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...
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