Patrick O'Brian

(1914 - 2000)

'If Jane Austen's naval brothers had written novels, they might have written the novels of Patrick O'Brian.'

A. S. Byatt

The young writer

Biographers have found it hard to separate truth from rumour in the life of Patrick O’Brian. For many years reviewers and journalists thought O’Brian was his birth name and that he was Irish, an untruth O’Brian did nothing to dispel. O’Brian was born Richard Patrick Russ in Chalfont St Peter, Buckinghamshire, the eighth of nine children. His mother died when he was three years old and the young O’Brian lived an isolated childhood, with few friends and only intermittent schooling. Left to his own devices in the countryside, O’Brian developed a lifelong love of natural history and took to writing stories. The first Patrick O'Brian book was published in 1930, when was aged just 15, entitled Caesar: The Life Story of a Panda-Leopard, and his career as an author began. After a brief attempt to become a pilot with the RAF, O’Brian began to earn a living writing adventure stories for boy's magazines and annuals (still under his birth name ‘Russ’), moving to London in 1935. It was there that he met his first wife, Elizabeth Jones, whom he married in 1936. They had two children together and moved to a remote cottage in the country, where O’Brian could write.

An unclear war

The onset of the Second World War was a major turning point in O’Brian’s life. Leaving his young family behind in the country he returned to London to help with the war effort. It is unclear exactly what O'Brian's wartime role was - ambulance driver, intelligence gatherer or spy - but during his time in London he met Mary Tolstoy, the estranged wife of Dmitri Tolstoy, a Russian count. They lived together for the remainder of the war in London as they divorced their respective spouses. Married in July 1945, they soon moved to a remote valley in northern Wales. After his marriage O’Brian never used the name ‘Richard Russ’ again and legally changed it to ‘Patrick O’Brian’.

A life-long partnership

In 1949 after the situation in Europe had stabilised, the O’Brians moved to the south–western French town of Collioure, a town that would become their home for the next four decades. The picturesque Catalan town was renowned as a haven for artists and writers, with such luminaries as Pablo Picasso becoming acquaintances of the couple.

O’Brian wrote numerous novels and short stories throughout the 1950s and 1960s, which were well received by critics, also working as a translator on such projects as the first English language edition of Henri Charriere's Papillon, and several of Simone De Beauvoir's works. However, it was not until 1969 and the publication of Master and Commander, the first in the Aubrey-Maturin series, that his literary reputation really began to develop. The first of a series of 20 novels, this was to be O’Brian’s greatest legacy. The adventures of naturalist and physician Stephen Maturin and Captain Jack Aubrey in the early 19th-century Royal Navy have become much-loved classics. Unlike many historical novels, O’Brian stayed true to history, his stories intertwining with real events from the Napoleonic wars and characters speaking in realistic and meticulously researched speech. He wrote his books using pen and ink, which Mary then typed and ‘made pretty’ to be sent to the publisher.

Unwanted attention

Patrick O'Brian books proved hugely popular in Europe and when they were re-launched in the USA in the early 1990s he received world-wide fame. However, O'Brian was by nature a private and reserved man and with the death of his beloved Mary in 1998, he drew into himself. He died in 2000 whilst in Dublin and he was buried beside Mary near their home in Collioure.

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