Patrick O’Brian

12 Dec 1914
2 Jan 2000
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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, a series of sea 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. He wrote a number of other novels and short stories which were mostly published before he achieved success with the Aubrey–Maturin series. He also translated works from French to English, and wrote two biographies.

His major success as a writer came late in life, when the Aubrey-Maturin series caught the eye of an American publisher, drawing more readers and favourable reviews when the author was in his seventies. Near the end of his life, and in the same year he lost his beloved wife, British media revealed details of his early life, first marriage and post-war change of name, causing distress to the very private author, and perhaps to some of his fans.

O’Brian was born Richard Patrick Russ, in Chalfont St. Peter, Buckinghamshire, and was the son of Charles Russ, an English physician of German descent and Jessie Russ (née Goddard), an English woman of Irish descent. The eighth of nine children, he lost his mother at the age of four, and his biographers describe a fairly isolated childhood, limited by poverty, with sporadic schooling and long intervals at home with his father and stepmother Zoe Center in Lewes, East Sussex.

His literary career began in his childhood with the publishing of his earliest works, including several short stories, the book “Hussein, An Entertainment” and the short story collection Beasts Royal, the latter two bringing him considerable critical praise especially considering his youth. He published his first novel at the age of fifteen with help from his father, Caesar: The Life Story of a Panda Leopard.

In 1934 he underwent a brief period of pilot training with the Royal Air Force but this was not successful and he left the RAF. Prior to that, he applied to the Royal Navy, which rejected him on health grounds. In 1935 he was living in London, where he married his first wife, Elizabeth Jones, in 1936. They had two children; the second, a daughter, who suffered from spina bifida and died in 1942 aged three in a country village in Sussex. When the child died in 1942, O’Brian had already returned to London, where he worked throughout the war.

His work during the war is murky in the details. He worked as an ambulance driver and he stated that he worked in intelligence. Dean King has claimed that O’Brian was actively involved in intelligence work and perhaps special operations overseas during the war.

89–104 Indeed, despite his usual extreme reticence about his past, O’Brian wrote in an essay, “Black, Choleric and Married?” included in the book “Patrick O’Brian: Critical Appreciations and a Bibliography (1994)” 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 the intelligence connection, as well as introducing his wife Mary Wicksteed Tolstoy as a co-worker and fellow intelligence operative. Nikolai Tolstoy, stepson through O’Brian’s marriage to Mary Tolstoy, disputes this account, confirming only that O’Brian worked as a volunteer ambulance driver during the Blitz.

Doing this work, 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.

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 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 became 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. The character of Jack Aubrey is drawn from the character in the novels.

In 1995 he was awarded the inaugural Heywood Hill Literary Prize for his lifetime’s writings. In his acceptance speech in July 1995, O’Brian, then age 80, said it was the first literary prize of his adult life, in the amount of 10,000 pounds. He received a CBE in 1997. Trinity College Dublin awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1997.

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