The posthumous reputation of Patrick O’Brian

From The Times Literary Supplement:

In 1998, two years before his death at the age of eighty-five, Patrick O’Brian was asked by David Kerr in a BBC documentary – Patrick O’Brian: Nothing personal – how long he had lived in his house in the South of France. “I’m not going to answer that!”, he barked. “The next thing you’ll be wanting to know is how much I paid for it!” O’Brian (who never understood how to operate a television set) was famously testy in interviews. “Question and answer”, says the secretive surgeon Stephen Maturin in Clarissa Oakes (1992), “is not a civilised form of conversation”, and in his diary O’Brian described Kerr’s questions as “verging on the 3rd degree”. The film crew, he added, were “good fellows in their way” but “heavy and unread”, which makes them sound like the crews of HMS Sophie or any of the other men-of-war commanded by “Lucky” Jack Aubrey, hero of the Aubrey–Maturin series.

It is surprising that O’Brian, described by Nikolai Tolstoy in Patrick O’Brian: The making of the novelist (2004), the first volume of this two-volume Life, as “one of the most secretive authors who ever lived”, agreed to be filmed at all, but he had been in his French hide-out long enough (nearly fifty years) to have forgotten the “skulduggery” of the British media. After years of struggle, O’Brian’s historical novels had attained cult status. He had recently received an advance of $1.6 million from Norton for the nineteenth and twentieth books in the Aubrey–Maturin series, and the British Library had published a laudatory apparatus containing appreciations by John Bayley and Charlton Heston, as well as a rare autobiographical essay by O’Brian himself in which he described being sent, after his mother died, “to live with more or less willing relatives in Connemara and the County Clare”. The introduction by William Waldegrave emphasized the importance to O’Brian’s novels of his “Irish, French and English childhood” and “firsthand experience of the sea”. O’Brian, like Conrad, drew from deep resources.

. . . .

The purpose of the BBC documentary, O’Brian was assured, was to explore the astonishing erudition that lent his novels their authenticity – authenticity being the term most associated with the Aubrey–Maturin books. Having dodged the bullet about how long he had lived in his house and a dozen other bullets besides, he made an anodyne remark about the origin of Aubrey that proved fatal to his reputation. The captain’s character was based, he said, on that of his elder brother Mike, who had served in the Royal Australian Air Force and been shot down by the Germans in 1942. But the researcher could find no trace of a Michael O’Brian. That was not because O’Brian did not have a brother killed in the war but because his brother was called Michael Russ, O’Brian being the name Patrick adopted by deed poll in 1945 when, aged thirty, he made what Tolstoy described in Volume One as a “conscious” decision to “obliterate his previous existence” and reinvent himself as an Irish toff. He had a fondness for Ireland, which he visited first as an adult, but not a drop of Irish blood, and his new name, explained Tolstoy, was picked “at random” from “a copy of a nineteenth-century marine-insurance certificate”.

That discovery – that the master of historical authenticity was inauthentic – led to a flurry of press stories which caused O’Brian to complain in his diary about the “jealous ill-will excited in small journalists etc by what I may without gross immodesty call relative success”. His nationality, however, was not a matter of indifference: O’Brian had recently been appointed CBE on the understanding that he was English (having been “conceived in Ballinasloe”, he explained, he was born “prematurely in Buckinghamshire”), and awarded an honorary degree by Trinity College Dublin, on the understanding that he was Irish. O’Brian’s annus horribilis came in 1998. His wife, Mary, died that March, and shortly before the documentary was aired in September he discovered that an American super-fan called Dean King was researching his biography. He forbade his friends from talking to King, who nonetheless uncovered, in Patrick O’Brian: A life revealed (2000), the story his subject was desperate to hide.

. . . .

Born in 1914, Richard Patrick Russ was the youngest son of nine children. His mother died when he was three or four (accounts differ), and his father, Charles Russ – a doctor of German extraction specializing in sexually transmitted diseases – would be declared bankrupt. Patrick’s siblings were dispatched to various relations and boarding schools; a sickly child, Patrick himself was left in the care of his chilly father, and after five years also his stepmother, Zoe (who was kind to him). The fragmented family moved around the country. Patrick attended various schools, but was educated principally at home, where he developed a love of botany and ornithology and wrote escapist stories. At the age of sixteen he published, with the help of his father, his first book, Caesar: The life story of a panda leopard.

Having failed to get into the Royal Naval College and the Royal Air Force, and breaking contact with his father, he married, at the age of twenty-two, a Welsh-speaking, semi-educated seamstress called Elizabeth, the daughter of a collier. The couple had a son, Richard, born in 1937, and two years later a daughter, Jane, who died of spina bifida in 1943. By now, however, Patrick – who apparently worked during the war for an intelligence organization (“more than that I shall not say”) – was living with Mary, Countess Tolstoy, whom he married in 1945 (it is not irrelevant that the man who wrote his own massive chronicle of the Napoleonic wars ran off with the wife of a man called Tolstoy). His second marriage coincided with his change of identity, the purpose of which, King reluctantly concludes, was to distance him from his first wife. Patrick and Mary moved from London to a primitive cottage in Cwm Croesor, a remote part of rural Wales, where his writing kicked into gear. Three Bear Witness (1952), the product of these years, was compared by Delmore Schwartz to Yeats.

It was easier, O’Brian reasoned, to be dirt poor in a hot climate, so in September 1949 they moved to Collioure on the border between France and Spain, where he continued to write fiction but made his living as the translator of Simone de Beauvoir and Henri Charrière’s Papillon. In 1967, the American publisher J. P. Lippincott suggested that he try his hand at a sea novel, and the first Aubrey–Maturin story, Master and Commander, was published in 1969. O’Brian – who appears to have had no practical knowledge of sailing at all – had found his voice. His subject, he told the Financial Times, was “human relationships and how people treat one another. That seems to be what novels are for”. In Aubrey and Maturin – one big, bluff and bright-eyed, the other small, dark and mysterious – we see a bifurcated version of O’Brian’s ideal self.

Link to the rest at The Times Literary Supplement

PG doesn’t think the man (or woman) makes the author or the author makes the man (or woman).

There are more than a few geniuses in many different fields who, for one reason or another, made a hash of their family and personal relationships. Typically, PG is willing to meet an artist on the terms the artist includes in the art she/he produces. PG need not feel the artist would make an excellent friend in order to appreciate that person’s skills. Aubrey and Maturin are, for PG, excellently-created characters and their experience are quite engaging.

2 thoughts on “The posthumous reputation of Patrick O’Brian”

  1. The Aubrey/Maturin series (Master and Commander = the first) are terrific books and strongly recommended.

    And even the movie (for a miracle) which combines elements of more than one of the initial books in the series, is quite excellent and well-realized. One of the few good adaptations of a literary work I know.

    For fantasy readers, Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series (which incorporates dragons in the Napoleonic-equivalent wars of Britain) is also quite good. (His Majesty’s Dragons = the first).

    Though these books will appeal to different genre readers, they do make amusing companion sets.

    (Both series are finished and complete.)

  2. I have an old VHS copy of BBC2’s ‘Close Up: Patrick O’Brian, Nothing Persona’ but it seems to be scrubbed from the internet. All attempts to refer people to its e-version have failed. Perhaps someone with sharper skills has found it.

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