Patrick O’Brian: A Very Private Life 
by Nikolai Tolstoy.
William Collins, 608 pp., £10.99, October 2020, 978 0 00 835062 8
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C.S.Forester, the writer of the Hornblower books, died in California in 1966. His second wife inherited the bulk of his estate. His elder son from his first marriage, who inherited $5000, began to reappraise his relationship with his father. Years later, in a self-published biography, the son would depict Forester as a manipulative fabulist, a distant, self-centred parent, a cold-hearted philanderer, and an insecure snob who was evasive about his origins as Cecil Smith from Camberwell. Forester had encouraged a younger writer, Dudley Pope, to make a play for his vast readership once he left the scene, but here too things didn’t work out as planned. In 1967, Robert Hill, an editor at Pope’s American publisher, J.B. Lippincott, decided to give another writer he’d spotted a chance to fill the gap in the market. He wrote to Patrick O’Brian, who duly signed a contract headed: ‘Untitled novel about an 18th-century naval adventurer’.

Hill’s attention had been caught by a chance reading of The Golden Ocean (1956), a novel for teenagers which made it clear that O’Brian knew his way around the age of sail. He had inserted two fictional Irish heroes into George Anson’s voyage around the world in the 1740s, and could do 18th-century diction without being bookish or stagey. The novel also showed he could be funny and knew how to tell a story. Not much was known about O’Brian, who was then 52 and lived in Collioure on the French part of the Mediterranean coast, just north of the border with Catalonia. He had published three gloomily introspective novels for adults, one of which had been praised by Delmore Schwartz, and he was an elegant, speedy translator, most recently of Simone de Beauvoir. Further information was in short supply, and he was unhelpful when publicists tried to elicit more of it, but he seemed to have some sort of Anglo-Irish background. Though he spoke with an upper-class English accent, he hadn’t issued a correction when Lord Dunsany, in a review, had called him ‘an Irish sportsman’, and he had published a story in Irish Writing.

Hill had moved on by the time O’Brian delivered, but his replacement, Tony Gibbs, was delighted with Master and Commander (1969). It ‘leapfrogged over Forester’, he later wrote: ‘O’Brian wasn’t writing about the early 19th century; he seemed to be writing from within it – and with a sense of humour entirely lacking in historical novelists.’ In London, Richard Ollard, an editor at Macmillan, was similarly impressed by O’Brian’s ‘originality, gusto and … really astonishing knowledge of the sources’. He was ‘a more than competent hand at characterisation’, Ollard, a former navy man, observed, ‘except that his women do not seem to be up to much, but that doesn’t matter in a book about a Nelsonic naval officer as the women appear for strictly utilitarian purposes’. In the novel, Jack Aubrey, an open-hearted Englishman and a brilliant ship’s captain but a blunderer on land, strikes up a friendship with Stephen Maturin, an introverted Irish-Catalan doctor whom he takes aboard as a surgeon. There are naval battles and lengthy explanations of different types of sail and other nautical details. But the plotting – at least in a narrow, screenwriterly sense – is less important than the writer’s evident excitement at hitting his stride, and the oddly convincing atmosphere of generosity and high-spiritedness.

Game recognised game: Mary Renault sent O’Brian a fan letter. She was even more impressed by Post Captain (1972), the second instalment, which introduces some more interesting female characters – chief among them Diana Villiers, Maturin’s on-off love interest – and gives Maturin a job as a secret agent whose missions provide occasions for Aubrey’s maritime heroics. But dense passages of interior monologue in the authentic jargon of 1801 were a bit much for many readers and O’Brian’s sales didn’t take off. Lippincott dropped him after the third book, and he continued to take on translation work – Henri Charrière’s Papillon, various books by Beauvoir, a biography of Charles de Gaulle – as he plugged away at the series, now just for Macmillan. In time, the Aubrey-Maturin books became a cult property. Iris Murdoch and John Bayley were fans, and every now and then a laudatory notice would appear in the TLS or the LRB, for which O’Brian wrote in the 1980s and 1990s.*

His life began to change in 1989. Starling Lawrence, an editor at W.W. Norton, read a borrowed paperback of the eleventh book in the series and initiated a full-dress relaunch of the series in America. Two years later O’Brian was on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, and by the time he turned eighty his sales were ticking up into the millions. Soon he was being invited to movie premieres by Charlton Heston, given a tour of a US warship followed by lunch at the Pentagon, and ushered into a banquet in his honour at Greenwich with a fanfare by the Royal Marines. He declined John Major’s invitation to 10 Downing Street but accepted a CBE. With less pleasure he agreed, from time to time, to talk to journalists, and a few details of his early life trickled out: Catholic gentry parents from the West of Ireland; a sickly childhood relieved only by learning to sail; an ambience of ‘French lessons, books, horses, travel, fox hunting and a governess’, brought to an end by the Great Depression; intelligence work during the war, then a decision to write instead of taking up a diplomatic post. The conservative intelligentsia, already enamoured of the novels’ nostalgic, patriotic atmosphere, was particularly impressed by the neat fit between life and work.

In 1998, the year his wife, Mary, died, a BBC documentary and a piece by Ben Fenton in the Telegraph began to unravel his story of himself. The headline findings were that his original name was Russ and he wasn’t Irish in any way. Instead he was the son of a failed London doctor whose own father, a furrier, had been an immigrant from Germany. There was a sex angle too. A son from O’Brian’s previously unreported first marriage, it emerged, saw his father as a manipulative fabulist, a distant, self-centred parent, a cold-hearted philanderer, and an insecure snob who was evasive about his origins as Richard Russ from Willesden Green. The son, another Richard, believed his father had adopted a new identity to hide his shame at having abandoned his family – including an infant daughter dying of spina bifida – in order to pursue an affair with the married woman who became his second wife. Evidence of any sailing experience, let alone that he’d learned to ‘hand, reef and steer’ on a friend’s cousin’s ‘converted barque-rigged merchantman’, as he’d claimed, was elusive.

O’Brian didn’t make any public comment as all this came out, in fits and starts, over the next two years. He hated being interviewed at the best of times – ‘That seems to be getting rather close to a personal question,’ he’d remarked with an icy stare to a writer from the New York Times in 1993 – and having lived in France for fifty years, he underestimated the Anglo-American appetite for dirt. He had known for a while that an American biographer, Dean King, was on his case, and had told his friends to give King nothing. But Fenton’s and the BBC’s revelations forced King to show his hand in a piece for New York magazine, a speculative but disconcertingly thorough demolition of O’Brian’s claims to Irishness. Embattled, infirm, and now paid more than $800,000 per book, O’Brian moved to a set of rooms at Trinity College Dublin, which had given him an honorary doctorate in 1997. There he finished the twentieth Aubrey-Maturin novel, Blue at the Mizzen (1999), and, with the college closed for the Christmas holidays, died in a nearby hotel on 2 January 2000. King’s Patrick O’Brian: A Life Revealed, with the estranged son as star witness, was published two months later.

A Very Private Life is the second and final part of a 1100-page counterblast to King’s book by Nikolai Tolstoy, the second Mrs O’Brian’s son from her marriage to Count Dimitri Tolstoy, the man she left for O’Brian. Under the terms of the divorce the younger Tolstoy, who was four years old when the marriage ended, wasn’t allowed to see his mother: they didn’t meet again until he was twenty, in 1955. Estranged by then from his father, ‘a solitary, parsimonious and generally morose figure’, and his stepmother, ‘a relentless scold’, Tolstoy came to think of the O’Brians as his parents and refers to them as such. O’Brian paid for Tolstoy to do a PhD, which he didn’t finish, having learned that ‘the life of an eremitical scholar was not for me,’ and later helped pay for his son to go to Eton. Another step-grandchild, Tolstoy’s youngest daughter, was a factor in O’Brian’s decision to move to Dublin, where she was a student at the time. So Tolstoy has good reasons for step-filial piety, which he’s upfront about; he also has access to O’Brian’s papers. He makes no bones about his subject being odd and often difficult, or about ‘my mother’s capacity for self-delusion’, but he’s indignant about the idea that O’Brian was working some kind of con.

Tolstoy – who comes from ‘the senior line’ of the Tolstoys: Lev Nikolayevich was a distant cousin from a less illustrious branch, apparently – isn’t an uneccentric figure himself. He’s best known as the amateur historian of fiercely White Russian sympathies who was ordered to pay Lord Aldington £1.5 million in libel damages in 1989 after accusing him of war crimes for his involvement in repatriating troops to Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union after the Second World War. (The award was later ruled excessive by the European Court of Human Rights.) He is the chancellor of the International Monarchist League, a theorist about King Arthur, and a four-time parliamentary candidate for Ukip. According to The Making of the Novelist (2004), the first volume of his biography, excessive popular enthusiasm for the League of Nations, ‘self-indulgent expressions of concern for the poor’ and a ‘catastrophic breakdown in moral standards’ that made it all too easy for a young man to sleep with ‘some foolish slut’ were three of the biggest problems of the interwar years. More endearingly, he’s given to such formulations as ‘my capital literary agent’ and ‘the amiable singer Cliff Richard’. Repetitive, prolix, not always persuasive in his reasoning and given to occasional dark murmurs about conspiracies, Tolstoy sometimes seems like a character out of Pale Fire. But his biography wrestles honestly with his stepfather’s character, and it’s an appropriately strange way of telling O’Brian’s strange story.

Richard Patrick Russ​ was born in Buckinghamshire in 1914. His father, Charles, was the eldest son of Karl Russ, a furrier from Saxony who had made good in London, becoming a British subject in 1870 and establishing his sons in the professional upper middle class. One of them, Sidney, was a research associate of Ernest Rutherford who went on to play a part in the development of radiology. Charles went to medical school too, and when Patrick – as he was always known – was born, the family lived in a grand house near Chalfont St Peter. But Charles wasn’t a successful doctor; his ambitions seem to have been more as an inventor. At one point he tried to interest the Post Office in a phone box that locked you in if you rang the emergency services (this was meant to deter hoax callers), and he devised ‘an endless succession of ingenious but ineffective and even frightening remedies for afflictions ranging from gonorrhoea to myopia’. Charles had grown up rich but his father died young, the family business was sold and he wasn’t good with money. The grand house went when Patrick was three, after which they moved to Harrow and then to Willesden Green.

Patrick’s mother, Jessie Goddard, a young woman ‘of good family’ who had ‘suffered the misfortune of being orphaned in childhood and brought up in fosterage’, died suddenly of cancer a year after the first house move. Charles sent as many of their nine children as he could to live with relatives – Patrick, the eighth, stayed behind – and retreated further into his private pursuits. He had already withdrawn his eldest sons from public school as part of a financial retrenchment, though he continued to treat himself to new cars and nights out in the West End. For the first ten years of his life, Patrick was left to his own devices, with only housekeepers, his father and a sibling or two for company. Charles eventually found a wealthy second wife, Zoe Center, who bailed him out when he declared bankruptcy in 1925. She was kind to Patrick, though a terror to his younger sister, and seems to have been the impetus behind his getting some formal education: a year at a grammar school in Marylebone followed by three at another school in Lewes. The sickly childhood he would invent for himself probably reflected embarrassment about the absence of a verifiable public school background.

Tolstoy has to turn to O’Brian’s fiction for any sense of the way he experienced this upbringing. ‘The Thermometer’, a short story from 1955, centres on an ogreish father-figure, fond of corporal punishment, who leaves a cowed child in a home laboratory with a copy of the Times to read and instructions not to touch anything. From one of O’Brian’s novels, Richard Temple (1962), Tolstoy deduces that Charles was an outspoken Lloyd George man, and that his son came to see him as being shamefully déclassé. Aubrey’s father, a Whig at a time when the Tories have the upper hand at the Admiralty, blights his career, and Tobias Barrow in The Unknown Shore (1959), a dry run for Maturin, is adopted as a child by a Whig landowner who plans to bring him up to be a marvel of omniscience but instead confines him to a ‘strange, dark, unsocial house, with odd, unsatisfactory servants perpetually coming and going’. Facts are harder to come by, but Tolstoy thinks it likely that Patrick tried and failed to get into Dartmouth Naval College at 13. When he was twenty, in 1934, he joined the RAF but only lasted a month. Tolstoy surmises that he didn’t take well to being told what to do, and he had next to no experience of dealing with other young men.

The failed recruit was already a published author. Caesar: The Life Story of a Panda Leopard (1930), written when he was about 12, was accepted by Putnam’s at his father’s urging, and in his late teens he’d sold boys’ adventure stories with titles like ‘Skogula – The Sperm Whale’. After the RAF debacle he disappeared into a garret in then bohemian Chelsea, at which point the trail goes cold for several years. There seems to have been some highbrow reading – O’Brian knew his way around Joyce and Eliot – and Richard Temple is filled with accounts of the garret-dwelling hero’s sordid sexual adventures. In the 1960s O’Brian told Tolstoy that ‘he had been quite a “bull” in his youth.’ He married Elizabeth Jones, a seamstress from North Wales, in February 1936. Richard, their son, was born a year later, followed two years after that by a daughter, Jane.

Their marriage wasn’t a success. Patrick turned out to have a deep loathing of children which Tolstoy calls ‘pathological’ and connects to his lifelong fear of dirt and disorder. Again his doings are sparsely attested, but Elizabeth said later that her husband ‘spent most of his time abroad on business’. He seems to have written his second novel, Hussein: An Entertainment (1938), in Belfast and Dublin. It’s not clear what business, if any, took him to Ireland. In the summer of 1937 he was in Locarno in Switzerland as a holiday rep for the Workers’ Travel Association. There he had a fling with a young Englishwoman who decades afterwards told Dean King that he had said he was Irish, and ‘had been an RAF pilot until an accident with a propeller had sent him to the hospital, where, he said, the doctors had put a steel plate in his head’. He also told her he was an artist and ‘raved about James Joyce’.

A year or so later, by his biographer’s reckoning, he fell in love with Mary Tolstoy, née Wicksteed. Born in 1914 into a North Devon family with impeccable fox-hunting and army credentials, plus a baronetcy extinguished when her uncles died in the Great War, she had married the count at twenty. Her husband was only two years older than she was but seems to have taken life more seriously. On holiday in Austria in 1938, he made a restaurant owner turn a portrait of Hitler to the wall, while Mary signed her postcards home with a cheery ‘Heil Hitler!’ and got caught kissing a tour guide in a glade. Then she met Patrick and decided he was the love of her life. Patrick left Elizabeth for good in 1940 and Mary’s divorce came through two years later. They spent the war driving ambulances and – thanks to Mary’s connections – compiling reports for the Political Warfare Executive, a propaganda outfit. Patrick was employed on the understanding that his name was Ross and that he had a doctorate from the University of Padua. They married in July 1945. A month later, he changed his name to O’Brian by deed poll.

The PWE job was quite well paid and left him plenty of time for collecting antiquarian books. When the organisation started winding down, the couple rented a tiny cottage in Croesor in Wales, with the idea of living cheaply while he worked on a novel. A diary he kept there finally brings his personality into focus, and far from being an ebulliently self-inventing type he comes across as someone brought to a permanent state of near panic by poor socialisation in childhood and the dead weight of the British class system. On the way to Wales to inspect the cottage he felt unable to eat a pear in the train carriage in case someone thought it not comme il faut. ‘Rich lechers’, he believed, were constantly circling, waiting for a chance to snatch Mary away, and social imbroglios that she was too posh to care about filled him with terror. A dinner party at their landlord’s, at which he was the only man not wearing a dinner jacket, haunted him for years, resurfacing in a novel in 1959.

Living in a small Welsh-speaking community relieved some of the pressure, but there were other problems. Intensive study of John Worlidge’s Systema Agriculturae (1668) and Cobbett’s Cottage Economy (1821) failed to make him a successful kitchen gardener, and there were long-distance quarrels with Elizabeth about maintenance payments for Richard. (Jane died, at the age of three, in 1942.) O’Brian himself paid for him to go to prep school but fretted that he had learned vulgar ways from his mother, whom he now accused of being a drunken slattern. An experiment in home-schooling did not go well: O’Brian couldn’t fathom his son’s inability to memorise Macaulay’s ‘Horatius’ or his unwillingness to write out numbers ‘seriatim up to 1000’, and sometimes whacked him with a Malacca cane. He also discouraged him from playing with the local children on the grounds that they were ‘slummy’. O’Brian became an ardent follower of the local hunt, but didn’t get much writing done and seems to have come close to having a breakdown. In 1949 he and Mary moved abruptly to Collioure, where he began to write, and she to type, with astonishing tenacity, and he was able to rig up a self in which – outwardly, at least – he was more comfortable.

There were rules for dealing with the older O’Brian, unspoken but easy to work out and follow. Any children should be seen but not heard. His past wasn’t up for discussion. It was better to keep any expertise you might have to yourself if you didn’t want a long display of his superior learning. And to contradict him on anything – it didn’t have to be maritime history – was unacceptable. If you did he would go into a cold sulk and write at length about the exchange in his diary. Later, a minor character with your name might be hanged for sodomy in one of his novels. As long as you obeyed the rules he could be affable and generous, though visitors were sometimes shocked by his bossy way with Mary. ‘I irritated Patrick at dinner,’ she wrote in her diary in 1966. ‘I MUST TAKE CARE AND WATCH OUT.’ Tolstoy thinks the power dynamics were more complicated than this makes it seem, and that a mixture of love, codependency and folie à deux was at work. To some extent, becoming O’Brian was a collaborative enterprise.

He continued to help Richard with money and had him to stay in France for the summer holidays most years. They didn’t fall out until 1964, when Richard, who was about to get married, began to brood on his father’s performance as a husband. ‘I decided never to speak to him again,’ he explained. ‘When I stopped, so did he.’ O’Brian stayed in more or less friendly contact with his siblings, who saw his change of name as a writerly quirk. (When he was famous and they were all old and cranky, he offended some of them by saying he was too busy for regular correspondence; again, if they stopped writing, so did he.) He didn’t correct publishers who assumed he was Irish, but for years he resisted author notes. The writers we know the least about, he would say, are the ones we get in their purest form.

It’s clear that his Irish identity became half-real to him and Mary. ‘Votre pays est merveilleux,’ she wrote to him in a postcard from Waterford in 1961. But how he arrived at it is a mystery. Irishness wasn’t an obvious route to increased social grandeur in England in 1945, and had that been the plan it would have made more sense for him to give himself a Protestant background. Instead he intimated that his family was Catholic while privately keeping up – a typically strange touch – a vague attachment to the Russian Orthodox Church, to which Mary had converted at the time of her first marriage. Even the name is a bit odd: ‘O’Brien’ would have been better if he’d been serious about convincing people he was Irish. One of his older brothers briefly called himself O’Brien after breaking up with his wife in Australia in 1930, but there’s no evidence Patrick knew about that. Tolstoy thinks he took the name from a 19th-century maritime insurance document. His admiration for Joyce and happy memories of his trip to Ireland must have had something to do with it. But a wish to draw a line under the past and get rid of his father’s name were probably the key considerations.

So what was going on with his tall stories? The most plausible explanation is that he got caught up in a feedback loop between the characters he’d invented and the author they seemed to imply. To animate his heroes he relied on a certain amount of wish-fulfilment. Aubrey, for instance, wouldn’t sit and squirm at table if he had turned up not wearing a dinner jacket. He makes bigger faux pas than that all the time, and doesn’t really give a damn because he’s an impulsive, great-souled sort of fellow, generously capable of laughing at himself and not given to obsessing about what other people might make of him. Maturin is secretive, learned, highly sensitive, and also a master spy and lethal duellist, with an Irish past he has good reasons not to discuss – he was once involved with the United Irishmen – and extensive knowledge of the country around Collioure. Not surprisingly, O’Brian’s readers tended to assume that Maturin was a self-portrait, and when fame arrived it must have felt less dangerous to reverse-engineer an appropriate biography for himself than to risk throwing light on the messy, sad, class-deformed reality.

By then, he had spent many decades at his desk with his trusty editions of William Falconer’s Universal Dictionary of the Marine (1769) and the Abbé Prévost’s Histoire générale des voyages (1746). Writing, for him, was all about ‘flow’, which was partly a matter of steady production – at his peak he could manage several thousand words a day – and partly a matter of disappearing into your characters. ‘I read Lizzy Bennet’s words to Darcy with even greater admiration,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘JA must have been in a splendid flow for those pages.’ When not writing, he gardened or did DIY or threw darts or played obsessively with a Rubik’s cube: the kinds of thing you do when you’re trying to block interference from outside or inside your head. ‘A day memorable only for sadness & a profound depression,’ he noted after giving an interview in 1997, ‘caused I think by … a flow, in an all too familiar voice, of false reminiscence.’ He felt bad about it, just as he reproached himself in his diary for behaving needily to Mary and rudely to guests, and had bad dreams ‘in which I bullied small children quite disgracefully’. But what was he meant to do? The ‘converted barque-rigged merchantman’ on which he said he’d learned to sail grew out of a ship he’d admired one morning in 1991:

We could not tell her direction but at all hazards hurried up the devilish Béar road: & there suddenly she was far below, heading SE under courses, topsails and most fore & aft sails, looking perfectly lovely, the staysails white interrupted curving △s catching the sun between the square sails – lovely proportions – an entity. We moved farther up; she moved farther out, setting the topgallants & eventually remarkably broad & deep royals. Her course was erratic at 1st … but eventually she settled for I suppose Cap Creus & sailed gently (3 or 4k?) into the blue. Such joy. (& in such a horrible, horrible world.)

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