Though he wrote, edited or translated more than forty books altogether, Patrick O’Brian’s fame rests on twenty historical novels about the Royal Navy, set in the time of the wars against Napoleon. The novels all feature the bluff, competent sea captain Jack Aubrey and his friend and ship’s surgeon, the brilliant but eccentric Stephen Maturin. I came late to the series myself, not picking up the first of them, Master and Commander, until 1994, when the Aubrey-Maturin cult was already well established in the U.S. I then read all sixteen in sequence without pausing for breath. Numbers seventeen through twenty appeared between 1995 and 1999. Patrick O’Brian died on January 2nd this year, leaving the twenty-first book in the series unfinished.
Dean King has produced an excellent biography of this solitary, elusive and rather prickly man. He makes it plain that O’Brian was a writer in his very blood and bone, who never seriously wished to do anything else. There was a brief attempt to become an RAF pilot before WW2 and a stint in the British Intelligence service during the conflict itself (a desk job — nothing very dramatic). Those aside, O’Brian did nothing but write. He cheerfully resigned himself to a life of poverty and obscurity as the price to be paid for pursuing his craft; and he was fortunate, after a disastrous first marriage, to find a companion willing to share that life without complaint. Here, portrayed with sympathy and insight, is a man who ploughed his own lonely furrow without giving a damn what anyone else thought about it; who endured at least the average amount of misery, misfortune and desperation, but who finally triumphed to bask in fame and wealth while still fit and alert enough to enjoy them. The overall effect of this book is inspirational.
O’Brian constructed an elaborate fiction about his early life and maintained it to the very end. This presented something of a challenge to his biographer, who was further hindered by a complete lack of cooperation on O’Brian’s part. There are puzzles to be solved, masks to be removed. O’Brian was not, as he told everyone, born in Ireland, nor even of Irish parentage. He almost certainly did not go to sea in a square-rigger when young, as I myself heard him say. He was not, in fact, an O’Brian; he was born in Buckinghamshire as Patrick Russ, to a family of German and English origins. Patrick’s mother died when he was three and his father’s medical career declined continuously through the boy’s childhood and adolescence, which were further marred by poor health — a dismal growing-up, redeemed somewhat by the affections of a loving stepmother. The boy took refuge in books and thus the die was cast. He published his first novel at age fifteen; he received his first literary award sixty-five years later.
The central paradox of O’Brian’s career was that he achieved fame for stories built around a deep friendship between two men; yet he himself failed as both a son and a father and seems to have made no close attachments other than the one with his second wife. “Prickly” indeed hardly does justice to the man’s cross-grained and antisocial nature. Just when we think the list of things O’Brian could not tolerate must surely be exhausted, Dean King gives us another one: travel, interviews, America, being photographed, children. That happy second marriage notwithstanding, he even seems to have been something of a misogynist. “There are periods when most men hate women,” he noted in his own biography of Picasso, going on to put forward as one of the reasons, that “many women are bores out of bed and often in it.” (To which, no doubt, some women might retort that “bores” ought to read “bored.”)
Dean King’s account of the slow and halting rise to fame of the Aubrey-Maturin saga does not reflect very well on the perspicacity of publishers and critics. Even in England it was seven years and four books into the series before it was noticed by a major reviewer. In the U.S.A. things were worse: for more than a decade — from 1979 to 1990 — the Aubrey-Maturin novels could find no American publisher at all. There were many bad reviews — another thing the author hated: “O’Brian rarely forgot a negative remark about his work” reports Dean King. It is easy in hindsight to scoff at all those big-name editors and smartypants reviewers who missed the point; but we literary folk think in categories, like the rest of humanity, and nothing is more difficult to categorize than novels like O’Brian’s — what Dean King correctly calls “well-written page-turners.”
This book contains a few tiny factual errors, only one of which — perhaps the tiniest of all — I want to draw attention to. In the spring of 1995 O’Brian went on a tour of the U.S.A. to promote The Commodore. At a packed meeting in the New York Public Library, he took questions from the audience. Dean King reports that:
One woman asked O’Brian if he would drum on the desk “The Roast Beef of Old England,” the call to mess on board Royal Navy ships, but he candidly confessed that he did not know it.
That was no woman; that was me. And very sorry I am, now that the old boy has crost the bar, to have embarrassed him with a question he could not answer.