Patrick O’Brian

Life
1914-2000 [Richard Patrick Russ]; purportedly born in Ireland of Anglo-Irish parents, who died early; a the time of his death, however, it materialised that he was grandson of a Leipzig furrier, and grew up in Hampstead; educated Paignton; widely travelled; fluent in French, Spanish, and Catalan; served in British Wartime Intelligence [Political Intelligence Dept.] and later under Sir Dick White, Head of M15; m. Mary, mother of Count Nikolai Tolstoy; settled in Franco-Spanish village, nr. Picasso, on whom he wrote a highly-regarded biography; aslso a biography of Sir Joseph Banks, biologist; early fiction incl. Road to Samarkand (1954), and Testimonies, the latter set in Wales; commenced navel series with The Golden Ocean (1956), written in ‘little more than a month ... laughing all the time’’; embarked on series of 20 Aubrey-Maturin novels, 1969-1999, being a historical series set in Napoleonic days starting with Master and Commander (1969), centred on Maturin, a medical man, half-Spanish half-Irish, who is currently a British agent, and followed by Post Captain, HMS Surprise, Desolation Island, Mauritius Command , &c.; the 18th of the series being The Yellow Admiral (HarperCollins 1996), 261pp.; first winner of Heywood Hill Literary Prize, 1995; Birthday Honours CBE [?]1996; the myth of his Irish origins was exposed in 1998; d. in Dublin; bur. Collioure, France, on Roussillon coast, nr. Spain.

[ top ]

Works
Novels, Master and Commander (London: Collins 1970; Fontana pb. 1971; HarperCollins 1994, 1996), 412pp.; Post Captain (London: HarperCollins 1972); HMS Surprise (London: HarperCollins 1973); The Mauritius Command (London: HarperCollins 1977); Desolation Island (London: HarperCollins 1978); The Fortune of War (London: HarperCollins 1979); The Surgeon’s Mate (London: HarperCollins 1980); Ionian Mission (London: HarperCollins 1981); Treasons's Harbour (London: HarperCollins 1983); The Far Side of the World (London: HarperCollins 1984); The Reverse of the Medal (London: HarperCollins 1986); The Letter of Marque (London: HarperCollins 1988); The Thirteen-gun Salute (London: HarperCollins 1989); The Nutmeg of Consolation (London: HarperCollins 1991); Clarissa Oakes (London: HarperCollins 1992); The Wine-dark Sea (London: HarperCollins 1993); The Commodore (London: HarperCollins 1994); The Yellow Admiral (London: HarperCollins 1997), 265pp.; The Hundred Days (London: HarperCollins 1998), 281pp.; Blue at the Mizzen (London: HarperCollins 1999) [see Peter Harrington, in “References”, infra.

Miscellaneous, The Green Ocean (London: HarperCollins 1996), 304pp.; The Golden Ocean [1956] (London: HarperCollins 1997), 285pp.; The Unknown Shore [1959] (London: HarperCollins 1997), 265pp.; The Golden Ocean (London: HarperCollins 1998), 288pp. Trans., Jacques Soustelle, The Daily Life of the Aztecs on the Eve of the Spanish Conquest (NY 1962).

Audio-books: Master and Commander and Post Captain are available in audio-books from HarperCollins; also Master and Commander as a film with Russell Crowe.

[ top ]

Criticism
Dean King, Patrick O’Brian: A Life Revealed (Holt), 387pp. Also Kevin Myers, [on O’Brian], in ‘Irishman’s Diary’, in The Irish Times (16 Oct. 1996), [q.p.]; and Do. (12 July 1997) [infra]; the latter includes reference to his first writing on O’Brian in 1980, and his shared enthusiasm for the writer with Helen Lucy Burke; see also Myers, review of Dean King, Patrick O’Brian: A Life Revealed (Holt), in The Irish Times (8 July, 2000),.

[ top ]

Commentary
Brian Fallon, Irish Times ([?]25. Oct. 1997), [q.p.]; ‘I have never quite managed to convince myself that O’Brian’s nautical stories are real as good as his admirers claim, even though I would much sooner read then than Golding’s sea novels. This is yet one more of the Aubrey/Maturin yarns, full of admirals and captains sailing the Channel or cannonading the enemies, the sounding of eight bells, oficers [sic] parading on quarter-decks, and continual talk about what the Spanish or the French are at; on shore, the male characters generally pursue wenches, take endless mail-coaches, and put up at taverns (probably they rip an occasional bodice, too). At the end of the book is printed a warm and appreciative speech by William Waldegrave, delivered at the now famous dinner in O’Brian’s honour at Greenwich last October.’

Kevin Myers, ‘Irishman’s Diary’, in The Irish Times (16 Oct. 1996), [q.p.]; and Do. (12 July 1997)makes reference to the Myer’s first writing on O’Brian in 1980, and his shared enthusiasm for the writer with Helen Lucy Burke;

Kevin Myers [Irish Times columnist], reviewing Dean King, Patrick O’Brian: A Life Revealed (Holt), 387pp., in The Irish Times (8 July, 2000), notes that O’Brian asked his friends not to assist with biographer and remarks that O’Brian told him that he worked for Special Operations Executive, and adds that there were heads of MI5,MI6 and Royal Naval Intelligence at the banquet given four years ago [1996; aetat. 53] in O’Brian’s honour by his American publisher; further, ‘[T]he public revelation that he was not Irish came during the last year of his life, and nearly broke him. He felt he was being mocked by those who had given him sanctuary in Trinity College on the basis of his Irishness. They did not mock him at all […]’.

Frank J. Prial, Obituary, New York Times (7 Jan. 2000): ‘[...] Patrick O'Brian had his reasons for being an unusually private person. On those occasions when he chose to speak about his life, he claimed that had been born in Galway and grew up a Roman Catholic in genteel circumstances. He had been a sickly child, he said, and was educated mostly at home. A voracious reader, he eventually mastered French, Italian, Spanish and Catalan. He knew some Irish, he said, and read easily in Latin. / After serving as an ambulance driver in London during World War II and serving in some unspecified branch of military intelligence, he and his wife, Mary, moved to Wales. “Dear people, splendid mountains, but a terrible climate”, he said. So, in 1949, they came to Collioure, and they stayed. / Or so he said. / Beginning in 1998, British journalists began to unravel the O'Brian saga. He was not Irish, as it turned out, and not a Catholic. He was born in London and his name was Richard Patrick Russ. He was the son of an English mother and a physician of German descent.’

[ top ]

Quotations
Down to the sea: ‘I am often asked how I came to write about the sea. It happened like this: in the early fifties, when I had finished a couple of difficult novels, one of them quite good but filled with anguish and written with even more, it occurred to me to write a book for fun. In the usual novel of today you have to invent everything, from the names of your characters onwards, which can be very wearing.’ (Cited on “Patrick O’Brien” web page @ www.book.com [ link ].)

[ top ]

References
The O’Brian Page (Norton Press, WWW online), holds The Aubrey Maturin Series Complete Set, 17 vols. (1995); Desolation Island (1991; 1994); The Commodore (1995; pb. 1996); The Far Side of the World (1992; 1994); The Fortune of War (1991; 1994); H. M. S. Surprise (1991; 1994); The Golden Ocean: A Novel (1994; 1996); The Ionian Mission (1992; 1994); The Letter of Marque (1990; 1992); Master and Commander (1990; 1994); The Mauritius Command (1991; 1994; ); Men-Of-War: Life in Nelson’s Navy (1995); The Nutmeg of Consolation (1991; 1993); The Pat O’Brian Calendar 1996, Do., with Illustrations by Geoffrey Hunt (1995); Picasso: A Biography (1994); Post Captain (1990; 1994); The Rendezvous and Other Stories (1994; 1995);The Reverse of the Medal (1992; 1994); The Surgeon’s Mate (1992; 1994); Testimonies: A Novel (1993; 1995); The Thirteen Gun Salute (1991; 1992); Treason’s Harbour (1992; 1994); The Truelove (1992; 1993); The Unknown Shore: A Novel (1995; 1996); The Wine-Dark Sea (1993; 1994); The Yellow Admiral (1996).

Belfast Public Library holds Road to Samarkand (1954), and two other titles.

Peter Harrington Books (Cat. 2005) lists Patrick O’Brian, The Far Side of the World (London: Collins 1984), 1st edn., imp., iss. [£1,250]; further, complete set of twenty Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin novels [ill. here in uniform blue morrocco, titles and decorations to spines gilt, raised bands, rule to board gilt, all edges gilt; 8o.], viz.: Master and Commander (1970; Post Captain (1972); HMS Surprise (1973); The Mauritius Command (1977); Desolation Island (1978); The Fortune of War (1979); The Surgeon’s Mate (1980); Ionian Mission (1981); Treasons's Harbour (1983); The Far Side of the World (1984); The Reverse of the Medal (1986); The Letter of Marque (1988); The Thirteen-gun Salute (1989); The Nutmeg of Consolation (1991); Clarissa Oakes (1992); The Wine-dark Sea (1993); The Commodore (1994); The Yellow Admiral (1997); The Hundred Days (1998); Blue at the Mizzen (1999) - all for £8,500.

H. M. S. Surprise (1991; 1994); The Golden Ocean: A Novel (1994; 1996); The Ionian Mission (1992; 1994); The Letter of Marque (1990; 1992); Desolation Island (1991; 1994); The Commodore (1995; pb. 1996); The Far Side of the World (1992; 1994); The Fortune of War (1991; 1994); H. M. S. Surprise (1991; 1994); The Golden Ocean: A Novel (1994; 1996); The Ionian Mission (1992; 1994); The Letter of Marque (1990; 1992); The Mauritius Command (1991; 1994; ); Men-Of-War: Life in Nelson’s Navy (1995); The Nutmeg of Consolation (1991; 1993); The Pat O’Brian Calendar 1996, Do., with Illustrations by Geoffrey Hunt (1995); Picasso: A Biography (1994); Post Captain (1990; 1994); The Rendezvous and Other Stories (1994; 1995);The Reverse of the Medal (1992; 1994); The Surgeon’s Mate (1992; 1994); Testimonies: A Novel (1993; 1995); The Thirteen Gun Salute (1991; 1992); Treason’s Harbour (1992; 1994); The Truelove (1992; 1993); The Unknown Shore: A Novel (1995; 1996); The Wine-Dark Sea (1993; 1994); The Yellow Admiral (1996). .

[ top ]

Notes
Maturin: Dot Wordsworth, ‘Mind Your Language (Spectator, 18 Jan. 1997), notes origins of Maturin name of the principal Stephen Maturin, who is supposed to be half-Catalan; St. Maturinus ordained by Polycarp, d. c.388; further traces the Maturin character to C. R. Maturin of Melmoth the Wanderer fame, and ‘Melmoth’ to a character in John Amory’s The Life of John Buncle (1765-66); likewise traces Jack Aubrey to John Aubrey of Brief Lives fame, though in name only.

Portrait: There is a full-length portrait by Steve Pyke (1996) in the National Portrait Gallery, though not on display [NPG link].

[ top ]