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Patrick O'Brian

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Patrick O'Brian

Patrick O'Brian
Patrick O'Brian
Born Richard Patrick Russ
12 December 1914
Chalfont St. Peter, Buckinghamshire, England
Died 2 January 2000(2000-01-02) (aged 85)
Dublin, Ireland
Occupation Novelist and translator
Spouse(s) Elizabeth Jones (divorced)
Mary Tolstoy O'Brian

Patrick O'Brian, CBE (12 December 1914 – 2 January 2000), born Richard Patrick Russ, was an English novelist and translator, best known for his Aubrey–Maturin series of novels set in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars and centred on the friendship of English naval captain Jack Aubrey and the Irish–Catalan physician Stephen Maturin. The 20-novel series, the first of which is Master and Commander, is known for its well-researched and highly detailed portrayal of early 19th-century life, as well as its authentic and evocative language. A partially finished twenty-first novel in the series was published posthumously containing facing pages of handwriting and typescript.


Childhood, early career and first marriage

O'Brian was born Richard Patrick Russ, in Chalfont St. Peter, Buckinghamshire, and was the son of an English physician of German descent and an English mother of Irish descent. The eighth of nine children, he lost his mother at the age of three, and his biographers describe a fairly isolated childhood, with sporadic schooling and long intervals at home with his father and stepmother in Lewes, East Sussex, during which time his literary career began with the publishing of his earliest works, including several short stories, and book like "Hussein, An Entertainment" and the short story collection Beasts Royal, both of which brought him considerable critical praise especially considering his youth.[1]

In 1934 he underwent a brief period of pilot training with the Royal Air Force but this was not successful, and by 1935 he was living in London, where he married his first wife, Elizabeth Jones, in 1936. They had two children; the second, a daughter, suffered from spina bifida and died in 1942 aged three, by which time O'Brian had left the family in their remote country cottage and returned to London, where he worked throughout the war. Commentators including biographer Dean King have claimed that O'Brian was actively involved in intelligence work and perhaps special operations overseas during the war[1]:p.89–104 and that these experiences informed those of his character Stephen Maturin, an intelligence agent.

In fact, O'Brian wrote in an essay, "Black, Choleric and Married?" included in the book "Patrick O'Brian: Critical Appreciations and a Bibliography (1994)"[2] that: "Some time after the blitz had died away I joined one of those intelligence organisations that flourished during the War, perpetually changing their initials and competing with one another. Our work had to do with France, and more than that I shall not say, since disclosing methods and stratagems that have deceived the enemy once and that may deceive him again seems to me foolish. After the war we retired to Wales (I say we because my wife and I had driven ambulances and served in intelligence together) where we lived for a while in a high Welsh-speaking valley..." which confirms in first person at least the intelligence connection, as well as introducing his wife Mary (Wicksteed) Tolstoy as a co-worker and fellow intelligence operative. Despite the revelations in O'Brian's essay, O'Brian's stepson Nikolai Tolstoy through O'Brian's marriage to Mary Tolstoy disputes this,[3] although he confirms that O'Brian worked as a volunteer ambulance driver during the Blitz, where he met Mary, the separated wife of Russian-born nobleman and lawyer Count Dimitri Tolstoy. They lived together through the latter part of the war and, after both were divorced from their previous spouses, they married in July 1945. The following month he changed his name by deed poll to Patrick O'Brian.

Second marriage and later career

Between 1946 and 1949 the O'Brians lived in Cwm Croesor, a remote valley in north Wales, where they initially rented a cottage from Clough Williams-Ellis. The area enabled O'Brian to pursue his interest in natural history; he fished, went birdwatching, and followed the local hunt. During this time they lived on Mary O'Brian's small income and the limited earnings from O'Brian's writings. The countryside and people provided inspiration for many of his short stories of the period, and also his novel Testimonies (1952), which is set in a thinly disguised Cwm Croesor, and which was well received by critics. In 1949 O'Brian and Mary moved to Collioure, a Catalan town in southern France. Over the ensuing four decades he worked on his own writings, his British literary reputation growing slowly, and also became an established translator of French works into English. In the early 1990s the Aubrey-Maturin series was successfully relaunched into the American market, attracting critical acclaim and dramatically increasing O'Brian's sales and public profile in the UK and America.[1]:ch.22–23 In 1995 he was awarded the inaugural Heywood Hill Literary Prize for his lifetime's writings, and he received a CBE in 1997. He and Mary remained together in Collioure until her death in 1998, but he continued to work on his naval novels, spending the winter of 1998–1999 at Trinity College, Dublin, which had awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1997.

Media exposure and controversy in his final years

O'Brian protected his privacy fiercely and was reluctant to reveal any details about his private life or past, preferring to include no biographical details on his book jackets and supplying only a minimum of personal information when pressed to do so.[4] For many years reviewers and journalists presumed he was Irish,[5] and he took no steps to correct the impression. In 1998 a BBC documentary followed by an exposé in the Daily Telegraph[6] made public the facts of his ancestry, original name and first marriage, provoking considerable critical media comment. In the introduction to his biography of O'Brian, his stepson and O'Brian historian Nikolai Tolstoy claims to give a more accurate and balanced account of his late stepfather's character, actions and motives, particularly in respect of his first marriage and family.

O'Brian died in January 2000 during a stay in Dublin, and his body was returned to Collioure, where he is buried next to his wife.[7]

Published biographies

Dean H. King's life of O'Brian, Patrick O'Brian: A Life Revealed was the first biography to document O'Brian's early life under his original name.

In November 2004, Nikolai Tolstoy published Patrick O'Brian: The Making of the Novelist, the first volume in a two-part biography of O'Brian using material from the Russ and Tolstoy families and sources, including O'Brian's personal papers and library, which Tolstoy inherited on O'Brian's death.

Literary career

O'Brian published two novels, a collection of stories and several uncollected stories under his original name, Richard Patrick Russ. His first book, Caesar: The Life Story of a Panda-Leopard, was written at the age of 12 and published three years later in 1930. It was a critical success, with a recommendation in the New Statesman and positive reviews in publications including the New York Herald Tribune and the Saturday Review of Literature.[1]:p.50 Other stories followed, published in boys' magazines and annuals and incorporating themes of natural history and adventure, and a collection of these and other animal stories was published in 1934 under the title Beasts Royal, with illustrations by the noted artist Charles Tunnicliffe, illustrator of Tarka the Otter. Hussein: An entertainment, set in India, was published in 1938, when he was 23. It was notable for being the first book of contemporary fiction ever published by the Oxford University Press,[1]:p.75 to whose annuals for boys he had been a regular contributor for some years.

O'Brian published very little under his original name of Russ during World War II, and nothing after 1940. His change of surname in 1945 necessarily meant abandoning the literary reputation he had built up as R. P. Russ, and although he returned to writing after the war, when he moved to rural Wales, his non-fiction anthology A Book of Voyages (1947) attracted little attention. A collection of short stories, The Last Pool, was published in 1950 and was more widely and favourably reviewed, although sales were low.[1]:pp. 151–151

In the 1950s O'Brian wrote three books aimed at a younger age group, Anson circumnavigation of 1740–1743, they can be clearly seen in the characters of Jack Byron and Tobias Barrow.[1]:p.180

Aubrey-Maturin series

Beginning in 1969, O'Brian began writing what turned into the 20-volume Aubrey-Maturin series of novels. The books are set in the early 19th century and describe the life and careers of Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend, naval physician Dr. Stephen Maturin. The books are distinguished by O'Brian's deliberate use and adaptation of actual historical events, either integrating his protagonists in the action without changing the outcome, or using adapted historical events as templates. In addition to this trait and to O'Brian's distinctive literary style, his sense of humour is prominent (see Humour in main article, Aubrey-Maturin series). Technical sailing terminology is employed throughout the series. The books are considered by critics to be a roman fleuve, which can be read as one long story; the books follow Aubrey and Maturin's professional and domestic lives continuously.

Other works

As well as his historical novels, O'Brian wrote three adult mainstream novels, six story collections, and a history of the Royal Navy aimed at young readers. He was also a respected translator, responsible for more than 30 translations from the French, including Henri Charrière's Papillon into English, Jean Lacouture's biography of Charles de Gaulle, as well as many of Simone de Beauvoir's later works.

O'Brian also wrote detailed biographies of Sir Joseph Banks, an English naturalist who took part in Cook's first voyage (and who appears briefly in O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series), and Pablo Picasso. His biography of Picasso is a massive and comprehensive study of the artist. Picasso lived for a time in Collioure, the same French village as O'Brian, and the two came to be acquainted there.

Peter Weir's 2003 film, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is loosely based on the novel The Far Side of the World from the Aubrey–Maturin series for its plot, but draws on a number of the novels for incidents within the film.

Mary's love and support were critical to O'Brian throughout his career. She worked with him in the British Library in the 1940s as he collected source material for his anthology A Book of Voyages, which became the first book to bear his new name—the book was among his favourites, because of this close collaboration. He claimed that he wrote "like a Christian, with ink and quill"; Mary was his first reader and typed his manuscripts "pretty" for the publisher. Her death in March 1998 was a tremendous blow to O'Brian and in the last two years of his life, particularly once the purported details of his early life were revealed to the world, he was a "lonely, tortured, and at the last possibly paranoid figure."[4]

Original manuscripts

O'Brian wrote all of his books and stories by hand, shunning both typewriter and word processor. The handwritten manuscripts for 18 of the Aubrey-Maturin novels have been acquired by the Lilly Library at Indiana University. Only two - The Letter of Marque and Blue at the Mizzen - remain in private hands. The O'Brian manuscript collection at the Lilly Library also includes the manuscripts for Picasso and Joseph Banks and detailed notes for six of the Aubrey/Maturin novels.

Nikolai Tolstoy also possesses an extensive collection of O'Brian manuscript material, including the second half of Hussein, several short stories, much of the reportedly "lost" book on Bestiaries, letters, diaries, journals, notes, poems, book reviews, and several unpublished short stories (Tolstoy, various pages).


The Aubrey–Maturin series

  1. Master and Commander (1969)
  2. Post Captain (1972)
  3. HMS Surprise (1973)
  4. The Mauritius Command (1977)
  5. Desolation Island (1978)
  6. The Fortune of War (1979)
  7. The Surgeon's Mate (1980)
  8. The Ionian Mission (1981)
  9. Treason's Harbour (1983)
  10. The Far Side of the World (1984)
  11. The Reverse of the Medal (1986)
  12. The Letter of Marque (1988)
  13. The Thirteen-Gun Salute (1989)
  14. The Nutmeg of Consolation (1991)
  15. Clarissa Oakes (1992) (published as The Truelove in the USA)
  16. The Wine-Dark Sea (1993)
  17. The Commodore (1994)
  18. The Yellow Admiral (1996)
  19. The Hundred Days (1998)
  20. Blue at the Mizzen (1999)
  21. The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey (2004) (published as 21 in the USA)

Fiction (non-serial)

Short story collections


  • Men-of-War: Life in Nelson's Navy (1974). ISBN 0-393-03858-0
  • Picasso (1976; originally titled Pablo Ruiz Picasso). ISBN 0-00-717357-1
  • Joseph Banks: A Life (1987) The Harvill Press, London. Paperback reprint, 1989. ISBN 1-86046-406-8

English translations of other authors' works

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g  
  2. ^  
  3. ^  
  4. ^ a b Tolstoy, Nikolai (2004). Patrick O'Brian: The making of the novelist. London: Random House.  
  5. ^ For example, Lord Dunsany referred to The Last Pool as "this charming book by an Irish sportsman" in a 1950 Observer review (Tolstoy, 324) and William Waldegrave, reviewing The Wine-Dark Sea in 1993, was still referring to O'Brian's supposed "Irish, French and English childhood" (William Waldegrave, Patrick O'Brian, reprinted in Patrick O'Brian, The Reverse of the Medal, HarperCollins reprinted 2003)
  6. ^ Fenton, Ben (24 October 1999). "The Secret Life of Patrick O'Brian". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 26 August 2008. 
  7. ^ "Patrick and Mary O'Brian's grave in Collioure". Retrieved 26 August 2008. 


Since his death, there have been two biographies published, though the first was well advanced when he died. The second is the first volume of a planned two-volume biography by O'Brian's stepson.

Also of importance when studying O'Brian:

External links

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