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Patrick O'Brian: A Life Revealed

Patrick O'Brian: A Life Revealed

by Dean King

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A revealing and insightful look at one of the modern world’s most acclaimed historical novelists
Patrick O’Brian was well into his seventies when the world fell in love with his greatest creation: the maritime adventures of Royal Navy Captain Jack Aubrey and ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin. But despite his fame, little detail was available


A revealing and insightful look at one of the modern world’s most acclaimed historical novelists
Patrick O’Brian was well into his seventies when the world fell in love with his greatest creation: the maritime adventures of Royal Navy Captain Jack Aubrey and ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin. But despite his fame, little detail was available about the life of the reclusive author, whose mysterious past King uncovers in this groundbreaking biography. King traces O’Brian’s personal history, beginning as a London-born Protestant named Richard Patrick Russ, to his tortured relationship with his first wife and child, to his emergence from World War II with the entirely new identity under which he would publish twenty volumes in the Aubrey–Maturin series. What King unearths is a life no less thrilling than the seafaring world of O’Brian’s imagination.

Editorial Reviews

A 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

Maura Johnston is a freelance writer. She lives on Long Island.

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Patrick O'Brian

A Life

By Dean King


Copyright © 2001 Dean King
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-3833-2


A Top Hat, a Clean Collar, and Clean Boots


THY WIFE SHALL BE as the fruitful vine: upon the walls of thine house. Thy children like the olive-branches; round about thy table.

—Psalm 128

It was once the custom in Germany that a young craftsman who had apprenticed for four years, usually with his father, took to the road to work for and learn from other masters at his craft. He was then a journeyman, and he carried a "wandering book," which the masters inscribed with testimonials and the dates of his service. Before moving on to a new master to serve and learn in another town, the journeyman also acquired the signatures of the burgomaster and police chief and recorded the travel time to his next destination to prove his diligence. After several years on the road, the successful craftsman returned home or to another town where his services were needed and became a master in his own right.

Carl Russ's good friend Carl Müller, a ropemaker seven years his senior, did just that, wandering from the town of Taucha, six miles northeast of Leipzig, in Saxony, all the way down to Bavaria and back. In 1858, at the age of sixteen, Carl, Patrick O'Brian's future grandfather and the second son of a furrier in Taucha, a town of two thousand people, set his sights a bit higher. He had already worked in Leipzig, one of the fur centers of Europe. He now traveled to Paris, and after honing his skills there, he and an older cousin caught a ship bound for Edinburgh in 1862. Carl's father had perhaps urged his son to go abroad, for he had fallen deeply in debt and would soon have to auction off his property.

As family lore has it, after the two cousins disembarked, they were walking along and saw a sixpence lying on the ground. They picked it up. A little farther along, they found a half crown, which they also collected. "There's money in this city," the cousin said to Carl. "I'm staying. You go down to London." Russ dutifully headed south.

In London, the fur capital of the world, he found a burgeoning industry ripe for an ambitious young man. Pelts of every imaginable sort arrived there from around the globe: those of fur seals encrusted in salt, wrote an industry observer, were "moist, dirty, brown and most repulsive objects"; of beaver, "flat and hard as a board"; and of mink and ermine, "frequently inside out; exhibiting a singularly unpleasing appearance." Sold at auctions in Mincing Lane, they were then transformed by the furrier.

By 1869, Russ had settled in Clerkenwell, a workingman's district just northwest of the City, where he Anglicized his given name to Charles (although, for the purposes of this story, I will continue to call him Carl to differentiate him from his oldest son). Once a breezy hillside known for its spas, Clerkenwell had absorbed wave after wave of immigrants after the Napoleonic wars, creating a quagmire of sweatshops and noisome alleys.

The process of converting a "skin" into a "fur" took hours of tedious, often noxious, labor: blubbering, washing, unhairing, leathering, dying, fluffing, and combing, among other things. Only then was the skin called a fur, ready to be matched, styled, and assembled as a garment. A creative and enterprising sort, Russ fared well at his trade, which he knew thoroughly, from the dullest tasks of transforming the foul hide to the most artful: designing a voluptuous garment to sit on the shoulders of a rich woman. At twenty-six, he established his own business, leasing a residence and shop on Northampton Square for ten years at £50 per year.

Russ would do well both in business and family-making. After pledging his loyalty and fidelity to Queen Victoria and to the United Kingdom, he married Emily Callaway, the twenty-two-year-old daughter of a manager of one of London's old-line furriers. By 1876, Emily, a raven-haired beauty with sparkling black eyes, a deep voice, and a curvaceous figure, had given birth to four of the couple's thirteen children: three daughters and a son, Charles, Patrick O'Brian's future father.

Russ set up a shop on New Bond Street, in London's fashionable shopping district, and he quickly made a name for himself as one of the most innovative furriers of his day. By improving dressing and dying techniques, he popularized alternatives to expensive Russian sable. His work won a gold medal at the Paris Exhibition in 1878, and his furs caught the eye of Queen Victoria. But, as his advertisement indicates, he was not too proud to appeal to all women:

[Carl] Russ, court furrier, invites inspection of his Large Assortment of all articles of Fashion in Furs, Embracing all the newest designs in Jackets and Paletots, lined and trimmed fur. Sortie de ball, etc, etc. Specialties. Genuineness of quality and excellence of workmanship at manufacturer's prices. 70 New Bond Street.

"Never have sealskin jackets been so well and so elegantly shaped, and for the first time they fit the figure accurately," the Queen, a women's newspaper, wrote about his furs in 1888. And if sealskin was too expensive, one could try his musquash (muskrat), which resembled seal quite nicely.

Russ was not just good at his trade; unlike his father, he was a shrewd businessman as well. He owned several London properties and shares in four merchant ships: John Redhead, Carl Rahtkens, Fernbrook, and Baron Clyde. He grew rich and moved the family to St. John's Wood, an upper-middle-class neighborhood, where nurses watched children playing in gardens and men in bowler hats commuted into the City on horse-drawn omnibuses. Russ's grand home, Clifton Villa, filled with mahogany and walnut furniture and brass beds, was a monument to success. Thirty-one gilt-framed oil paintings and four watercolors decorated the dining room, which was furnished with a table for twelve, a couch and chairs, a massive mahogany sideboard, and both a Story and Clark organ from the United States and a pianoforte. After dinner, Russ and his male guests retired to the garden and smoked pipes or Egyptian cigarettes of the finest tobacco.

Clifton Villa teemed with children. Nonetheless, Emily, with her piercing eyes and lively manner, always looked the part of an elegant woman from a fine family. She wore gold spectacles, a sable cape, and diamond jewelry. She was unflappable, with a firm but pleasant manner that made the servants prompt and demure.

Carl was a stout, taciturn man, commanding, sometimes stern, but not unkind. His broad face was defined by an imposing beard, close-cropped on his square chin but hanging Poseidonlike from his cheeks. A dense mustache bridged his sidebeards. Naturally, to a man in his field, dress was important. At age sixteen, Fritz Müller, the third son of Russ's boyhood friend Carl Müller, came to stay with the Russes in London, and Carl often admonished the boy, "Never forget, a top hat, a clean collar and clean boots make a gentleman." But Russ had few words for his children, though he was good at providing for them. With Teutonic precision, he saw to it that they were all baptized at St. George's Church in Hanover Square and given accounts at Westminster Bank. The family went to church twice on Sundays, and grace was said before each meal.

This industrious and happy life was tragically interrupted shortly after Emily delivered Walter, her twelfth and next-to-last child, on July 13, 1886. Five months later—on the evening of December 13—a cinder sparked from the fireplace and caught fire to the linen in his crib. Walter burned to death.

Soon thereafter the eight surviving boys were dispatched to Shebbear College, a long-established boarding school in North Devon. Charles, at age eleven, and his younger brothers Emil, Percy, and Sidney (who was just eight years old) left home in 1888. Ernest, Albert, Frederick, and William soon completed the Russ contingent at Shebbear, a school founded by a Low Church group and later affiliated with the Methodist Church. The brothers often remained at school even during holidays.

Boarding school was primarily a privilege of the rich, but conditions at Shebbear did not betray that fact. The boys took to eating their peach pits to stave off hunger, a habit that little Sidney would maintain the rest of his life. When at home, the brothers proved that they had absorbed their Latin lessons, calling their mother "Mater." But they were not coddled at home either. "Pater" would not tolerate idleness or airs in his boys, who were put to work during holidays learning the furrier trade.

In 1891, the Russes' oldest daughter, Emily, married Otto Müller, Carl Müller's second but more enterprising son. Russ, perhaps feeling the stress of his intense career, retired the following year, and it was soon thereafter, during a trip to the Continent with Emily and Charles, that the first signs of his ill health appeared. On November 2, 1893, while Emily was in Germany helping with the birth of her second grandchild, Carl suffered a stroke. He had just finished celebrating his son Emil's sixteenth birthday. Two days later, at the age of fifty-one, Carl died with his son Charles and Fritz Müller by his side.

Emily received a telegram informing her of her husband's death. Charles, who at seventeen became the male head of the family, met her at Victoria station. "What terrible news," she said, with remarkable composure. They took a cab home and ate supper. Then Emily went to the mortuary to see her husband's body, remained there for an hour grieving, and returned to her home as unruffled as when she had arrived from Germany.

Despite Emily's apparent stoicism, the loss of the almighty Russ patriarch shook the family profoundly. Patrick O'Brian's grandfather was said to have been a spiky, brilliant, driven man, intensely private. He had been proud and showy in his newfound wealth but had never forgotten where he came from. These traits would travel farther in his descendants than the small fortune he had amassed. Russ's children inherited a fair amount of money, and his sons were gratefully freed of the expectation of becoming furriers. But they also found themselves without their father's discipline and practical guidance, which would prove financially disastrous for Charles, whom Mater particularly indulged. At one point, for example, Charles was enthralled with photography and owned twenty-three cameras. Charles's extravagant ways and poor business sense would eventually color the lives of his children, particularly the younger ones, like Patrick.

One last sad event needs to be recounted before moving on to the next century and the next generation. Mater had already suffered the strange death of her youngest son. In June 1898, she lost her second daughter, Paulina, under distressing circumstances that would become a haunting fixture in the family lore.

At twenty-four, Lena, as she was called, was purportedly suffering from long-standing acute indigestion, which had led to low spirits. Her doctor recommended sea air, so she and Mater went to a boardinghouse in Cliftonville, on the coast of Kent. Soon Lena seemed to perk up, and Mater relaxed her vigilant watch over her daughter. One rainy, blustery morning, Lena slipped out of the boardinghouse to mail a letter, or so Mater later rationalized when she discovered the girl was gone. In fact, Lena had wandered out to the edge of the forty-foot cliff at Foreness Point, where she sat wild-eyed in the pouring rain.

Upon seeing Lena, a startled walker cautioned her: "It is a silly thing to sit so near the edge of the cliff, especially on such a day as this is; the cliff has been falling away lately and the cliff might go down and you might go with it." Lena made a show of moving back. The man continued on the path down and around the cliff. But when he was below, Lena called out to him, "Please pick up my umbrella!"

The man found the umbrella lying on the rocky beach beneath the bluff and began to climb back up the path with it. But, at a bend, he looked up and saw a ghastly sight: Lena was teetering on the brink of the cliff, her arms raised in front of her, as if she were being beckoned into the precipice. As he raced up the path, he heard a dreadful scream. At another bend, he caught a glimpse of the girl. She was lying on the ground and slowly pushing herself over the ledge.

The man, Mr. Stephen Brown Balcome, a vacationing stockbroker from West Kensington, continued his frustratingly slow ascent. Jogging around a corner, he lost sight of Lena. When he finally arrived at the top, only the wind and rain greeted him. Lena had fallen to the beach below. Panicked, Balcome ran to a nearby restaurant for help. But when they reached Lena, she was barely alive. She died on the way to the hospital.

Charles, then a medical student, rushed to Cliftonville. At the inquest, Mater testified that Lena was happily engaged and that there had been nothing wrong other than the misery of her physical ailment. "The day prior ... [Lena] had been for a long walk by herself and brought home a lot of wild flowers," she recounted. "I think she was getting wild flowers and it being such a wet morning she must have slipped over the cliff." But Balcome told the jury he thought the fall was intentional. Charles countered with pointed questions for Balcome: "To what incident in particular do you attribute your belief that she voluntarily went over the cliff? You did not exactly witness the fall of the body to the sands? Do you think it possible she might have become giddy?"

According to the newspaper, the jury ruled that Lena had "committed suicide whilst temporarily insane." Over the years, family lore would go one better. The story passed down that Lena had been madly in love with a Catholic priest, but she could not persuade him to renounce his priesthood for her.

No matter the reason, Mater was devastated to lose "such a dear girl." Once again, Charles escorted his mother home after a family tragedy.




I AM STRUCK BY THE fact that the more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core, and I think that the same is true of human beings. We do not wish to see children precocious, making great strides in their early years like sprouts, producing a soft and perishable timber, but better if they expand slowly at first, as if contending with difficulties, and so are solidified and perfected. Such trees continue to expand with nearly equal rapidity to an extreme old age.

—Henry David Thoreau, journal, November 5, 1860

That the strength of his understanding, the accuracy of his discernment, and ardour of his curiosity, might have been remarked from his infancy, by a diligent observer, there is no reason to doubt. For, there is no instance of any man, whose history has been minutely related, that did not in every part of life discover the same proportion of intellectual vigour.

—Samuel Johnson, "The Life of Sydenham," 1742

When Britain entered the Great War in August 1914, Emily Russ's two youngest sons, Frederick and William, both decided to serve their country. Frederick, who was still living at home, volunteered for the army. He would fight in the trenches in Belgium. After his second bout of pneumonia, however, the army refused to send him back to the front, so he became a balloonist in the Royal Flying Corps. William, the baby of the family, joined an artillery unit and was stationed outside London, not far from the home of his brother Charles, a medical doctor who commuted into London, and Charles's wife, Jessie, and their seven children. Whenever Willy rode over for a visit, his nephews, eleven-year-old Godfrey, Victor, nine, and Michael, five, raced out to greet him and to lead his horse to the backyard, where it grazed on the Russes' ample lawn.

The house the Russes called Walden lay in a wooded area in rural Buckinghamshire County, halfway between the towns of Chalfont St. Peter and Gerrards Cross. As the house's name would indicate, it was an idyllic place to raise a family. Charles's brother Sidney, also a London medical doctor and scientist, and two servants lived in the big house as well.


Excerpted from Patrick O'Brian by Dean King. Copyright © 2001 Dean King. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Jay Parini
Like many admirers of Patrick O'Brian, I've always wondered about the man behind that remarkable shelf of books—one of the unexpected peaks of modern fiction. Dean King has done a magnificent job here, proving himself an able sleuth, putting real flesh on this immensely gifted, complex—difficult, even—storyteller. This absorbing biography provides all the details one could hope for, and more.
—(Jay Parini, author of John Steinbeck: A Biography and Robert Frost: A Life)
John Bayley
My wife, Iris Murdoch, and I fell in love with Master and Commander and Post Captain as soon as we read them. (This was a rare event for Iris, a famous novelist who hardly ever read modern novels. But she was bewitched by O'Brian.) Dean King's biography reveals in fascinating detail that the private man behind the novels was no less of a magician than the author who created them. This is a truly remarkable book which uncovers the secrets of a professionally secretive man.
—(John Bayley)
Wolcott Jr., Gibbs
Given his subject's passion for self-concealment, Dean King has performed a prodigy of detective research in tracking down the details of Patrick O'Brian's real life. Much more to the point, however, Mr. King has painted a fascinating, compassionate, honest portrait of a complex and difficult man who was also a consummate writer. The Aubrey-Maturin odyssey seems likely to stand among the major achievements of twentieth-century fiction, and Mr. King now makes it possible for readers to properly connect the work and its author.
—(Wolcott Gibbs, Jr., Patrick O'Brian's first editor in the U.S.)

Meet the Author

Dean King is an award-winning and bestselling author of narrative nonfiction and other works on historical and maritime adventure, including A Sea of Words (1995), Harbors and High Seas (1996), and Every Man Will Do His Duty (1997), all companion works to Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturinnovels. A foremost expert on O’Brian, King also published a biography of the acclaimed author, entitled Patrick O’Brian: A Life Revealed (2000). Most recently, King has published the national bestseller Skeletons on the Zahara (2004), about twelve shipwrecked American sailors’ hellish journey across the Sahara Desert, and Unbound (2010), about the women who embarked on Mao’s Long March in 1934. King’s writing has also appeared inGranta, Esquire, Garden & Gun, Men’s Journal, Outside,andthe New York Times.

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