Patrick O'Brian, whose brilliant series of novels was set during the Napoleonic Wars, died in January at the age of 85, leaving behind legions of adoring fans. Dean King's new biography explores everything we thought we knew about O'Brian and reveals that many of our assumptions were false.
First, he was not Irish. Indeed, not only was he not born there, Dean indicates that O'Brian never lived in or even visited Ireland until three years ago. He did work in intelligence in World War II, did abandon his wife and two children during the war, and did change his name shortly after the war.
O'Brian died at the height of his renown, decorated by the Queen, feted in grand banquets by the Royal Navy and the Pentagon, with Charlton Heston reading his work, screen rights optioned by Sam Goldwyn, and over three million copies of his works sold. His publishers created a web page and a cookbook based on the cuisine of his fictional characters. The closest parallel to this sudden explosion of devotion to a formerly obscure writer in an undefinable genre would be J.R.R. Tolkien.
O'Brian was born in London in 1914 as Patrick Russ, the son of a physician of German descent. His mother died early of tuberculosis, and his father lost the family fortune developing a series of quack medical inventions. The family fell apart, and Patrick, a sickly, slight youth, was unable to attend proper schools or university. He was rejected by the navy and washed out of RAF flight school.
He married first an older woman of lower social status who bore him two children, the second a daughter afflicted with spinal bifida. Early in the war he abandoned them and became an ambulance driver and later an intelligence operative. He met and married Mary Tolstoy, wife of a barrister count. After the war, he moved first to the Welsh mountains and then to the south of France.
Aside from his war work, he never did anything but write (and read how he must have read!). O'Brian wrote his first novel at 15, and was a widely published author of boys' adventure stories by the outbreak of the war. His poverty was nearly total. A major part of his family's food came from hunting the hedges. The American advance for the first work in his life masterpiece, Master and Commander, was $750. It was by far his biggest advance to that time.
He clearly thirsted for the establishment honors and wealth of his Victorian grandfather, but seemed to utterly lack the means to get there. He could only write, and did so in the purest manner, researching meticulously the arcana of natural history, worldwide ethnic customs, sailing lore, the history of the Napoleonic era, and all of the intricate detail which gives his work compelling authenticity. He added to that the lifelong writer's craft of a driving pace and of undercut drama ( Outside the exact sciences, scarcely anything worth saying can be said except by indirection. ). The third leg of his art was his genius at characterization, giving us Aubrey and Maturin, who will live in world literature for as long as people read books.
It is no wonder that he had carefully protected the fiction of his own life from prying reviewers; in the end, the art was great enough to overwhelm the self.
John Foster is an attorney in Columbia, South Carolina.