who would become O’Brian’s second wife. Their marriage, described by all sources as very close and mutually supportive, lasted the rest of their lives. During the war both served as agents for an English intelligence organization that aided the French Resistance. At war’s end, he and Mary divorced their spouses, he changed his name officially to O’Brian, and, following their wedding, they moved to Wales. O’Brian thereafter disowned the stories and two adventure novels published under the “Russ” moniker and concentrated on serious fiction. The result wasTestimonies (1952), a critical success. Subsequent short-story collections and novels earned him respect in England and the United States but little money—even the first two sea tales, The Golden Ocean (1956) and The Unknown Shore (1959), were not financial successes.

The O’Brians, however, were content with a life of genteel poverty. They moved to the Mediterranean coast of southern France, built a small house, maintained a garden, and made wine from their own small vineyard. During this time O’Brian’s relationship with his family steadily deteriorated. He and his son parted company, never to speak again. He shunned all of his siblings except one brother, who nevertheless complained that O’Brian acted as if they were not in fact related. To supplement his income, O’Brian translated French authors, becoming the principal translator for Simone de Beauvoir. During the mid-seventies he wrote a biography of Pablo Picasso, whom he knew slightly. (He later wrote a biography of Joseph Banks, long-time president of the Royal Society in the eighteenth century.) He enjoyed respect among critics for his own writing and his translations, but he was not widely known, even though he translated Banco(1973), the sequel to Henri Charrière’s best-selling Papillon (1969).

His reputation began to expand after an American editor, a fan of The Golden Ocean, asked O’Brian to write a similar sea tale for the publisher J. B. Lippincott Company, possibly to be the first of a series. The result was Master and Commander (1969), in which Jack Aubrey meets Stephen Maturin and their long series of adventures begins in a tiny warship cruising the western Mediterranean, the very locale of the O’Brians’ home. It was published concurrently by Collins in London. Critics generally liked the books, although some were condescending because they thought historical fiction to be an inferior genre. Sales of the first book and its sequels were modest, so much so that Lippincott and then a second American publisher dropped the series. In England, however, a core of fervent and often illustrious fans (for instance, Iris Murdoch), spread the word about the novels. Even in the United States, the number of readers increased during the 1980’s.

In 1990, a venturous editor at W. W. Norton revived the series under an American imprint. Not long afterward, Richard Snow, editor of American Heritage, wrote a glowing review of the Aubrey-Maturin novels for The New York Times Book Review. In it, Snow discounted the comparisons of O’Brian’s sea tales to the Horatio Hornblower novels by C. S. Forester (always a source of irritation to O’Brian) and claimed for O’Brian a greater stature, likening him to Jane Austen for his skill at portraying social behavior. The review set the tone for the publishing phenomenon that followed. O’Brian became one of the best-selling authors of the decade, extolled by historians and writers and in great demand as a speaker. During engagements in England and the United States, he charmed audiences and displayed a nimbleness of mind that often left his interviewers bewildered. He seemed the epitome of the gentlemanly Irish author, both erudite and witty, in spite of his vagueness about his past.

King relates this accelerating passage to fame with judicious delicacy and concludes the biography with the event that marked the high point of O’Brian’s career. It was a dinner honoring him in Greenwich, England, on October 11, 1996. Nearly four hundred ambassadors, politicians, senior military officers, and literati ate an eighteenth century-style naval dinner and toasted him for enriching their lives with his fiction. Given the truth about O’Brian that King uncovered, however, there is an unsettling feeling of put-on about the event. King was well aware of it, writing:

Throughout life, O’Brian had been a consummate outsider: an intellect who had not gone to Eton or Oxford; an elite who was not from the upper classes; a citizen of the twentieth century who was more at home in the eighteenth. O’Brian was an Irishman who was not Irish; an Englishman who lived in France; a brilliant author in a spurned genre.

In a brief epilogue, King touches upon the final two novels in the Aubrey-Maturin series, Mary O’Brian’s death, the grandchildren O’Brian never met, and the revelation, first published in England’s Daily Telegraph exposé, about O’Brian’s real background. It is a sour note on which to end.

Plot summaries (and quotations from book reviewers) sometimes encumber Patrick O’Brian: A Life Revealed. This occurs because King is forced to find insight into O’Brian’s life by drawing inferences from his fiction, just as he tries to find insight about the fiction by finding parallels to the sparse details available about O’Brian’s life. In any case, the book reads well, offers biographically centered discussions of several central O’Brian themes—the nature of male friendship, for example, or a man’s inability to love—and tells the astonishing story of an innovative author who did not receive his due until the end of his life, when it came overwhelmingly. Nevertheless, King leaves the reader wondering why O’Brian maintained a pretense about his background and why, in fact, it should matter at all, other than that it left some fans feeling curiously betrayed.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 96 (January 1, 2000): 832.

Library Journal 125 (February 15, 2000): 162.

New Leader 83 (March, 2000): 33.

The New York Review of Books 47 (March 9, 2000): 11.

The New York Times Book Review 105 (March 5, 2000): 39.

Publishers Weekly 247 (March 20, 2000): 79.

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