Patrick O'Brian [A life revealed]
New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2000
This is an unauthorized first biography of the late and great author, best known for his 20 book series of Aubrey-Maturin Napoleonic era naval warfare novels. O'Brian was famously reticent about his past, and this book explains some of the reasons why.
Dean King is apparently the person who determined for the public that O'Brian was in fact born as Richard Patrick Russ, in England, on Dec 12, 1914. It was a great surprise to the fans (and publishers and friends) of O'Brian to learn that he was not Irish. King has also written some good and useful companions to the novels, Harbors and High Seas and A Sea of Words.
Patrick Russ was a younger child in a large family, and his mother died when he was 3. His father was an MD with an unsuccessful practice, an aloof father who left child care to nannies and his wives. The Russ' had a small inherited fortune that was rapidly diminished - the older boys were sent to middling "public" schools, the younger ones to poor ones or taught at home. Patrick was sickly, and spent much of his childhood reading.
His first published book, Caesar, was written when he was 14!, an animal tale along the lines of Kipling, and it was well received. He continued writing such stories for some years. As WWII loomed he applied for a Royal Navy commission, but was rejected for health reasons, and then he flunked out of pilot training in the RAF. He married Elizabeth in 1936, and they soon had a son, then a daughter. His stories began to feature people as the major characters, and some are the prototypes for Aubrey and Maturin. In 1940 he left his family, causing permanent bitterness in the families.
The Blitz began in 1940, and Patrick Russ was an ambulance driver in London, as was Mary Tolstoy, and they were soon living together. When the Blitz ended they were recruited into British intelligence, due to their writing and foreign language skills. In 1945 the war ended, Patrick and Elizabeth were officially divorced, Patrick and Mary married, and Patrick Russ legally changed his named to Patrick O'Brian [there is no mention of Mary changing her name]. His family was outraged.
The O'Brians moved to very rural Wales as they reinvented themselves. They learned about farming life there, helped their neighbors, and Patrick wrote stories about hunting. They gave the impression, at least, that Patrick was Irish.
In 1949 the O'Brians moved to Catalan France, a lively and warm place after Wales, and there they lived until their deaths. The early years were very lean, even by post-WWII French standards. It is not clear to me whether Mary was working, translating, but Patrick was writing depressing novels and translating French books into English. But in 1954 he wrote The Golden Ocean (published in 1956), a relatively light sea-tale, a fictionalization of Admiral Anson's shipwreck in Chile. It was popular, and he followed it with The Unknown Shore in 1959. His major work remained translating, for which he was in demand by publishers and authors (eg Simone de Beauvoir).
In 1966 C.S. Forester died. His Horatio Hornblower series fit into and became part of the British national mythology. The publishing house, J.B. Lippincott, of Philadelphia, thought O'Brian might be a successor to Forester, based on The Golden Ocean and The Unknown Shore, and in 1967 they contracted for a book. O'Brian chose a real historical basis for his tale, the voyages and battles of Thomas Cochrane, and this became Master and Commander. Reviews were mixed, and meanwhile O'Brian translated Papillon, a great success. More Aubrey-Maturin books followed, with only slight success for several years, despite the raves of authors such as Mary Renault. It seems that the publishing editors loved the books, but reviewers didn't know what to make of them, or never saw them. Forester was the gold standard, whose books everyone knew and loved, but O'Brian did not write like Forester. The British public began to catch on, but the American publishers didn't see a market or profit for several years, so stayed away for a decade.
From 1973-1976 O'Brian focused on a biography of Pablo Picasso, a slight aquaintence. It was a massive, thorough and dense book, and King finds that O'Brian imposed his vehement anti-child and anti-matrimonial opinions on Picasso unfairly. In 1985-1986 he wrote a biography of Joseph Banks, and again King finds that O'Brian's strong biases are imposed on the subject. O'Brian's opinions seem particularly unjustified since his marriage to Mary was long, apparently happy, and they were an inseparable team.
Between the biographies he returned to Aubrey and Maturin, and he wrote 5 between 1988 and 1993, when he was 74 to 79, as well as reviewing, translating, and caring for an ailing wife. In 1990 editors at Norton began to publish and promote his books in the US, and the critics agreed: Richard Snow wrote in a review in the New York Times Book Review that they were "the best historical novels ever written." O'Brian became a phenomenon: his books were translated into a dozen languages; he received major literary, academic, and government honors. He continued to write.
Mary O'Brian died in 1998, in France. Patrick O'Brian's secret past was discovered later that year by the news media, but he continued to maintain his Irish persona. He died Jan 2, 2000, in Dublin.
I have the impression that King began this biography full of admiration for the Aubrey-Maturin O'Brian, then became disillusioned with the prickly deceptive O'Brian: it feels to me that the book was written, then modified with some criticism. I'd like to know King's opinion on discovering the deception. There is no question of O'Brian's erudition or his amazing productivity, but King repeats anecdotes about editors not needing to edit the novels - I just read Desolation Island, and it still needs editing (review). I question King's repeated referral to the setting of the novels as being Eighteenth Century, since the time frame is approximately 1802-1815. King gives huge amounts of credit for Aubrey-Maturin's eventual success to the editors who loved his novels, as well as some to a few reviewers and the cover illustrators. I don't really doubt that, but note that the editors were mostly alive and available to take credit, and O'Brian wasn't. There are far too many trivial anecdotes, pretty clearly because the principles were alive for the tale, and what else can a biographer include when the subject is famously disingenuous and cranky? O'Brian was planning to have his diaries destroyed upon his death - did that happen?
What sets Aubrey and Maturin apart from the competition? The meticulous detail of the settings and the interaction and contrast between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.
From a review by T.J. Binyon, 1980:
Here there is nothing of your ordinary historical novel, in which plausibility is vainly sought through a promiscuous top-dressing of obvious contemporary references and slang, which then stand out against the rest as glaringly as as the fruit in a naval plum duff. Instead each incident or description is saturated by a mass of complex and convincing detail. ... it is easy to ignore the fact that--largely, though not exclusively, through Maturin--they are, on one level, addressing themselves seriously to questions of human actions and behavior far beyond the compass of the normal adventure story.
From a review by Peter Campbell, 1990:
[part of the novels' effectiveness lay in] the escape they offer from present anxiety into past discomfort... when wildernesses were challenging, not fragile.... the final escape for the reader is into a fantasy of competence.
O'Brian page, book reviews, main page
David Kew, July 2001