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From Barnes & NobleA Bestselling Author's About-Face
When Patrick O'Brian died last year at the age of 85, he held the honor of being a Commander of the British Empire, this despite the fact that, as a young man, he had been rejected for the British Royal Navy because of poor health. O'Brian's historical novels about the Navy have had such an impact -- three million of his Aubrey-Maturin novels have sold to date -- that he was honored for "a lifetime's contribution to the enjoyment of books."
The man who wrote so openly and evocatively of the Navy and of the relationships between the men who lived and worked together on its boats was fiercely protective of his own life. When O'Brian worked for British intelligence, the maxim "Careless talk costs lives" was posted all around the offices. O'Brian took this idea to heart, making discretion the highest value in the plots of his novels and disseminating false and misleading information about his own past -- most notably, the idea that he was of Irish descent. In Patrick O'Brian: A Life Revealed, author Dean King attempts to sift through the myths and misinformation, the lies and legends that have long surrounded this enigmatic writer.
It is a difficult task. O'Brian declined to cooperate with King and asked those close to him to do likewise. It is perhaps telling that one of the people King thanks most profusely in the book's introduction is O'Brian's son, Richard Russ, who was abandoned by his father at an early age and who took back his father's original surname upon his marriage.
Nevertheless, King has managed to forge a fascinating portrait of a man whose day-to-day existence contrasted sharply with the world found in his books. The books' naval setting was not the only place where a comparison could be drawn; while O'Brian's novels were frequently lauded for the keen eye they cast on relationships between males, the relationships with the men in his own life were frequently strained -- he refused to introduce his father to his son.
One thing is certain about O'Brian's life: He was a man who, from an early age, immersed himself in words. O'Brian wrote his first novel, about a panda-leopard, when he was only 15; his father, who was a specialist in venereal diseases and an inventor, brokered the book deal. By the time he was 16, he was being heralded as the "boy-Thoreau" by some English publications. Much of his early work focused on the relationship between man and beast and was cited by critics for its insightfulness.
In 1936 O'Brian married a woman named Elizabeth Jones, with whom he had two children. Richard was the elder; his younger sister, Jill, suffered from spina bifida and died at the age of three. O'Brian separated from his wife in 1940, and a year later moved in with Mary Tolstoy, who was also married at the time as well. (In a strange twist of irony, she was married to a man who would later write a definitive work on the legal machinations of divorce.) Both were eventually divorced, and in 1945 they married, with Patrick legally changing his surname from Russ to O'Brian.
The O'Brians moved from Wales to France, with Patrick continuing to write; he specialized mainly in translations during the 1960s. In 1967, he signed a contract to write his first historical novel about the Navy -- this book, Master and Commander, would be the first in the series of Aubrey-Maturin novels, which were notable for their vivid characterizations and critical accolades. Though the series was an immediate success in Britain, it would take years before O'Brian's books caught on in the United States. Once they did, O'Brian quickly became a "marquee author" like Michael Crichton or Stephen King.
Despite an occasional -- and perhaps, under the circumstances, unavoidable -- paucity of detail, Patrick O'Brian: A Life Revealed paints a fascinating portrait of a man whose drive for success—and love for the seas—resulted in one of the most successful literary careers of our time.
Maura Johnston is a freelance writer. She lives on Long Island.