Patrick O'Brian

The author of the wildly popular 18th century seagoing saga created, out of his own life, a fiction nearly as elaborate.


Patrick O'Brian

When Patrick O’Brian died in Dublin early in the new year, not long after the publication of “Blue at the Mizzen,” many of his readers were not only bereft, but also agog at the possibility that he may have left another novel laid down on the stocks. His avid readership spans oceans, classes and politics, from right to left, from Charlton Heston to Tom Stoppard. The long, discursive saga of Jack Aubrey, the British naval officer and Stephen Maturin, his surgeon-spy companion, takes readers into a fictional universe that covers the globe, yet is usually contracted into the claustrophobic wooden walls of a Royal Navy ship in the war against Napoleon.

O’Brian’s fans declare that his work will live forever, but perhaps the most fascinating reading will be his own life story, which he had crafted as a fiction believed almost to the end by most reviewers and readers. Working as an honored guest at Trinity College, Dublin, for the last two years, he was recently awarded an honorary doctorate as a credit to Irish letters — despite the fact that he’d adopted his name and his nom de plume, Patrick O’Brian, along with his Irishness, with no great claim to either.

O’Brian was born Richard Patrick Russ in Chalfont St. Peter, Buckinghamshire, England, in 1914. His father was a venereologist and his grandfather a German furrier. His birth year, the start of World War I, may have been one reason why he didn’t want to advertise his German ancestry too much — after all, even the British Royal family changed its name from Battenberg to Mountbatten at that time to hide its Teutonic antecedents. The family was prone to feuds, and O’Brian eventually broke off relations with his siblings, as indeed later he did with his own son.

During World War II he left his wife and two children to move in with the wife of Count Dmitri Tolstoy. Both were involved in British secret service activities. At the end of the war he changed his name by deed poll to Patrick O’Brian and married the now ex-countess. They lived first in Wales and then moved to the south of France where for many years he was a diligent, well-reviewed but poorly bought author and translator.

He saved his discursiveness for his books, and his notorious reluctance to give interviews, or at least to give any accurate information in them, broke down only in the last years of his life after his wife died in 1998, which is when his Irish Catholic persona was peeled away by investigating journalists. Far from detracting from his reputation, the mystery of the practical joke he played on decades of reviewers and interviewers is more likely to enhance interest in his life and work.

In a touch worthy of one of his own novels, his now-considerable estate may well go to his stepson Count Nikolai Tolsoy. Unless he took precautions, and deeded his estate to Tolstoy’s stepchildren, then over $2 million of it would go to pay a libel suit incurred when Tolstoy accused a British officer of sending Russian and Yugoslav prisoners to their certain execution by the Communists at the end of World War II.

O’Brian’s involvement with the sea began in the 1950s when he worked on “The Golden Voyage,” a story based on the 18th century circumnavigation of the world by Capt. Anson. He discovered a rich vein of material that could be mined for fiction. In the late ’60s an American editor suggested the maritime theme for what became the Aubrey/Maturin series of which the first volume, “Master and Commander,” was published in 1969 when O’Brian was 54.

For most O’Brian fans, it’s probably heretical to suggest it, but a recently created vacancy may have inspired his editor. C.S. Forester, creator of Capt. Horatio Hornblower, had died in California in 1966. After reading all the available O’Brians, I returned to the Hornblowers of my youth and discovered two things. First, they were very good in their own right, and second, Jack Aubrey was a sort of anti-Hornblower, as if O’Brian had assiduously tried to differentiate his character totally from any accusations of sequelling or plagiarizing his predecessor.

Hornblower was haunted with self-doubt, totally tone deaf, Spartan and solitary in his habits, but with sharp intellect. Aubrey, with some time out for introspection, as in the last book, is a sybaritic, convivial soul whose love for music has him and Maturin scraping away at their violins in the Captain’s cabin. And far from the ship’s biscuit and salt meats of Hornblower, there are so many descriptions of menus in the Aubrey/Maturin series that there’s a spinoff cook book.

However, while Forester knew how to sail, O’Brian’s specialty was sailing in late 18th century English, redolent with archaisms and technical arcanae. In fact, he admitted to one interviewer that he occasionally made some of it up, but for most of us who couldn’t tell a futtock shroud from a gudgeon, it would be impossible to tell. His other big step forward was to double the attraction by having two lead figures, of contrasting but complementary personalities.

O’Brian transposes Hornblower’s icy intellect into the brooding Stephen Maturin, half Irish and half Catalan. A Catholic in a Protestant navy, he is prepared to leave the plight of Ireland on the back burner until the main threat to freedom, Napoleon, is dealt with. The two are then launched on their career of mayhem to the king’s enemies, and equally important, the infighting, disappointments and rewards of a naval officer seeking the financial and social rewards of promotion. He makes it plain that the navy was a highly qualified meritocracy. You could get promoted on merit and were unlikely to get too far without it, but it always helped to have patronage on your side. It is this attention to the minutiae of social life and family responsibilities that invited reviewers to make comparisons with Anthony Trollope, or if they really wanted to please O’Brian, with Jane Austen.

Like Hornblower before him, Aubrey and his career were modeled on several colorful characters, although Thomas Cochrane, who later went on, in disgrace from the Royal Navy, to head the Chilean navy, is clearly a major inspiration. And Chile is, of course, where Aubrey finds himself in the final book of the series, answering the nagging doubts of all those fans who wondered what would happen to their heroes when Napoleon was finally gone.

Historical fiction is often unfairly relegated to a genre niche, and O’Brian’s series was appreciated by only a small coterie until Norton rediscovered him 20 years after he had begun it and reissued the earlier books under heavy pressure from readers. It was only then that, in his 70s, he began to get the critical recognition and royalty checks that he so clearly appreciated, no matter how belated.

For anyone who wants to start the series, it is perhaps even more essential than usual to begin at the beginning. Each book is clearly a chapter in a much longer work, in which the characters and situations are built up from the beginning. Some readers might find the leisurely pace — Jane Austen on the quarterdeck — difficult to get into, but once they have, the never-tedious attention to detail and his wry humor will carry them along.

There is indeed a great deal of hyperbole from his readers, who at times can have the fervor of Trekkies at a sci-fi convention. But once you are caught up in the rhythm of what is now, effectively, an unfinished 20-volume picaresque novel, O’Brian is almost as good as his fans say he is.

Ian Williams' book "Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776" is due in late August 2005 from Nation Books. His last book was "Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Own Past."

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.


    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."


    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>