The sea novels of Patrick O'Brian, featuring the complex relationship between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, constituted one of the most remarkable publishing phenomena of the twentieth century. Twenty volumes appeared, eventually attracting millions of readers throughout the world, but this degree of success did not come quickly or easily; at first the books appealed only to a small band of enthusiasts, and for a long time they were not published in the USA at all. Towards the end of his life, however, O'Brian made two triumphal publicity tours in America and a banquet was held in his honour at Greenwich, attended by numerous well-known people from the worlds of the Services, government, and literature.
Readers naturally wanted to know as much as possible about the author, but O'Brian seemed determined to frustrate them. He was deeply reticent about his personal life and background, and the few 'facts' he did reveal, such as his Irishness, were mostly fictional. It turns out, indeed, that he had reinvented himself almost completely, and the persona he presented to the world was almost as much of a literary creation as were his novels.
O'Brian was a Londoner, born Richard Patrick Russ in 1914; he changed his name to O'Brian by deed poll at the end of the Second World War, during which he had been involved in intelligence work. By this time he had already published several novels and numerous short stories. He had also abandoned his first wife, son, and daughter—a girl who suffered from spina bifida and died soon afterwards at the age of three. King doesn't know what prompted Russ to take this momentous step, which led to great bitterness not only with his wife and, later, his son, but also with his numerous siblings.
During the war Russ met Mary Tolstoy, a "Society girl" from Devon; both were driving ambulances in the blitz, and both were recovering from painful marital breakup. They fell in love, and after their respective divorces they married. This was in 1945, at which time Russ also changed his name to O'Brian and made the decisive break with his former life. The couple went to rural Wales, where they lived until 1949, when they moved to Collioure in the south of France.
Here O'Brian continued to write, receiving critical approval though sales were mostly modest; he also carried out a good deal of literary translation from French, which was widely praised. King provides useful critiques of the books O'Brian wrote at this time, which will be helpful to readers who wish to explore the writing that preceded the Aubrey–Maturin books. Notable among this were two novels about the sea which partly prefigured the later saga. O'Brian began to write this in 1967, and continued to do so right up to his death, appropriately in Dublin, in January 2000.
King sees Stephen Maturin, the naval surgeon who doubles as a secret agent, as partly based on O'Brian himself, and this seems plausible. Maturin is a complex character, saturnine, touchy and difficult in many ways, and the same is true of his creator. King is generally perceptive about O'Brian's books and how they connect with their author's life and character. He remarks on the frequency with which unsatisfactory father–son relationships keep cropping up in O'Brian's writing: Maturin is illegitimate, and Aubrey has a bad relationship with his father. O'Brian himself had a distant relationship with his father, and his own son, Richard, eventually severed connection with him. Although Richard lived for a time with Patrick and Mary, he never fully accepted his father's abandonment of his mother and in 1964, at the age of 27, he changed his name back to Russ. Patrick broke with him at this point.
Earlier, and very remarkably, O'Brian had actually stored some dynamite (without a detonator) under his son's bed, though King resists the temptation to ascribe psychological significance to this. Later Patrick also fell out with his brother Barney, who was writing his autobiography; Patrick wrote to him insisting that his own name should not be mentioned if at all possible, and when Barney demurred the brothers ceased to write to each other.
There was a curious strain of snobbishness in O'Brian's make-up. He delighted in his friendship with members of the aristocracy and was embarrassed by the fact that he had built part of his house in France with his own hands. Bringing a visiting journalist back from the airport to Collioure, he pointed out a chateau belonging to "one of the oldest and still richest families in the region", with whom he and Mary "had struck up a very intimate friendship, rare for these parts". They had achieved this, he said, thanks to "genius and beauty".
Some of the contradictions and inconsistencies in O'Brian's portrayal of himself had already emerged in his lifetime, but this biography greatly amplifies the picture. King is evidently an admirer of the Aubrey–Maturin novels, and enthusiasts, among whom I'd certainly count myself, will undoubtedly want to read this book to learn more about their author. Although King doesn't try to hide the flaws in O'Brian's character, he does a good job of showing how they were in a sense reconciled in the great fictional series that emerged from them. It was, he suggests, O'Brian's own loss and failure that created Maturin's highest quality and principal goodness: his indignity at injustice and his love for and protection of the weak. The relationship between an author's life and work, always a complex matter, is particularly close in O'Brian's case.
Although King has researched his subject conscientiously, his book, as he admits, leaves important gaps unfilled. A notable omission is any discussion of O'Brian's religious views. Both he and Mary were apparently practising Catholics although they chose to have their marriage solemnised in a Russian Orthodox church. O'Brian was still alive during the time King was writing (he died two months before publication) but he did not co-operate; indeed, he told some friends and colleagues not to help King. Nevertheless King did get help from many people, including O'Brian's son Richard.
Reading a biography of an author whose books one admires doesn't always increase one's understanding or appreciation of the works in question, but in this case I think it does. King prefaces his book with a lengthy quotation from Samuel Johnson, one of O'Brian's favourite authors, in which Johnson—evidently writing from personal experience—says that it is wrong to accuse someone of hypocrisy for failing to live up to his own maxims. This is surely right. We should be grateful to O'Brian for giving us these magnificent books, which stand as a major literary achievement of the twentieth century and far transcend the often-despised genre of historical fiction.