Fans of Patrick O'Brian's twenty book Aubrey-Maturin series will find Dean King's “Patrick O'Brian A Life Revealed” a fascinating biography of the author. King's biography is a comprehensive portrait of Patrick O'Brian from his troubled childhood; O'Brian was a sickly child among nine siblings whose mother died when he was three, to his death in 2000. His first novel “Caesar: The Life Story of a Panda Leopard” (1930) published at age 15 contained a foreward written by Patrick's father Charles Russ. Patrick felt this was one of the rare instances of pride and support shown to him by his doctor father, who struggled to support his large family with impractical inventions and arcane medical treatments. “Caesar”was a critical success and O'Brian followed it with other adventure stories published in children's magazines and a second novel in 1938, “Hussein: An Entertainment”.
Rejected by the Royal Navy, probably for health reasons, O'Brian also exited the RAF after a brief period of officer training. He married, and then in 1939 deserted his wife and two children; his daughter was critically ill. O'Brian's wife took refuge with one of Patrick's brothers, further deteriorating already strained relations between the siblings. During World War II O'Brian became a volunteer ambulance driver and met his second wife Mary, Countess Tolstoy Miloslavsky. They married at the end of the war, in 1945, and Patrick changed his surname from Russ to O'Brian. The O'Brians moved to Wales, and later to France where Patrick wrote collections of short stories including "The Last Pool" (1950), and novels “Testimonies” published in England in 1952 as “Three Bear Witness”, “The Catalans” (1953), “The Road to Samarcand” (1955) and “The Golden Ocean”. Written in about six weeks immediately after “The Catalans” although not published until 1956, O'Brian referred to the writing of “The Golden Ocean”, a fictionalized account of Commodore Anson's 1740 voyage, as a guilty pleasure. Finally, at the end of the decade came “The Unknown Shore” (1959), a naval story of mutiny and shipwreck that contains a pair of characters that are perhaps the precursors of O'Brian's best known creations Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin of his twenty book Royal Navy opus set during the Napoleonic wars.
During the 1960s Patrick turned to translating as an additional source of income. O'Brian spoke Italian, French, Spanish, German, Irish and Catalan and had studied Latin and Greek. In addition to translating works from French to English, O'Brian's “Richard Temple” was published in 1961, the last O'Brian novel with a contemporary setting, it may also be an autobiographical work. In 1964 O'Brian's son Richard married after announcing to Patrick and Mary that he was changing his surname back to Russ “for the sake of honesty”. The O'Brians were not invited to Richard's wedding as Patrick's first wife would not attend if he were present, and father and son never spoke again. In 1967 O'Brian was contacted by American publisher J.B. Lippincott Company with a suggestion that he try another naval adventure. The publisher was looking for the next C.S. Forester whose novels would appeal to a wide age range. In September of that year, at age fifty-two, O'Brian signed a contract agreeing to submit a manuscript to Lippincott. “Master and Commander” was published in 1969 and though it was critically well received, some claimed the book suffered in comparison to C.S. Forester's “Hornblower”. O'Brian's next project was the translation from French to English of “Papillon”, a publishing phenomenon of the time, selling 850,000 copies in the first months of release. Over the next two decades O'Brian would write 19 more Napoleanic-era adventures featuring naval captain Jack Aubrey and ship's surgeon and intelligence agent Stephen Maturin, concluding with “Blue at the Mizzen” (1999) – a best seller. In addition to this tremendous output O'Brian wrote two critically acclaimed biographies “Picasso” (1976) and “Joseph Banks” (1987).
There are aspects of O'Brian's life that are not admirable; his desertion of a child with spina bifida, his creation of a fictional biography for himself, claiming to be Irish and college educated, and an arrogant, condescending attitude toward the press, yet O'Brian's life contains much that is inspirational. His knowledge of languages, ornithology, history and his sheer eloquence and erudition are a delight for readers of his novels. O'Brian remained astonishingly productive and achieved literary recognition in the last decades of his life.
This report prepared by Eva Ulett