So, it turns out, Patrick O’Brian was a liar, a child-abandoner, and a generally nasty piece of work.
Before his death this year at the age of 85, the enormously popular author told—in a series of 20 volumes that have sold more than three million copies—the ongoing adventures of Capt. John Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin during the Napoleonic Wars. The books are the finest sea tales ever written: rich and exciting, deep and fast, somehow managing to conjure up the whole world of the closing 18th century, from the domestic life chronicled by Jane Austen to the picaresque life chronicled by Tobias Smollett. So how much does it really matter that their creator was not the man he claimed to be? How responsible, after all, are books for their authors?
At least a little, as it turns out. The relation of writers to the things they write has always been tangled. Swinburne’s poetry isn’t weakened as poetry by the fact that he was a peculiarly passive neurotic, but certain themes tend to stand out for readers when they discover that the poet liked to be tied up and beaten. A note of self-justification in Rousseau’s essays on freedom is visible only to the readers who know that the philosopher abandoned the children he sired in England to poverty and the workhouse. As I sped through Blue at the Mizzen, the new and final volume of the Aubrey-Maturin tales, I found myself lured to insights—unhappy insights, for a lover of the series—about how the life of the author has influenced the characters: Ah, that’s why Dr. Maturin practices secrecy not just in his spy work but in his personal life, and ah, that’s why Capt. Aubrey seeks release from his domestic trials by fleeing once again to sea.
For almost 30 years, O’Brian published these historical tales. From its almost unnoticed beginning with Master and Commander in 1969, the series has come to receive lavish praise from fellow novelists as diverse as Robertson Davies, Mary Renault, A.S. Byatt, and Iris Murdoch. The 20 volumes have an extremely traditional origin in the strict sea-novel genre suggested by Tobias Smollett in Roderick Random (1748), established with Michael Scott’s Tom Cringle’s Log (1834) and Capt. Marryat’s Midshipman Easy (1836), and formalized by C.S. Forester’s Beat to Quarters (1938) and nine subsequent volumes of the adventures of Horatio Hornblower.
With his literary skill and vast learning about sailing, medicine, music, science, and art, however, O’Brian’s books tower above their competitors—perhaps precisely because they stay within the narrow bounds of their inherited genres. To read O’Brian is to imagine that for the first time since Dickens and Trollope in the middle of the Victorian age, one has found a major artist working, without any ironic intent, in a popular, rigorous, and intensely conservative literary form. Within a frame in which readers are willing to accept it, O’Brian paints a compelling and satisfying picture of courage, luck, and honor—of how men live with and without women—of the demands placed on all those who go down to the sea in ships and do business on great waters.
He always presented himself as a reclusive writer. He provided for his first book, The Last Pool and Other Stories (1950), a biographical blurb that read only: “The Spectator for 1 March 1710 begins, ‘I have observed, that a reader seldom peruses a Book with much Pleasure, till he knows whether the Writer of it be a dark or a fair Man, of mild or choleric disposition, Married or a Bachelor’ To gratify this curiosity, which is so natural to a reader, we may state that Mr. O’Brian is a dark man, choleric, and married.”
But his fantatical admirers refused to be satisfied with that, and gradually what emerged was a biography that told of his Irish Catholic upbringing, his service with British intelligence during World War II, and his life in France after the war. Married to the former wife of Count Dmitri Tolstoi (grandson of Leo), O’Brian eked out a living translating into English 28 French bestsellers between 1961 and 1978, the best-known of which is Henri Charriére’s Papillon. The American publication of a novel, Testimonies (1952), led to a succession of writing assignments in which he gradually demonstrated a mastery of an extraordinary number of fields—the history of botany, music, late 18th-century medicine, British naval history, the religious disagreements of English Protestantism—all of which would come to form recurring themes in his later work. Some success with a pair of children’s sea-novels, The Golden Ocean (1956) and The Unknown Shore (1959), at last produced a contract for what became the first in the Aubrey-Maturin books.
It was all a lie. Or, at least, the early part was a lie, and most of his later life was built on the foundation of that lie. In 1998, English newspapers revealed that O’Brian was really Richard Patrick Russ, the eighth child of Protestant parents in London, who had fled from his name, his past, and his family at the end of World War II. And now there has appeared Patrick O’Brian: A Life Revealed, a biography by Dean King, that makes sad reading.
O’Brian’s father, Charles Russ, was a doctor and inventor who was constantly on the edge of bankruptcy. His mother, Jessie, died of tuberculosis when he was three, and the boy was a sickly child who moved from school to school. Rejected by the Royal Naval College and Royal Air Force for his health, he fluttered about England until he married a poor Welsh woman—whom he abandoned in 1940 with a son, Richard, and a sick daughter (who died shortly afterward).
During the war, he was an ambulance driver in London and did some intelligence work before meeting Mary Tolstoi, whom he married in 1945. Soon afterward, O’Brian changed his name and settled in Collioure, France, where he toiled in obscurity—until the light of his popularity burst upon him and even his reclusive obsession with privacy could not forever keep the truth from coming out. By all accounts, he was a sharp-tongued, secretive, and foul-tempered man, whose vindictiveness continued after his death through a will that disinherited his children.
It is, as several reviewers have remarked, no accident that O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series has become so popular at the same moment Jane Austen’s novels have undergone an enormous resurgence. O’Brian admitted a fascination with Austen, and the naval officers in her Persuasion (1818) would surely recognize Jack Aubrey (though they belong to the emerging Whig middle-class that would define the Victorian age, while Jack harkens back to the Tory squirarchy of the fading Georgians).
There was a moment in England, at the end of the 18th century, when common wisdom had not yet been divorced from specialized knowledge, art from science, communal bonds from industrial relations. Much of it was poisoned by the French Revolution, by the English Revolution that never quite happened, and by 20 years of Napoleonic war—and even at its best it existed among iniquities, brutalities, and discomforts we cannot imagine bearing today. But it existed nonetheless, and in O’Brian’s commonsensical sailors, as in Austen’s clear-eyed girls, you can discern its attractions.
But you can also discern in O’Brian’s tales a secrecy for secrecy’s sake, a hint of things untold, and a claim of knowledge and life not legitimately owned. We might not have noticed it without being pointed to it by the recent revelations about the author. But once it’s been spotted, it can’t be entirely forgotten, and it spoils, just a little, the truth of the writing with the lies of the writer. Books really are responsible for their authors.