Patrick O'Brian

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Patrick O'Brian

Patrick O'Brian, English novelist, short-story writer, translator and biographer, was born (as Richard Patrick Russ) at 'Walden', Chalfont St. Peter, Buckinghamshire, England on 12th December 1914 and died at The Fitzwilliam Hotel, Dublin, Ireland on 2nd January 2000.


The life of Patrick O'Brian

Note While the author adopted the name of O'Brian only in August 1945 and was generally known as Patrick Russ until then, he will be referred to throughout this article, for convenience, as Patrick O'Brian or POB.

To see a complete listing of the works of Patrick O'Brian, please see the Complete works article.

Early years

Patrick O'Brian was the eighth child and youngest son of Charles and Jessie Russ; Charles was a physician with a particular interest in bacteriology and the treatment of venereal diseases. The boy's childhood was clouded by a series of misfortunes: he was subject to serious bouts of a bronchial disease, his mother died when he was three, his father's practice declined after the war, and during the 1920s the initially genial doctor changed in character, becoming morose and oppressive. In 1921 Dr. Russ banished all the children still at home, except Patrick, to boarding-schools or foster-parents. In December 1922 Dr. Russ took a second wife, Zoe Center, a widow (her husband had been a naval surgeon) with some property of her own. She took kindly to Patrick, who spent some time with her at a handsome old house near Worcester which she owned; its name, Melbury Lodge, reappears in Post Captain. Here the boy discovered a cache of 19th-century issues of the Gentleman's Magazine - his first encounter with the attitudes and idioms of a past era. In 1925, however, Dr. Russ was made bankrupt; Melbury Lodge was sold and Zoe and Patrick rejoined him in London. Patrick's meagre formal education now began with a year at Marylebone Grammar School; in the following year Mrs. Russ took him and his young sister Joan (his closest and almost his only companion in what was often a lonely and uneasy childhood) to Lewes, Sussex, where he attended the local grammar-school for three years. An attempt in 1927 to gain entrance to the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, came to nothing.

While Patrick clearly enjoyed some aspects of the Lewes period (thinly-disguised references in Richard Temple, and a few personal comments from later years, leave no doubt of this), we know nothing of his achievements at school. It is clear, however, that he had discovered the joy of language and creativity on his own account, for in about 1927 he began to write a book, Caesar. Dr. Russ looked with unusual kindness on this endeavour and arranged for its publication in 1930; by this time he had the boy living with him as a kind of laboratory assistant. A short story, Skogula, followed in 1931, and throughout the decade Patrick continued to produce stories (usually with animals as the central characters, like both those mentioned) for boys' periodicals and annuals. An anthology of these, Beasts Royal, appeared in 1934.

In the early 1930s Patrick studied languages and history in evening classes at Birkbeck College, London University. He was less successful in an attempt to enter the Royal Air Force as a pilot officer and was dismissed from his training course after a few weeks. At about this time Dr. Russ abandoned the remains of his practice and moved away from the capital. Soon afterwards Patrick returned to London and began life on his own account.

Love and war

Little is known for certain of Patrick's four years in London. He seems to have lived in a succession of lodgings and may have studied art for a while. In February 1936 he married Elizabeth Jones, an orphan from Wales; a son Richard was born in February 1937 and a daughter Jane, a sufferer from spina bifida, two years later. According to Tolstoy (see References below), O'Brian may have visited Ireland in 1936 - he was undoubtedly in Dublin during 1937 - and it is probable that whatever direct knowledge of sailing he possessed also derives from this period. (Tolstoy proposes to identify the yacht-owning 'Cousin Edward' whom O'Brian mentions in his autobiographical sketch of 1994 as Edward Taaffe, a friend who was a witness at his wedding and whose name was used long afterwards in The Commodore.) During 1937 O'Brian worked as a travel courier and visited Locarno in Italian Switzerland. At about the same time he began work on a study of the Bestiaries (medieval treatises in which facts and fancies about the animal world are treated allegorically from a Christian viewpoint); clearly he must have achieved some fluency in Latin by this time. 1938 saw the publication, by Oxford University Press, of his first adult novel, Hussein. In the following year he fell ill, and on his recovery his brothers Godfrey and Victor rented a cottage in Suffolk for the family.

Some time in 1938, O'Brian had met Mary Tolstoy (née Wicksteed), the beautiful and spirited English wife of a Russian nobleman. By the autumn of 1940 both of them were working as volunteer ambulance-drivers in blitz-torn London. Two years later, after Mary's divorce, they set up home together in an 18th-century house in Chelsea. In the previous year O'Brian had joined Political Warfare Executive (PWE), an organisation which developed propaganda and prepared material for agents working in occupied Europe, and here Mary also found employment. O'Brian's work included the drafting of topographical and cultural notes on various locations in France (including the region around Collioure where he was eventually to live), and these were well regarded by his superiors. Another event of 1942 was a visit from his brother Michael, who had long since emigrated to Australia and who was now a fighter pilot; O'Brian later identified Michael as in some measure a model for Jack Aubrey. In July 1945, divorced by Elizabeth, the author married Mary, and a few weeks later he formally changed his name to Patrick O'Brian; the unusual spelling of the surname seems to derive from that of a ship-owner in a Victorian insurance contract which he had transcribed from an unknown source. During this year O'Brian began to prepare an anthology drawn from 17th- and 18th-century books on travel and exploration - his first significant literary work since 1940; this finally reached the bookshops in 1947.

New beginnings

In October 1945, with their occupation at PWE gone, the O'Brians were confronted with the need to economise. They settled in a tiny cottage, Fron Wen, overlooking the valley of Cwm Croesor in Caernarvonshire, North Wales, where they lived a life of austere self-sufficiency. The Welsh period, which lasted for four years (the last eighteen months in a larger house), was a time of hardship, anxiety over the custody and education of Richard and, for the most part, creative paralysis; only a few stories emerged near the end of the period. Nonetheless, the Welsh episode gave O'Brian much: it deepened his knowledge of the natural world, sharpened his aptitude for self-support, enabled him to work as part of a team (he willingly shared in the labours of the sheep-farmers) while retaining his independence, and planted many a slow-growing but fruitful seed in his mind.

The autumn of 1949 brought another great change. Believing (as he remarked) that poverty was easier to bear in a warm climate, O'Brian moved to Collioure, a largely Catalan-speaking seaside village near Perpignan in southern France. Here, apart from an episode in Cornwall in 1954, the O'Brians would make their home for the rest of their life together. Books began to appear again: The Last Pool and Other Stories (a collection of stories written over the previous ten years or more) in 1950, Testimonies in 1952 and The Catalans A Novel in 1953. O'Brian was now beginning to gather critical approval on both sides of the Atlantic. It was at this time, too, that he met Pablo Picasso.

In 1945 Mary had given her husband an early edition of Richard Walter's account of George Anson's great voyage of the 1740s. From this grew The Golden Ocean, the first of O'Brian's sea novels, written very quickly in 1953 and published to considerable acclaim in 1956. The Unknown Shore followed in 1959, but in the next novel, the partly autobiographical Richard Temple (1962), character once more took precedence over adventure. By now O'Brian was augmenting his still meagre earnings with a series of well-regarded translations from the French, which helped to make his name known in the United States.

Enter Aubrey and Maturin

C.S. Forester, the doyen of nautical novelists and a much-loved figure on both sides of the Atlantic, had died in 1966. The American publishing house of Lippincott turned to O'Brian for a new work on the same theme, and the result was Master and Commander, published in 1969. The book won O'Brian many plaudits and some lasting friends, such as the novelist Mary Renault and Wolcott Gibbs and Richard Ollard from the publishing world. Post Captain and HMS Surprise soon followed; then came another short-story collection, The Chian Wine and Other Stories, and the prestigious commission for the biography Pablo Ruiz Picasso. The Mauritius Command followed in 1976, and during that year O'Brian wrote down a quantity of plot-ideas which demonstrate that he was by now thinking in terms of an extended series of novels.

There followed fifteen years of steady progress, with work on the Aubrey-Maturin novels interrupted only by the biography Joseph Banks A Life (1987). O'Brian's growing repute as a specialist in naval history brought him a number of commissions as a reviewer; the novels acquired significant new admirers, such as the novelists Iris Murdoch and A.S. Byatt and the actor Charlton Heston, and the artist Geoff Hunt painted the first of his cover designs for The Letter of Marque (1987). On the other hand, the series was without a publisher in the United States for ten years, and O'Brian's works were still generally regarded as adventure-stories of a slightly superior kind rather than as literature. (Even in the mid-1990s two prestigious British reference works, The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English and The Oxford Companion to English Literature, included demonstrably lesser writers whose spheres intersected with O'Brian's but found no place for O'Brian himself.) The O'Brians suffered some personal setbacks during this period: a serious car accident in 1977, a fire in their private vineyard in 1984 and renewed financial anxiety resulting from their generous support of Mary's son Nikolai, who had been ruined by a long and costly lawsuit.


  • King, Dean Patrick O'Brian: a life revealed. New York: Henry Holt & Co. / London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2000.

Unauthorised and fiercely resented by its subject, King's work is nonetheless a serious study embodying much information from Richard Russ, O'Brian's estranged son, and from acquaintances at Collioure and in the literary and publishing world. Its chief drawbacks (apart from some errors in chronology, inevitable given that King had no access to the personal records and recollections held by Nikolai Tolstoy) are a complete lack of references and a tendency to profess knowledge of O'Brian's private thoughts. At the time of writing (July 2007) it is the only substantial source for O'Brian's life from 1950 onward.

  • O'Brian, Patrick [Autobiographical sketch] in Cunningham, A.E. (ed.) Patrick O'Brian: Critical Appreciations and a Bibliography. London, British Library, 1994.

To be used with great caution and in close conjunction with Tolstoy (see below).

  • Tolstoy, Nikolai Patrick O'Brian: the making of the novelist. London: Century Books, 2004.

Tolstoy is the son of Mary O'Brian by her first marriage. From 1955 onwards he was probably closer to O'Brian than anybody else apart from Mary herself; besides his own invaluable memories, he holds O'Brian's library and some critically important diaries and letters. This volume breaks off with the move to Collioure.

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