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Patrick and Mary O’Brian

[This short biography is slightly adapted from the entry in

The Patrick O'Brian Muster Book: Persons, Animals, Ships and Cannon in the Aubrey-Maturin Sea Novels

by Anthony Gary Brown

and is reproduced here with the author’s permission; ©2014]


Patrick O’Brian (1914-2000) was born in London – as Richard Patrick Russ – to a father of German origins, Charles Russ (1876-1955) and an English mother, Jessie, (née Goddard, 1878?-1918); Patrick was the eighth of nine children. Charles’ own father had been a prosperous furrier and most of his offspring continued in one form or another of trade or manufacturing. Yet Charles and his younger brother Sidney (1879-1963) went for scientific careers: Charles became a medical doctor (specializing in venereal disease) and Sidney a physicist (specializing in medical radiography, especially as related to cancer).  Sidney had a most successful career, retiring as a full Professor and a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). Charles however was something of a spendthrift, who lacked professional focus: the family fortunes were in severe decline when Patrick was born in December 1914 and by 1925 Charles was bankrupt. The various biographies agree that the fall from bourgeois comfort in agreeable Buckinghamshire to financial peril in rather dowdy suburban London cast a shadow over Patrick’s entire life, leaving him with nagging insecurities, usually – though not always – deeply buried. He was denied much of a formal education and led a rather isolated early life: most of his elder siblings either left home to make their own way or were farmed out to relatives. His mother had died when he was only four and his relationship with his father was difficult from the first, Charles being a demanding, even tyrannical man who often seemed to find his youngest son’s character deficient. Charles remarried in 1922 to Zoe Center (1878-1964) and it does appear that Patrick had a warm regard for his new step-mother, the widow of a naval officer. If during these early years the young Patrick spent time in Ireland and learned some serious sailing (as he and his dust-jacket notes were later to suggest), then there is little hard evidence either to support or contradict the proposition. Yet the time-lines in the biographies surely rule out all but a fleeting acquaintance with either.

What is certain is that the young Patrick took to books in a precocious way (aided perhaps by some bouts of a bronchial complaint that confined him indoors; though Patrick seems later to have somewhat exaggerated this malady to conceal the basic cause of his confinement: poverty), both as reader and writer. The boy was especially attracted to original literature – particularly miscellany collections – from what is often referred to as the ‘long’ 18th century from about 1715 to 1830, and also to medieval bestiaries, a curious literary genre combining animal observation, fantasy and moral exemplar. Taking this latter tradition as his inspiration, Patrick Russ published his first novel, Caesar, in 1930 when he was but fifteen (and, it must be said, with his father’s strong support) and over the next few years made promising progress with tales for boys’ magazines, as well as a book of stories, Beasts Royal, in 1934. Nevertheless feeling the need for a ‘proper’ career, Patrick now applied successively to the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force for officer training, but failed at both (rejected on health grounds for the first and on pilot-aptitude in initial training for the second). He then travelled a little in Europe (where he greatly improved his home-learned French in various short-term jobs), but with the moderately successful publication of Hussein in 1938 he seemed set on a literary life and now embarked on The Road to Samarcand (a novel then left unfinished until the mid-1950s). In 1937, living la vie bohème in London, he had met and married Elizabeth Jones (1911-1998), with a son Richard being born in 1937 and a spina bifida-afflicted daughter Jane in 1939. The union seems to have been uneasy almost from the outset and by 1940 or 1941 it was over, albeit with lasting acrimony.  Jane Russ died in 1942; Richard, unhappily torn between warring parents, eventually took the side of his mother and, after the mid-1960s, had no contact at all with his father, whom he had come to detest.  (N.b., the Dean King and Nikolai Tolstoy biographies of O’Brian take very different views on the reliability of Richard Russ’ later recollections of his father’s behaviour and personality.)

Although the new Russ family had moved to an austere county cottage in Suffolk, Patrick continued to spend a great deal of time in his old London haunts and he somehow met – perhaps as early as 1938 – Mary Tolstoy (née Wicksteed, 1915-1998), an adventurous, upper-class, fellow French-speaker, unhappily married to a lawyer of aristocratic Russian descent: the two soon became lovers and partners. The outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 of course changed everything: although Patrick continued a bits-and-pieces life in Chelsea, his literary prospects now seemed most uncertain, and perhaps even frivolous. Turning to the new immediacies of life, Patrick wrote patriotic verse and both he and Mary – like many of their artistic circle – drove ambulances during the blitz of 1940. Somehow in late 1941 first Patrick and then Mary obtained berths as language experts in the French section of one of many ‘spook’ operations that sprang up in Whitehall, in this case the Political Warfare Executive, whose mission was to undermine civilian enemy morale through propaganda. Patrick regarded his work as largely undemanding and uninteresting, but it offered a salary (perhaps his first ever regular income), plenty of reading-time and, occasionally, stimulating contact with French underground operatives working from London. Towards the end of the war both Patrick and Mary finalised divorces, and in mid-1945 they married. A few weeks later Patrick further marked a new beginning by officially changing his (and consequently Mary’s) surname from Russ to O’Brian. Exactly why he did this and why he chose ‘O’Brian’ are both unknown. However it is likely that an attempt now to capitalise as a writer on a ‘Russ’ reputation both seven years old and associated mostly with youthful fantasy would have seemed forlorn. In any case, the new O’Brian henceforth avoided all reference to his pre-war past (at least until his very final years). 

The end of the conflict in 1944/45 had also ended the couple’s employment and, near-penniless, they moved to a cottage in romantic, but cold-and-wet north Wales, a grim setting that O’Brian was to use for his 1952 novel Three Bear Witness (eventually republished as Testimonies). Whilst here he published a collection of accounts of early exploration, A Book of Voyages, tales that had fascinated him when young and which were a starting point for thinking of novels set among seafarers: it is clear from the astonishing range of cultural references in his own later sea-tales that, once read, little was forgotten.

In 1949 the O’Brians moved to warmer penury in southern France, at Collioure, a fishing village and small artists’ colony on the Mediterranean coast near the Spanish border; it was here that they were to remain for nearly fifty years; the union was childless. Patrick now published further collections of short stories – some written pre-war, others drawing strongly on his more recent experiences of country life in Wales and village life in remote and undeveloped France – but, although these met with some critical acclaim, they produced little cash. A little later he hit upon a regular, second career – modestly rewarding, but regularly so – as a translator from the French, and developed in this a highly-regarded expertise. Two other intense books from his own creative mind now appeared: The Catalans (1953; a.k.a The Frozen Flame) and Richard Temple (1962). As a respite from the rigours of translating and the labours of creating, O’Brian took a ‘literary holiday’ in the mid-1950s and dashed off two books – The Golden Ocean (1956) and The Unknown Shore (1959) – aimed at younger readers. Both drew closely on published accounts of Commodore Anson’s arduous circumnavigation and many mishaps on a voyage in the early 1740s, but both featured an imaginative recreation of that wooden world through sparkling dialogue, quirky friendships and a joy in often unconsidered minutiae. The latter book especially took as its lens the unlikely bonding of the tough and resourceful Midshipman Jack Byron with Tobias Barrow, a curious – in every sense – Surgeon’s Mate. 

Though not great commercial successes, these books eventually caught the attention of a US publisher, Lippincott, on the look-out for a ‘successor’ to the Hornblower series, whose creator C.S. Forrester had died in 1966. In 1967 O’Brian – at age fifty three – contracted with Lippincott to produce Master and Commander, with the book appearing in late 1969. The book and its immediate successors Post Captain (1972) and HMS Surprise (1973) did respectably in Britain (where, after being rejected by Macmillan – as too full of jargon – they were taken up by Collins) but did not quite take in the US where, even after a change of publishers, the series was dropped. In the mid-1970s O’Brian published more short stories and a biography of Pablo Picasso (a neighbour in Collioure), before returning to the writing that he clearly enjoyed most of all, his roman fleuve of the friendship and adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin. The Mauritius Command appeared in 1977, with a further sixteen instalments delighting and beguiling a gradually increasing readership over the next twenty-two years. A biography of the scientist and explorer Sir Joseph Banks appeared in 1987, and during most of this time O’Brian continued as a translator into exquisite English of important French novels.

In 1990 the US publisher W.W. Norton tried the series again, issuing the twelfth book, The Letter of Marque: this was an almost immediate success, and it drew a new, large and lucrative readership to the now seventy-six year old O’Brian. 

Yet if the 90s brought fame, acclaim (including the CBE in 1995) and agreeable financial security, they also brought an unwelcome – to the author – curiosity and inquiry. In public O’Brian maintained the courtly air and diction of a gentleman of another age, and seemed both to enjoy and somewhat encourage the mistaken notion that he was born of the faded Anglo-Irish gentry, themselves often rather a collective throw-back to his beloved late Georgian Britain. Yet he could be evasive and even prickly if his own history was touched upon: whilst many were charmed by this seeming distain for the personal, others had their investigative juices stimulated. In the late 1990s Patrick O’Brian’s hum-drum early life as the German-English Richard Patrick Russ was revealed, and speculation as to his exact role in the break-up of his first marriage – nearly fifty years previously – ran riot. Some Americans howled at his lack of their beloved Irishness (the Irish seemed merely amused by the contretemps); many English howled at his having been caught with a ‘hidden past’ (a notion deliciously repugnant to that nation’s tabloid press). Other fans, worldwide, stood bemused on the side-lines, wondering what on earth any of this ancient history had to do with the books.

A resurgence of his childhood insecurities and uncertainties allowed O’Brian to be near crushed in spirit by this unaccustomed attention and – in some respects – opprobrium; and, at almost the same moment in 1998, Mary O’Brian, wife and companion for half a century, died in France after a short illness.  Patrick completed his final book Blue at the Mizzen (1999) in Dublin, where Trinity College had awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1997: but his spirits were low and appeared not to be in easy prospect of revival. He died, probably of heart failure, in the early hours of January 2nd 2000 in a hotel where he had stayed whilst the Trinity rooms were closed for the Christmas and Millennium celebrations. Patrick and Mary O’Brian are buried in Collioure.

O’Brian contributed a short and quirky autobiographical note to the Arthur Cunningham festschrift. The Dean King ‘unauthorised’ autobiography was close to publication when O’Brian died, and the author’s research for the work had greatly added to O’Brian’s distress (a distress that was also most unwelcome to King, an ardent literary admirer).  The new 2004 Oxford DNB has a long entry-of-record for O’Brian, and in that same year Mary O’Brian’s son by her first marriage, the historian Nikolai Tolstoy, published the first part of a biography of his step-father; the final part – the years from 1949 onwards – has yet to appear. (Tolstoy declined to assist the DNB editors, and has published a sharp criticism of many inaccuracies in their research.)

In 2004 there also appeared in print ‘21’, being the first three chapters (together with an almost note-form continuation, reproduced in manuscript) of the untitled twenty-first novel in the Aubrey-Maturin series, pages that O’Brian had been composing in the months before his death. The publication was controversial. Tolstoy (and many O’Brian fans) berated the literary executors who had decided to issue the volume, arguing that O’Brian himself was a perfectionist, who would have been horrified by the appearance of unpolished work. Other admirers felt that their up to thirty-year engagement with the characters was in some sense owed the creator’s final moments with the pair. Equally controversial had been the release in 2003 of a film version of O’Brian’s work – Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World – a work of monumental craft that drew liberally on characters, dialogue and incident from the Aubrey-Maturin series, yet used an overall plot not found in the novels themselves.

Finally, what can we say of the origins of those wonderful characters Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin? In a pre-war work O’Brian had used the technique of presenting a tale through a pair of seemingly ill-matched friends (Sullivan and Ross in Noughts and Crosses of 1936). In the two early Anson-based books the author had used a similar technique to expound differing approaches to a common conundrum, and to put exposition of that elusive quality of ‘friendship, for better or worse’ at the heart of his craft. The actual names Aubrey and Maturin had been used by O’Brian in Testimonies, where the two are boyhood friends (we must await Volume II from Tolstoy for informed thought on whence the author plucked the names themselves.) Given his affection for – and sometime imitation of – the Regency novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817; the sister of two navy captains), I have often wondered whether O’Brian ever came across a rather oily letter she received in 1815 from the Reverend James Stanier Clarke, a former naval chaplain now librarian to the Prince Regent. Brazenly suggesting himself for a role in a sequel to her Emma, he advocated that she "carry your clergyman … to sea as the friend of some distinguished naval character."  Mutatis mutandis, surely not the worst idea for a long set of novels?

Few doubt that Patrick O’Brian’s own attitudes and interests are closely reflected in the persona – and even appearance – of Stephen Maturin; some have even detected a reflection in the Doctor’s first relationship with his strange, withdrawn daughter Brigid of O’Brian’s own probable turmoil at his daughter Jane’s affliction with spina bifida (little Jane Russ died not long after Patrick and Elizabeth separated). Of course the Doctor must be more a projection of what O’Brian would like to have been than a simple self-portrait: for example, despite his irregular birth and upbringing, his status as a religious outsider, his unprepossessing physique and – often – fortune, and his self-doubts in love, Stephen is perfectly at ease in the grandest of public salons (with perhaps a single exception in The Surgeon’s Mate), a social confidence that Tolstoy shows was always most insecurely grasped by O’Brian himself. 

The bluff, assertive, decisive (at least in war), and yet essentially humane Jack Aubrey perhaps represents something else – more distant – that O’Brian would liked to have been (he had after all tried for the armed services as a young man).  Both King and Tolstoy note that Patrick’s elder brother Michael/Mike (1909-1943) was a strapping outdoor type who had emigrated to Australia in 1926 but returned to Britain in 1942 as an volunteer Pilot Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. Under the name Michael O’Brien (sic, the usual Irish spelling of the name) he was shot down over Germany on a raid and is buried in a British military cemetery near Dortmund; why he had changed his name – and to this particular one – is unknown; nor is it clear that Patrick deliberately altered and adopted it in 1945. King makes much of Mike as a model for Jack Aubrey; Tolstoy does not find any especial closeness between the two, and instead makes a persuasive case for one Captain ‘Jack’ Jones, a Master of Foxhounds under whom O’Brian hunted in his Welsh period, being the very type of no-nonsense, natural leader that O’Brian admired from afar. When Captain Jones was killed in a field accident in 1948, O’Brian, although deeply upset, eulogised that “[he] was not the sort of man to die in bed”, a fate that to my mind O’Brian could not have destined for Jack Aubrey either.

Often to Stephen’s irritation, Jack repeatedly follows Lord Nelson in urging his followers to ‘lose not a minute’: no minute spent in the pair’s delightful company for the past thirty or so years has been a wasted one.