Patrick O'Brian

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The definitive biography of the revered author of the Aubrey/Maturin novels.

To many, Patrick O'Brian was the greatest British novelist of the twentieth century. The fifteen volumes of the series set in the Royal Navy of the early nineteenth century and featuring Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin have been hailed as "the best historical novels ever written." They have ...
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Overview

The definitive biography of the revered author of the Aubrey/Maturin novels.

To many, Patrick O'Brian was the greatest British novelist of the twentieth century. The fifteen volumes of the series set in the Royal Navy of the early nineteenth century and featuring Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin have been hailed as "the best historical novels ever written." They have sold in their millions throughout the world.

Nikolai Tolstoy knew O'Brian better than any other person. His acquaintanceship with him lasted forty-five years, during most of O'Brian's marriage to Mary Tolstoy, Nikolai's mother. Tolstoy stayed with the couple regularly at their French home and was a frequent correspondent with the reclusive and secretive author, discovering the facets of his character and creativity that he showed to no one else.

Benefiting from Tolstoy's exclusive access to letters, notebooks and photographs belonging to the novelist, the biography sheds a fascinating light on the life of the great writer, providing unparalleled insight into O'Brian's enigmatic personality and creative genius.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780712670258
  • Publisher: Random House UK
  • Publication date: 5/25/2004
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.05 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Nikolai Tolstoy is a highly recognized and acclaimed historian and biographer. He was the sole beneficiary of his stepfather’s will and is one of the trustees of O’Brian’s estate.
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First Chapter

CHAPTER ONE: Embarkation

My mother groan'd, my father wept,
Into the dangerous world I leapt;
Helpless, naked, piping loud,
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.
(William Blake, 'Infant Sorrow')

For much of his life Patrick O'Brian was widely reputed to be of Irish ancestry and brought up and educated in that country. In fact he was born and educated in England, possessed not a drop of Irish blood, did not visit Ireland before his early twenties, and assumed the surname O'Brian by deed poll in 1945. It was not until October 1998 that anyone, beyond a diminishing circle of close relatives and friends old enough to have known him before his transformation, became aware of the fact that this aspect of his persona represented a fiction as imaginative as anything found in his novels. In that year, however, his innocuous pretence was exposed to worldwide publicity and strangely ill-informed comment.

Patrick's paternal ancestry was in reality German. His grandfather, Karl Russ, was born in 1842 at Braudis, near Leipzig in Saxony. According to family tradition the family had migrated some generations earlier from Eastern Europe, which may account for their surname, Russe being German for 'Russian'. For several generations the family had conducted business as furriers. Young Karl possessed an adventurous spirit, and after completing his apprenticeship travelled to Belgium and France, before eventually settling in Britain in 1862. After working for a number of City firms, he followed the family tradition by setting himself up as a furrier. His industry and enterprise made business so profitable that in 1874 he was able to buy a shop in the West End,at 70 New Bond Street, where the fine quality of his garments swiftly attracted the custom of the fashionable world. Four years later he was awarded a Gold Medal at the Paris Exhibition, and before long amassed a considerable fortune.

In 1870 Karl had become a naturalised British subject, anglicising his name to Charles, and two years later married a charming twenty-two-year-old girl, Emily Callaway. He bought and furnished lavishly a large house in St John's Wood, and became a characteristic figure of solid Victorian prosperity and respectability. His wife fulfilled another familiar aspect of Victorian upper middle-class life, bearing him thirteen children during the fourteen years which followed their marriage, the last of whom sadly died five months after his birth.

Two more died in tragic circumstances, while the eldest daughter Emily returned to Germany, where she married and settled down. In 1893, while his wife was staying with Emily to assist with the birth of her first child, Karl Russ died at the age of fifty-one. His health had been deteriorating for three years, and it became necessary to sell the business.

The head of the family was now Patrick's father Charles, his father's eldest son, who was only seventeen at the time of the bereavement. In common with many of their more enterprising compatriots, the Russ family had by now become effortlessly absorbed into middle-class English society. There being nothing particularly Teutonic about 'Russ', it had not even been thought expedient (as with many other immigrant families) for Karl Russ or his sons to anglicise their surname. This attitude was confirmed by the family's immunity from the hysterical outburst of Germanophobia which erupted in Britain at the outset of the Great War, when patriotic citizens expressed defiance of the enemy by flinging stones at dachshunds in the streets. In February 1917, as the British army prepared for its bloody assault at Arras, a schoolfriend presented Patrick's elder brother Victor with an instructive work entitled 'The History of the Hun'. Clearly it did not occur to either that a Russ could be anything but a patriotic Briton.

Karl Russ's eight sons had been educated at a reputable minor public school, Shebbear College in North Devon, to which his son Charles in turn sent two of Patrick's elder brothers. One of the major purposes of the English public school system as it evolved in Queen Victoria's reign was to produce a homogeneous class of gentlemanly administrators, qualified by classical education, probity of character, and physical prowess to administer a burgeoning economy and ever-expanding Empire. While this system was by nature highly élitist, within its enclosed and unselfconscious world distinctions of class and wealth were largely eschewed as 'bad form', and respect was primarily gained by status within the school hierarchy, above all through prowess on the playing-field.

There was consequently nothing in Patrick's family background to provide him with rational cause for embarrassment. Nor is there any reason to suppose that self-consciousness over his German ancestry played any part in his dramatic decision years later to sever himself from his roots. None of his brothers and sisters is recorded as having suffered any disquiet on this score: on the contrary, his inexplicable decision to abjure the family name provoked surprise and offence. They were justifiably proud of their grandfather's remarkable achievement, and Patrick's elder brothers Victor and Bernard were at pains to ensure that his grave in the family vault at Hampstead Cemetery was kept in good repair.

Both Charles Russ and his younger brother Sidney used their inheritance to put themselves through medical school. Of the two, it was Sidney who prospered. Before obtaining his doctorate in physics in 1909, he spent his early postgraduate years as a demonstrator in Manchester, where he studied under Lord Rutherford. He also worked with Röntgen in Germany, and returned to England to become a pioneer in understanding of radioactive material. In due course he was appointed Emeritus Professor of Physics at Middlesex Hospital Medical School, received numerous prestigious acknowledgements of his outstanding authority in his field, and was author of a number of scholarly books. He collaborated with medical colleagues in pursuing research on the effects of radiation on human tissues, specialising principally in the treatment of cancer. For his achievement in the field of radium work he was awarded the CBE in 1931. Many years later Patrick, who admired his uncle's achievements, received the same honour from the King's granddaughter.

Though he too was endowed with considerable talent and energy, Sidney's elder brother Charles was to prove erratic — not to say eccentric — in his scientific pursuits and achievements. Ultimately his career would prove a failure — as the evidence suggests, an embittered one — but all that lay in the future.

Charles married in 1902, a year before he qualified at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington. His bride, Jessie Goddard, was accounted by all who knew her a beautiful, intelligent, and sweet-natured girl. He was thirty-six and she twenty-four, an age difference by no means unusual for married couples at the time. Their marriage appears to have been one of unalloyed happiness. Jessie came of good family, but suffered the misfortune of being orphaned in childhood and brought up in fosterage. However she was well educated and a gifted painter. Patrick's brother Victor understood that his mother had been a fashion artist before her marriage.

Jessie bore her uxorious husband nine children in fifteen years. After living for some time in successive London homes, in 1908 Charles established his growing family in a handsome country house situated in what was then an unspoiled rural backwater in the valley of the little River Misbourn, between Chalfont St Peter and Gerrards Cross in south-east Buckinghamshire. Its extensive grounds and fine trees had led a previous owner to name it 'Walden', after Thoreau's famous wilderness retreat. The interior of the house reflected much of the splendour of grandfather Karl's house in St John's Wood, with ponderous family furniture, portraits, and silver laid out in lavish display.

It was an idyllic spot for young children to grow up, and the young Russes were fortunate in being numerous enough to organise their own complex and imaginative games in the grounds. The oldest was Godfrey, who was born just over nine months after his parents' marriage. Next came Victor, followed by their first daughter Olive. In 1909 a third son Michael arrived, who was succeeded in the following year by twin daughters Nora and Connie, and a further son Bernard in 1912. Patrick, the subject of this biography, was born at the end of the momentous year 1914. Christened Richard Patrick, he was known throughout his life as Patrick.

For the ever-increasing tribe of young Russ children, Walden was a self-sufficient magical world. Each child was known by a nickname. Some were customary abbreviations such as 'Olly' for Olive or 'Mike' for Michael, while others were more arcane. Godfrey was known as 'Roguey', Victor as 'Bew', Nora as 'Bish' (supposedly from a preference for using her bishop at chess), while Bernard was 'Bun' - a diminutive by which Patrick knew him throughout his life. Little Patrick became simply 'Pat'.

The atmosphere at Walden was overwhelmingly secure and happy. Uncle Sidney, who joined the family as a permanent resident, was popular with the children, in whose games he frequently joined. Jessie Russ was devoted to her family. An active gardener, she also retained her skill and enthusiasm for painting. Bernard later recalled how 'Mother loved gardening, and I remember her setting up her easel on the lawn and creating lovely watercolours of her beloved flowers', while Victor 'remembered her painting a flower picture for their Fathers birthday . . . [he] attributed his love of gardening to his Mothers influence'. Jessie Russ was always present as a focus of comfort and security to her youthful tribe, as they tirelessly romped around the house and its spacious grounds.

During the week the children saw little of their father, who travelled each day with his brother from nearby Denham railway station to his work in London. From 1906 until 1912 he worked as senior assistant at the Clinical Laboratory of Pathology and Public Health in Queen Anne Street off Cavendish Square, under the direction of a distinguished pathologist, Dr Thomas Eastes. In 1907 Eastes moved his laboratory to 38 New Cavendish Street. It was probably because he devoted excessive time to his own absorbing researches that Dr Russ was eventually discharged by his employer. Always intensely independent, he appears to have been gratified at setting up on his own, and promptly established himself in private practice nearby in Marylebone at 25 Beaumont Street. Dr Eastes claimed that the proximity violated a restrictive clause in their covenant. A bitter legal action ensued, which went before the Court of Appeal before being resolved in Charles's favour. Although he was later to become an irascible character, at the time he had a sunny and equable nature, and was in any case adjudged to have acted perfectly properly.

Despite this, his career as general practitioner was never very successful or remunerative, and he spent most of his time absorbed in researches in a laboratory he established on the premises. Although he published discoveries which received considerable acclaim at the time, his standing within the medical profession may already have become somewhat equivocal. At any rate when in 1915 he applied to work as a volunteer in the X-ray section (then known as the Electrical Department) at the Middlesex Hospital, the Medical Sub-Committee agreed to accept his services, but he was unable subsequently to obtain a paid post as assistant in the Department.
None of this meant anything to his young offspring, in whose eyes he enjoyed that semi-omnipotent status which young children normally accord their fathers. His eternal inventiveness and enthusiasm for every venture he pursued were qualities particularly appealing to children. To these were added the material advantage of an imposing physical presence. Well over six feet tall, he was a strikingly handsome figure of a man. Throughout the years of his marriage to Jessie he proved an affectionate and energetic father, who inspired and participated in his children's activities, especially those of the boys.

Bernard recalled how, 'when we were sick, Daddy would always come home with little extra presents for us, hidden in his medical bag. It made being ill almost worthwhile! I remember one day watching from the window when he arrived. He had bought us a little tricycle! Solemnly, this great, jolly, 6'4H" giant put down his bag, mounted the little machine, and carefully pedalled his way up the drive, much to our delight.'

Among Charles Russ's multifarious enthusiasms was a delight in motoring. Initially he bought a motorcycle with sidecar, in which he would take Jessie for picnics in the surrounding countryside. His enthusiasm for all things mechanical was matched only by their propensity to go wrong. Victor remembered how he and Godfrey were regularly employed to hand their father his tools, sometimes in bitterly cold weather, while he tinkered away at the works of his motor bicycle. From this he graduated to buying a Wolseley motor car known to the family as the 'Globe', a magnificent machine with great brass carriage lamps on each side of the windscreen, which Bernard remembered as 'large enough to take the entire family, which was more like a charabanc or bus than a motor vehicle, for party purposes'. Unfortunately their father could not resist attempting to repair the car himself, generally with unhappy consequences.

So long as he possessed means to indulge his hobby, Charles Russ found it all but impossible to avoid the temptation of a new car. Victor's diary for 1919 shows that Charles added a Morgan, a three-wheeler, to the 'Globe'. The Morgan provided an exciting challenge, but since Charles was a giant and Jessie fairly diminutive as often as not the car tipped over when taking corners at speed. By good fortune no one suffered injury, and on the frequent occasion of a breakdown Jessie would sit good-naturedly watching her husband feverishly wrestling away beneath the vehicle's hood.
Patrick was too young to participate in these adventures. He was born on 12 December 1914, the penultimate child in a succession of nine brothers and sisters. His brother Bun, at the time nearly three years old, remembered his appearance in the world.

Patrick arrived when I was about three, the last of the children to be born at 'Walden'. I recall being with Mother in the big upstairs back bedroom before the event and clutching hard to her hand as a huge and noisy bird flew right over the house — the first aeroplane I had ever seen. Afterwards, allowed back into the room, I duly inspected my new brother and was put to work crawling about on the floor, smoothing out large sheets of brown paper. My infant mind led me to believe that these were the wrappings for the new baby, although I could not for the life of me understand why such a large parcel was to be made out of such a small infant!

It was an appropriately dramatic moment for Patrick's arrival in the world. That summer Britain had been precipitated into the bloodiest and hardest-fought war in her history.

On 2 August the British Government warned Germany that she would stand by her guarantee to uphold Belgian neutrality. When Germany declined to back down and declared war on Britain's ally France the next day, Britain lost no time in declaring war on Germany on 4 August. As German divisions poured across the Belgian frontier, public opinion was solidly united behind the Liberal Government, accepting that national honour required the country to fulfil its commitment to protect plucky little Belgium.

By Christmas it had become clear to the general staffs of all belligerent countries that a bitter struggle of uncertain duration lay ahead. So far as the Russ family was concerned, however, the terrible conflict had little if any material effect on their lives. The family's German origin was an ancestral memory, and they followed with patriotic enthusiasm newspaper accounts of the gallantry with which the British army was fighting the hated Huns and Turks, and shared public confidence that, however hard and long the struggle, the British Empire would emerge triumphant.
As a medical practitioner Charles was exempt from military service, and was troubled on occasion by patriotic women who presented him with white feathers in the streets. Bun assumed that he was of a pacifist inclination, but one wonders whether he was reluctant to fight against his father's compatriots, who included cousins still living in Germany. On the other hand Bun remembered the excitement when their Uncle William called at Walden on leave from his artillery regiment at the Front. He 'came riding by on his cavalry mount and Mike was allowed to hold the reins while the horse cropped the back lawn and I remember sitting with Mother in the dining-room, having a feast of bread and blackcurrant jam.'

As the conflict ground to a bloody impasse, dramatic new methods of waging war emerged, ranging from the mass deployment of submarines, aeroplanes, long-range heavy artillery, and high explosive shells, to tanks, motorised transport, machine-guns, poison gas, barbed wire and wireless telegraphy.

In the autumn of 1916 the Russ children had a dramatic glimpse of one of these novel aspects of the conflict. At the beginning of the previous year the Germans had launched a succession of alarmingly successful bombing raids on England, sending giant Zeppelins cruising silently through the night sky to drop bombs with lethal effect on towns as far inland as Shrewsbury. London was the prime target, suffering severe fire damage and numerous fatalities. Damaging as this was, it not unnaturally provoked disproportionate alarm in a country which had had no direct experience of warfare since the Dutch invasion of 1688. The fear excited by these raids was greatly exacerbated by the relative impunity with which the airships survived attacks by anti-aircraft fire and British aeroplanes.

On 2 September 1916 London was attacked by a fleet of fourteen Zeppelins. Though they were lit up by searchlights and fired upon from below, anti-aircraft shells exploded and tracer bullets passed by them without effect. It seemed they would return to Germany without loss, when RFC pilot Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson, flying his BE2 C fighter on anti-Zeppelin patrol, came upon a Schutte-Lanz SL11 airship at 11,500 feet over north-east London. Approaching within 500 feet of the monster, he raked it with machine-gun fire, but without effect. By now the airships had moved out of range of searchlights and anti-aircraft fire, and Robinson circled in a third time to attack the SL11 from below. He had barely finished firing one drum of his machine-gun when the rear of the airship burst into flame. As he swiftly took evasive action, the Zeppelin burst into a gigantic ball of fire which illuminated the countryside around and was watched by the population of London. For this feat Lieutenant Robinson received the VC, and though German air raids continued until the last summer of the war from this time onwards their airships suffered increasing losses.

The wreckage came down near Cuffley in Hertfordshire. This was some twenty miles from the Russ family home, but the terrific blaze was clearly visible on the skyline. Two or three days later the family drove over to join crowds flocking to view the scene of the catastrophe. The wreckage was cordoned off; still, the children were greatly excited at receiving small fragments of aluminium tied with red, white, and blue ribbons, which were sold by the Red Cross to raise money for the war effort.

In old age Bernard published a memoir for the family's benefit, which includes these memories of life at Walden. However, as he was only five when the family left the house, they constitute a succession of lively flashbacks rather than a coherent whole. A more immediate glimpse of life as it appeared to the children at the time survives in the form of a schoolboy diary kept by his elder brother Victor during the first months of 1917.

Victor was born on 2 January 1905, and the journal begins with his twelfth birthday party: 'I had six presents, and cake . . . we had cards, musical bumps, and Keeping up the Zeppelin' - a topical game presumably involving preventing a balloon from touching the ground. During the Christmas festive season there was a magic lantern show, a family outing to see a pantomime of 'Cinderella' at the London Opera House, the erection of a snowman on the front lawn, and skating on a local pond. There was no dearth of amusements in that pre-television age. Brothers and sisters joined with enthusiasm in games of 'doctors', 'grocers', and 'spies'. Everyone collected stamps, and with his Meccano set Victor constructed a model clutch, an extending ladder on wheels, and a motor van. Lead soldiers garrisoned a fort and paraded about the playroom floor, while a fine electric train ran around its perimeter. This appealed to the inventive Dr Russ, who could regularly be found stretched out on the floor, as he toiled away at the box containing the engine's accumulator and rectifier, adjusted the track's points, or mounted the rails on boards.

Sadly the Russ family's lavish lifestyle at Walden was to come to an end before Patrick was old enough to enjoy the pleasures the fine house and garden afforded his elder brothers and sisters. At the end of 1916 Charles Russ withdrew his two oldest sons Godfrey and Victor from their boarding-school, Dean Close School, near Cheltenham. Bun recalled long afterwards: 'The incumbent Headmaster, father of the well-known poet James Elroy Flecker, was apprehended and charged with shoplifting. He had stolen a can of sardines!' It seems likely that this foolish scandal was seized upon by their father as a pretext for his removal of the boys from school. In reality his extravagant lifestyle was beginning to take its toll on the family's finances.

Next year his brother Sidney ('Uncle Beaney') married, and departed to set up his own home. If, as seems likely, he was part-owner of the house, this may account for Charles's sale of Walden that year and move to a considerably more modest house in Harrow.

It was unfortunate that Charles, accustomed to the opulence of his father's household, had found himself unexpectedly obliged to assume responsibility for his financial affairs at the age of seventeen. Though Karl Russ had been a wealthy man, his children came into a considerably reduced inheritance. Their father bequeathed half his fortune to his widow, while the remainder was divided between ten brothers and sisters. Accustomed to self-indulgence, and with his impractical and over-sanguine nature, Charles was to spend much of his life lurching from one financial crisis to another.

An unwitting indication of his declining fortune is provided by an entry in Victor's diary for St Valentine's Day 1917. 'The man who gave Daddy a dozen eggs at Wycombe on Sunday 28th of January, gave Mummy a chicken and another dozen eggs . . . Daddy had the chicken for supper.' Dr Russ's medical practice had been in decline for some time, and increasingly he found himself obliged to accept payment in kind from his less affluent patients. On 11 March Victor further innocently noted: 'Daddy and Rogue [Godfrey] went to Willesden in the Morgan to see one of his patients, and he gave Daddy t[w]o bottles of wine.'

On 26 January appears the ominous record: 'Daddy came home after dinner and Mr and Mrs Taylor came to look over the house.' By the second week of February packing cases arrived, 'Daddy took up the carpets in the Drawing Room and the linoleum and also the carpet and underfelt in the study', and 'I packed my soldiers in my tuck box'. The house and even garden were stripped of virtually everything that was removable. All the electric fittings were transferred to their new home, so that packing had to be conducted by the light of candles and paraffin lamps. That Jessie's beloved bulbs and other plants were raised and potted for transferral to their new garden was understandable, but the dismantling and removal of a summer house (nicknamed 'Boodle') appears a little excessive.

The melancholy time for departure from the family's beloved Walden finally arrived on 22 February 1917. That day Victor recorded in his diary: 'We moved to 10 College Road, Harrow. There were three vans and they did not take all the things. Daddy, Rogue and I took down curtain rings. We had dinner in the nursery. Mummy, Pat & Daddy went in the Morgan, the rest of us by train.'
It was his task to take up his mother's plants and replant them in their modest new setting, for which he was paid a welcome two shillings. Meanwhile Charles and the boys laboured at putting up curtains, laying linoleum and carpets, and installing the electricity. On St David's Day Jessie took her two youngest boys, Bernard and Patrick, to visit their paternal grandmother who lived conveniently nearby at 60 Lowlands Road. While their new home at Harrow bore no comparison with the splendours of Walden, some compensation for Charles Russ lay in its greater proximity to his elderly mother's home and his London laboratory. In those days Harrow was situated in a pleasantly rural landscape, its hill dominated by the impressive buildings of the celebrated public school attended by Lord Byron and Winston Churchill.

On 16 January Victor had recorded: 'We began doing lessons with Mummy, Roguey, Victor, Olive, Michael, Con., Nora, because Dean Close School began then.' This was presumably to compensate for the fact that Godfrey and Victor had been withdrawn from the school, while none of the others had begun their education. How capable a teacher Mrs Russ might have proved was never discovered, since from that day onwards there is no record of the experiment's being repeated. However great her enthusiasm, she must at once have discovered the impossibility of attempting to teach a group of children whose age and knowledge ranged from those of two well-educated public schoolboys to the six-year-old twins Connie and Nora. That Jessie and her husband even contemplated the project suggests considerable naïvety, and helps to explain much that went wrong with the family in ensuing years. Significantly, while Charles Russ found ample time to drive about the countryside in his smart Morgan, visit friends, and attend the theatre with his wife in London, he evidently saw no pressing need to arrange the continuation of his two eldest sons' education.

It was not until the autumn that Godfrey and Victor resumed their schooling, almost a year after leaving Dean Close, and Michael (aged eight) joined them in April 1918. As Bun explained: 'The three older boys were . . . away at day school — the John Lyon School for Boys, founded by Elizabeth I, and next door to the great Harrow school at the top of the Hill. They all had bikes, Godfrey even having saved for one of the new Sturmey-Archer Three Speeds, and were free to come and go as they pleased, but for the rest of us it was a different story.'

The children took their move for granted, and do not appear greatly to have missed Walden. Their number had been increased by the withdrawal of Godfrey and Victor from boarding-school, and the novelty of the situation provided its own appeal. The girls went shopping with their mother in London and joined her on visits to their grandmother. There were outings to the cinema and happy hours watching trains go by. Once Victor recorded a noteworthy occasion when he and Godfrey devoted themselves to counting 'the people passing our gate between 5.45 pm and 6.30 pm'.
At this time Patrick was still the baby of the family. On a blank page of Victor's diary for 1917 one of the children drew a charming little pencil sketch of him. He was a sickly child, and long afterwards recalled suffering from regular bouts of an unspecified ailment which confined him to bed for prolonged periods. In 1987 his brother Bernard wrote: 'Nora and I noted that it was Pat's birthday — his 73rd — on Saturday, 12th December. It is amazing to think that he has survived so long, considering his frail health and weak chest, bronchitis etc. in early life.' When Patrick as a young man came to write his novel Hussein, his description of the effects of cholera upon the hero reads much as if it reflects bitter experience: 'He lay on a string bed, his body distorted with the furious pain; it wracked him so that he could scarcely breathe the heavy air that seemed to weigh down on him like a stifling blanket.'

The decline in the material fortunes of the Russ family does not appear to have affected Charles's good spirits for the first year of their move to Harrow. As before, he frequently took Jessie and the children for drives in the Morgan, Kew Gardens being a regular destination in consideration of Jessie's great interest in flowers and gardening. Victor noted that 'Daddy took Michael and me to Wandsworth 3rd London Hospital', where he presumably worked in addition to the Middlesex Hospital. Before long little Pat was allowed to join in these family jaunts.

At home Charles busied himself cheerfully about the house and garden, engaging the assistance of Godfrey and Victor, who received modest but welcome payment for their labours. As at Walden, he applied himself to the children's train set. 'Daddy came home early and made the electric engine go with the accumulators and he began to charge them,' Victor recorded contentedly. 'We had supper in the Nursery because the electric railway was in the dining-room. Daddy brought home Rum & Wine' — probably further payment in kind from one of his diminishing band of patients. Other entries confirm that there had been no diminution in the treats which brightened their lives. 'Daddy came home after tea and put up the electric railway, and tried to make the engine go from the mains. Daddy gave Rogue and I a slab of Hume's Nut Milk Chocolate each.'

Meanwhile across the Channel the war pursued its relentless course, with the prospect of victory apparently no nearer in sight. The older children daily scanned with avidity maps published in the newspapers of the fluctuating front lines, and shortly after their arrival at Harrow Victor recorded in his diary two exciting events occurring on the same day: 'I went for a ride on our new bike. British troops in Mesopotamia capture Bagdad.' A few days later, on St Patrick's Day 1917, Victor and Olive patriotically spent a penny on Irish flags to wear in honour of the Irish regiments (all of whose men were volunteers) fighting gallantly on the Western Front.

The struggle was to drag on for another year and a half of unrelenting carnage and destruction: 1917 merged into 1918, with hopes of victory seemingly ever diminishing. In March 1918 Lenin signed a peace treaty with Germany at Brest-Litovsk, which surrendered the richest regions of European Russia to the enemy. Not only was Germany now in possession of untold material resources with which to prosecute the war, but she was free to concentrate all her forces on the Western Front. Millions had died and were yet to die, and the lives of innumerable survivors would be irretrievably scarred by the slaughter.

Although the tragedy which struck the Russ family early that spring had no connection with the war, it was no less uniquely terrible in its effect. A month after the birth of her youngest child Joan in July 1917 in their home in Harrow, Jessie Russ had to undergo a severe operation for an abdominal ailment. It appears that she was suffering from cancer, but whether the surgery proved unsuccessful or she experienced a fresh attack remains unclear. Whatever the cause, she died quite suddenly on 30 March 1918 at the age of forty-one. The effect of the loss was devastating on the entire family, above all on her unhappy husband.

Until the end of his days Bun could not rid himself of the memory of that dreadful day.

When she was about to die, Dad and I think Uncle Sidney or Beany, as we called him and whoever was the attending physician were gathered around her bed and each of the children was brought in and lifted up to kiss Mother goodbye although we did not know it at the time, she was on the verge of death, I believe by cancer. But I do remember that when the funeral occurred, I strolled upstairs and went to look in her bedroom and to my horror saw it empty and little blue candle flames on each corner of the wire mattress. It was a horrifying sight for a youngster and I shall never forget it. Of course somebody should have locked the door, but that is what happened. I also remember the night she died, the lady we called Aunty Mason and Godfrey called Hauntie Mason, a great friend and companion of our Mother, came to our bedsides weeping and hugging us and having to tell us that she had indeed left this earth. I remember her as a sweet and lovely presence. I cannot remember any[thing] unpleasant or unkind about her.

Patrick is unlikely to have remembered anything of the spacious glories of Walden, which he had left two months after his third birthday, so 10 College Road, Harrow was the first home of which he would retain any distinct recollection. Though he was just three when his mother died, the gulf which suddenly opened up before him became entrenched in his consciousness as an unbearably painful memory, and exerted an ineradicable effect upon him for the remainder of his life.
At the time he appears to have suffered from a confused mélange of emotions, being too small to understand the reality of what was happening around him. In his novel The Catalans, written in 1952, Patrick placed these words in the mouth of Xavier (an unmistakable self-portrait):
When I was a really small boy I loved my stepmother . . . I loved her, and I thought about things for her and how when I grew up I would do this, that, and the other to give her pleasure: and when they took her away I was so desolate - desolate. But even then, at its tenderest, my power of affection must have been of a feeble growth, for when they told me that she had died . . . I was more concerned with acting, tasting the importance of tragedy, than with genuine regret. Yet it is unfair to say that: I was only a very little boy . . . a year is such a long period in a child's life.

This passage occurs in a lengthy confession recounted by Xavier to his cousin Alain, the overall burden of which is his anguished realisation that he believes himself to have lost since childhood the capacity to feel emotional concern for a fellow being. Since there is no doubt that Patrick retained from infancy an irreparable sense of loss at his mother's death, it is hard not to believe that his tendency to excessive self-analysis gradually induced an irrational sense of being found wanting at the moment of crisis, when he experienced a covert sensation of importance on finding himself at the centre of a tragedy, which increased his innate fear that he lacked natural affection. Both Dickens (in David Copperfield) and Tolstoy (in Childhood, written from personal experience) vividly describe the manner in which children experience sensations of egoism embarrassingly obtruding themselves into occasions of profound grief. The two great writers appreciated the extent to which this seemingly incongruous self-regard may come to haunt those who experience it in early childhood.

Unlike the gregarious and self-confident Dickens and Tolstoy, both of whom were fortunate in enjoying a happy childhood, Patrick was an exceptionally introverted and isolated boy. Combined mischances of character and circumstances led him to confuse a natural childish weakness with reprehensible lack of humanity, and a conviction instilled at so tender an age that he had been insufficiently affected by his mother's death added to the guilt, self-doubt, and vulnerability which assailed him throughout his life.

Jessie's death left her bereaved husband all but incapacitated by grief. His daughter Connie recalled 'how fond of his wife Charles Russ was, constantly following her about'. However, Connie was very critical of all the pregnancies her mother had. Victor believed that his father was reduced to such a state of distress that he was unable to work for three years. Although this was broadly true of his medical practice, which had been in serious decline for some time before his wife's death, he now took to absenting himself for the greater part of each week from a home which bore such painful associations in order to immerse himself in his clinical researches.

In the previous year Charles Russ had begun working at the Male Lock Hospital, at 91 Dean Street in Soho. (Whether he continued his voluntary employment at the X-ray department at the Middlesex Hospital is unknown.) The Male Lock specialised in treatment of venereal diseases, which by the time of his arrival there in 1917 had reached epidemic proportions following the catastrophic breakdown in moral standards brought about by the Great War. It is not hard to picture the unhappy widower seeking to alleviate his desolation during his daily round at the hospital and in private researches in his Beaumont Street laboratory, only to become plunged again into painful memories during brief weekend visits to his home and family.
In later life his youngest daughter Joan jotted down this brief reflection on her life.

In 1917 I was born on what may have been a sunny day, July 10th. I know not. Three weeks later Mother was dead, and I, the youngest of 9 children, was wheeled out of my home to a local aunt. My father had been married quite young, I believe, so he was accordingly bewildered by being the only parent to 5 boys and four girls. His answer to this was to become a near hermit commuting between home and his surgery, having planted all the children in boarding schools, or foster homes of some sort.

Although three or four years were to pass before any of the children attended boarding-school, and Joan alone was sent to a 'foster home', overall her summary provides a fair impression of the disastrous effect of the bereavement on the Russ household.

Baby Joan was in fact nine months old when her mother died and left home some nine months after that, when she was sent to live with her affectionate Aunt Bertha (Charles's sister) and Uncle Frank Welch at their home in Pinner in Middlesex. It does not appear that her father ever troubled to tell her the reason for this summary expulsion from the family home, which is hard to explain and still more to justify. To the end of her days she retained a guilty delusion that her birth was the cause of her mother's death. Sixty years later she jotted down this 'memory': 'A dark Vict. bedroom. a baby born. bringing death to the Mother [-] the exodus'. In 1973 she published a poem invoking her dead mother:

Grim, grudging the day of my entrance,
A burden, and worse, causing death.
Away beyond Earth and World's distance,
Went Mother, my first, her last breath.

In Lady Day Prodigal, his privately published memoir, Bernard Russ wrote: 'Our lives now changed drastically . . . A succession of great-aunts and nannies ensued, each less convinced than the last of their ability to control all nine of us. Father, quite shattered by Jessie's death, was of little help in domestic matters, and I am not sure what suffered the most; his practice or his family.'

Still the war dragged on, and ironically it was at this late stage that the family came closest to experiencing its direct effects. From the end of 1917 a fresh threat manifested itself with the appearance over English skies of German aeroplanes, whose 300kg. bombs devastated buildings and inflicted extensive casualties. On 19 May 1918 the Germans made their final desperate effort of the air war, when a fleet of Gotha heavy bombers attacked London. Though thirty-four people were killed and ninety-eight injured and much damage was inflicted on buildings, seven aircraft were brought down by the greatly improved air defences, and no further attempt was made to attack the capital.

It was presumably this occasion which Bernard recalled in old age. 'When we were at Harrow, shortly before Mother died there, we had air raids and if we were out in the garden, we were hurried into the cellar with a lantern. The German Air Force decided to make a final stand by bombing London,' he wrote, going on to record a childhood impression of seeing shadows of aeroplanes crossing their garden. Though this cannot in fact have occurred, the alarm was real enough to imprint itself on his mind, and he recollected that 'I was holding on to the side of Joan and Pat's perambulator at the time, and we were quickly issued into the house to take refuge in the cellar . . .' Nora, with whom he discussed the episode, also remembered the momentous occasion, which caused her to wet her pants in agitation.
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