You are here

Master and Deceiver - Nikolai Tolstoy

The Times (London) - Sunday, 30 November 2003

Patrick O'Brian, the celebrated author behind the new film "Master and Commander", has been branded a callous, deceitful and arrogant bully. His stepson, Nikolai Tolstoy, says the truth is much more complex.

I first heard of Patrick O'Brian, though not I think by name (certainly not that surname), in about 1940, when I was five. My sister and I had been evacuated to our maternal grandparents' beautiful home by the sea in north Devon, and my mother had come down from London to stay.

I still retain a vivid image of my sitting beside her in warm sunshine on our grass tennis court, looking over the River Torridge. "I have a friend who is a writer," she confided in me.

So strong was the effect that I decided the most important thing in life was to be "a writer". Later that day I took an exercise book, upon whose front page I inscribed my title: The Lions. Pondering further, I turned to the back and compiled an index. As I recall, that was as far as my first literary attempt proceeded. Many years later I told Patrick, by then my stepfather, of my juvenile attempt. He smiled, and murmured: "Well, I suppose it is the bit in between that really matters."

Though Patrick had by then published a number of books and short stories, he was still far from being well known for "the bit in between".

I did not meet him until some 15 years after my mother's sunlit reverie on the lawn at Appledore. After she had left my father and taken up with Patrick during the war, the courts awarded custody of my sister and me to our father. The judgment denied my mother any contact with us, even through correspondence.

After leaving school, I decided at the age of 19 to go to see a mother of whom I retained only a vivid scattering of childhood memories. That was in 1955 when she and Patrick had been living for six years at Collioure, a delightful French town by the Mediterranean at the foot of the Pyrenees. They were very impoverished and were occupying a second-floor room in a narrow street; they were obliged to sleep behind a curtain during my stay.

I came to Collioure by a long and irregular journey from northern Spain. This gave me much time to ponder the strangeness of the coming meeting with my mother, when neither of us knew what the other looked like. My reactions on coming face to face with her in the doorway in the rue Arago were confused. She was my mother — and yet a stranger whom I would now come to know.

Patrick was standing in the doorway just behind her in the characteristic pose he always adopted on such occasions, hands clasped before his chest, holding his head on one side and smiling shyly.

At my preparatory school I had begun a love affair with history, and, as conversation in my own home had been of a very philistine nature, I was thrilled to discover that my newly discovered stepfather shared my intoxicated enthusiasm for history, literature and old books.

He had built up his collection before and during the war, when the most remarkable works could be obtained at knock-down prices — his first edition of Voltaire's Candide cost him all of 10/6d (55p) — and a wall was lined with rows of magnificent leather-bound volumes. Most dated from his beloved 18th century, but there were other, older treasures.

At first everything went splendidly, with the conversation flowing animatedly from one topic to another. Regrettably, before long things began to run less smoothly. I doubt that I was successful in concealing my annoyance at Patrick's didacticism, and I obstinately disputed many of his views on history and politics. My unwillingness to be instructed or modify my views provoked him into lofty expressions of scorn for my ignorance of great literature.

Though I do not recall any overt quarrel, the atmosphere became ever more brittle and chill, and when the time came for me to leave I fear there was disappointment on both sides. How I wish now that I could turn back the clock, especially when I read in my mother's diary: "N left on 19th: when it started going bad I do not remember. Only I do remember being in the middle of it & trying & trying to think of something to bring things back to pleasantness."

It did not help that this was precisely what she did not do, then or thereafter. My mother almost invariably slavishly endorsed Patrick's every viewpoint, even on occasion to the extent of shifting or reversing her argument to accord with his.

Now that I am older I see that beneath his coldly measured exterior Patrick's nature was so vulnerable that he would have been unable to endure anything less than unstinted support from his wife. My mother instinctively understood this, and her primary concern was to protect him and advance his work. This left her no choice but to rally round him, whatever the justification.

I think that ultimately she was right. Without my mother as his certain ally Patrick would have found life unendurable, and without question he could not have produced the great work he ultimately achieved.

That first unfortunate encounter was exceptional, and I found it impossible not to feel deep warmth towards Patrick in our cosy family setting during my regular subsequent visits, and gradually he became in many ways a surrogate father to me. Though it was rare for a visit to pass without some frisson or contretemps, I found his company so congenial that I returned year after year.

His extreme sensitivity readily led him to take offence where none was intended. As often as not the perceived provocation related to a matter so trifling as often to leave his interlocutor wondering what could have caused Patrick suddenly to clam up. During a discussion of the meaning of some word, I made passing reference to its Indo-European root. Patrick immediately decided that I was trying to outdo him in scholarship, and spent the rest of the dinner ostentatiously ignoring me. He could be intensely competitive, especially in the case of topics that he prided himself on knowing.

Generally speaking, however, once I had learnt to master techniques of handling him with tact I found him the most delightful of companions. He was always fascinating, and his encyclopaedic knowledge has not been exaggerated. He was also very funny, and many of my happiest memories are of evenings spent chasing up absurd or vulgar anecdotes in his library, capping jokes, or reciting poetry.

Owing to the extraordinary circumstances of Patrick's childhood and upbringing he was by nature preternaturally shy and defensive.

His mother died when he was only three, so that he preserved no memory of her. The tragedy gradually turned her husband, Dr Charles Russ, from an affectionate father into a cold, selfish and extravagant recluse.

He was a bacteriologist but unfortunately of so eccentric a bent that most of his scientific discoveries proved delusory. At one point he sought to interest the Post Office in a device which would automatically lock the door of a telephone kiosk if a caller telephoned the police or ambulance service. The intention was to prevent hoax calls, but that ancillary inconvenience might have been caused to genuine callers did not occur to him.

Patrick, who was born in 1914, was the last but one of nine brothers and sisters. His elders were sent to private schools, but by the time he was of an age to go to school his father had dissipated his fortune and Patrick was denied the opportunity of attending public school. For much of his early life he lived a grim, isolated and peripatetic existence, left abandoned to his own devices for prolonged periods in drab town houses in the home counties. His father could be brutal as well as selfish, and Patrick lived in terror of his sudden rages which punctuated the general atmosphere of aloof indifference.

One of the effects of this protracted time of virtual imprisonment was to instil in Patrick a longing for his own garden, in which he might grow his own vegetables and become as independent of the outside world as possible. In their tiny flat at Collioure there was no outlet for this enthusiasm, but eventually they were able to scrape together enough money to buy a small strip of vineyard just outside the town. At last Patrick could cultivate his own garden, and a year or so later set about building a single-roomed stone hut where he could write in peace.

This involved dynamiting a recess into the rocks at the upper end of the vineyard. At first Patrick conducted the explosions himself. Not for the first time he all but left me orphaned, and after a couple of narrow escapes he engaged a professional to conduct operations.

Not long ago I was vividly reminded of this dramatic episode. Looking for something in a high cupboard in the house, I noticed at the back of the shelf a brown paper parcel, which proved to contain two sticks of dynamite and a detonator that had been lying for the past half-century a few feet above my parents' bed.

Patrick prided himself on his skill with his hands, not infrequently with comical or dangerous consequences. Once he fell off a ladder in the house, injuring himself on a harpoon which he had placed conveniently beside him.

Patrick could be quite pugnacious physically. In my university days in Dublin I was once engaged in a dispute with a Trinity friend about ownership of a second-hand bed. My rival was holding my precious books as hostage, and together with Patrick I stormed round to deal with the situation.

When it nearly came to fisticuffs, my adversary threatened to call the police. Patrick, who was standing firmly beside me with his fists clenched, said scornfully: "I never thought I would see the day when an Irishman turned down an invitation to a fight."

Much has been published of late about Patrick's real or supposed faults by people who for the most part barely knew him or not at all. I had opportunity to know and understand his prickly personality as well, or better, than anyone.

During the last year of his life, for example, I was frequently approached by his American biographer, Dean King, of whom Patrick strongly disapproved. I replied politely, but eventually saw that King was on the path to perpetrating errors which I could not correct without betraying my stepfather's confidence. Accordingly, I drafted a letter in which I tried to explain the dangers, and sent it first to Patrick for approval.

At that time, after my mother's death, I was in the habit of telephoning him once a week for a chat. However, the next time I rang he sounded strangely distant. I asked him if he were well, upon which he inquired abruptly whether I had just received a letter from him.

"No," I replied. "Why, what was in it?"

"I am afraid that in view of your letter to King I can have no further contact with you. That is my final word."

Many years ago this could well have been the end of our relationship, but by now I knew him well enough to say: "But that's impossible, Patrick. We are after all effectively father and son."

After a further brief exchange, I suddenly realised Patrick had been so outraged that he had not read to the end of my letter, where I had requested his approval or otherwise to send it to the biographer. All was swiftly mended, but in other circumstances or with other people it might easily have not been.

Immediately prior to and after his death Patrick was subjected to a number of malevolent attacks in the press as a result of the biography. Some criticisms bore some substance of truth, in particular those relating to his desertion of his first wife and children.

One of the principal accusations is that of his having been a bad father to Richard, his son by his first marriage. It is certainly true that owing to a fundamental flaw in his character (undoubtedly originating in whole or part from the appalling circumstances of his own childhood) he was constitutionally all but incapable of establishing a rapport with small children. On the other hand it should be noted that out of a total income of £300 a year (which placed them among the lowest income bracket in Britain), they spent £126 on school fees for Richard. This I know from my mother's account books, which she kept scrupulously throughout her marriage to Patrick.

Richard has spoken harshly of his father, and enough of the circumstances are known to me to know that much of what he says is justified. That he occasionally beat Richard was normal by the standards of the day, but his cold lack of appreciation and failure to encourage or reward progress were not. When he removed Richard from school to teach him at home the poor boy found the course unremittingly wearisome.

Patrick's sometimes chilling exterior often concealed a depth of affection which he found difficulty in expressing in person. He was certainly very fond of our children, and from 1974 to 1977 toiled in the intervals of writing at construction of a Noah's Ark for them. It was eventually delivered by some friends with an accompanying letter: "Noah's family will be found in the deckhouse (the three female figures that are not Mrs Noah are daughters-in-law) and the animals in the hold — the deck lifts off. Please let Georgina take care not to throw away two very small creatures, possibly guinea-pigs, that may easily escape her unwarned mind, by reason of their exiguity: there are also some barely perceptible though necessary doves. The dull purple quadrupeds are bears, and the squat yellow things with green eyes leopards."

It was the false impression conveyed in the biography at the time of his death which made me feel compelled to write a personal memoir of him. Naturally I was aware from the outset of my stepfather's change of name from Russ to O'Brian (my mother had after all been Mrs Russ for a fortnight), but apart from that I knew little of his life prior to his meeting my mother.

It was not long before I came upon indications that the account of Patrick's early years bore scant resemblance to reality, even in respect of such rudimentary considerations as dates and places. Consequently, I became drawn into conducting my own researches into the first 30 years or so of his life. Now, largely owing to extensive material in my possession and generous help from members of the Russ family, I am able to reconstruct this mysterious and critical period of his life. I believe that, once made fully aware of Patrick's acutely unhappy childhood, any reader will feel only pity for quirks of character which originated in a wretched period of his life.

The "lies" of which Patrick stands accused by his ill-wishers for the most part constituted camouflage designed to conceal a past he could not bear to contemplate.

Some accusations are simply false. It has been widely asserted, for example, that he never sailed before the mast of a square-rigged ship. In fact he did precisely that in the late 1930s, when a friend introduced him to the owner of a magnificent barque in which he voyaged far into the Atlantic. The fact that he never troubled to respond to his traducers arose, I believe, solely from his aversion to public discussion of his private affairs.

It has been said, for example, that he was weak and sickly, and that this led to his discharge from the RAF when he enlisted in 1934. Not only was this not the reason but, despite a childhood bronchial ailment and bouts of asthma, he remained until his death at 86 one of the fittest men I have ever known. He achieved feats of endurance following the Ynysfor hunt in the mountains of Snowdonia after the war.

Lately I have been asked whether I think Patrick would have approved of Peter Weir's film "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World." While it is true that the director has taken liberties, I am confident from innumerable conversations with Patrick on the subject ever since the germination of his idea of writing Master and Commander that he would have appreciated it hugely. He appreciated the parameters within which a film director must operate, and did not for a moment believe that a successful film could be achieved by slavishly following the plot and dialogue of a novel. Besides, he persistently reiterated that he was content to be judged by his books alone, and could not be held responsible for any adaptation by another.

I can picture exactly how he would have regarded the film. With a sardonic smile he would have noted some minor solecism in the rigging of the Surprise, but privately he would have been hugely gratified by Weir's devoted evocation of the spirit of his novels. In particular, I have no doubt that he would have been delighted with his meticulous concern for historical accuracy and, much more importantly, the subtle nuances of the attractively eccentric friendship between the principal characters, Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin.

Several critics of the film have objected to the presentation of Maturin. I hesitate to join them. Every word Maturin speaks, his movements, tastes and other characteristics so plainly reflect Patrick himself that it is his figure and no other that appears before me.

As for those who seek to represent Patrick as a cold and inhuman automaton whose humanity exists only in his books, I only wish that they could have seen him in the summer of 1960. I had been invalided out of Sandhurst with an injured back and was obliged to undergo a major operation. For three months I lay in agony encased in a plaster bed. At a time long before they achieved financial security, Patrick and my mother abandoned everything to come and live in London in order to visit me every day. If anything served to alleviate pain such as I had never undergone before, it was Patrick's gentle solicitude, sympathetic good humour and never-failing intellectual versatility.

It is my hope that in due course Patrick will be judged not by the jibes of envious scribblers but by the full facts of his strange life and by the quality of his writing and the pleasure it has given to millions.

© 2003 Nikolai Tolstoy