Patrick O’Brian: A Very Private Life by Nikolai Tolstoy - review by Alan Judd

Alan Judd

Past Master

Patrick O’Brian: A Very Private Life


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Patrick O’Brian (1914–2000) is famed for his twenty ‘tales’ – as he called them – about the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, featuring Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, one of the great pairs of contrasting characters in literature. A struggling author for most of his life, O’Brian was in his seventies when he achieved international acclaim. This full and fond biography by his stepson, Nikolai Tolstoy, the second part of a two-volume life, begins after O’Brian’s marriage to Tolstoy’s mother, Mary, in 1945.

O’Brian, the eighth of nine children, was born in Buckinghamshire as Patrick Russ. He had a difficult childhood, his education punctured by illness and the financial embarrassments of his domineering father. Reading was an escape and writing an early compulsion: he was first published at the age of only fifteen. He married for the first time in the 1930s and led a penurious existence in Suffolk with his wife and two children, the younger of which, a daughter, suffered from spina bifida. Shortly before the Second World War he began a clandestine affair with Mary Tolstoy, who was also married with children. During the war he drove an ambulance in London, then worked for the Political Intelligence Department. Both he and Mary divorced, allowing them to marry each other. In 1945 he changed his name to O’Brian (borrowed from a 19th-century sea captain) and the couple moved to rural Wales before settling in Collioure in France, reckoning it easier to be poor in a warm climate. They spent the rest of their lives there.

Tolstoy outlines this early period because it is essential to understanding O’Brian’s later actions and much of his writing. In changing his name he sought a complete break with the past, though he kept in touch with his siblings and, until the boy was eighteen, with his son, Richard. Until the end of his life he fiercely resisted biographical enquiries, insisting that the details of an author’s life were irrelevant to any evaluation of the work. As Tolstoy points out, this was despite the fact that O’Brian was himself a successful biographer of Picasso and Joseph Banks. It’s also worth pointing out he draws frequently on the themes, people and places of his own past, most evidently in three earlier postwar novels, Testimonies, The Catalans and Richard Temple.

Tolstoy quotes from voluminous family papers, particularly O’Brian’s diary, in which he often reveals himself unsparingly: ‘I have an unhappy habit of being v glad to see guests on the 1st day & hating them the next…’ Tolstoy’s access to such material gives this biography a comprehensiveness that no other biographer of O’Brian will be able to match. It contains much detail of family misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Tolstoy throughout seeks to counter the judgements and assumptions made by an earlier unauthorised biographer, Dean King, who argued that O’Brian cruelly abandoned his family, left his daughter to die, cut himself off from the Russes, tried to pass himself off as Irish when he wasn’t and generally lied about his past. Publicity along these lines haunted O’Brian in his last years.

Tolstoy, admitting that he looks for ‘charitable interpretations where possible … provided there be no suppression of relevant evidence’, argues that O’Brian’s abandonment of his family was less brutal than King alleged (his daughter was already dead when he left his first wife), that O’Brian maintained contact with his Russ relatives throughout his life and that he didn’t set out to claim an Irish background so much as fail to correct the assumption that he was Irish (which suited and pleased him), even when awarded an honorary doctorate by Trinity College, Dublin. Tolstoy accepts that O’Brian was sometimes difficult, quick to see offence where none was intended, intolerant of distraction (he had an ‘irrational aversion to children and adolescents’) and clung to his views with the brittle certainty of the autodidact. My own impression (having known him only in his later years) was that his public persona was a contrivance, defended with an elaborate courtesy that meant that you could know him on his terms or not at all.

At the same time he could be generous, charming, thoughtful, self-critical (at least in his diary) and fair-minded towards other authors. His frequent acerbities were often tongue-in-cheek, as when he consoled Tolstoy over a publisher’s rejection by writing that they were ‘only greasy tradesmen, often half knave, half fool, but they often have remarkable pretensions’. His marriage to Mary was one of great and mutual devotion, although his dependence upon her was such that she could have made a case for being domestically and administratively put-upon. But she never would have.

During decades of unexceptional sales, O’Brian kept the wolf from the door through translation work, producing thirty-two books in twenty-eight years. But he died wealthy, thanks largely to the efforts of two outstanding editors, the late Richard Ollard and Stuart Proffitt. As Tolstoy points out, he led a charmed life for one so accident-prone. His motoring misadventures were almost too numerous to catalogue, he never got his television to work, frequently fell off walls or out of trees and, near the end of his life, contrived to lock himself out of a Dublin hotel room, naked. He described all this with his usual wry concision.

O’Brian’s was a writer’s life. In this discursive biography, which includes much on his own relations with his stepfather, Tolstoy convincingly demonstrates how the life fed the fiction and, for O’Brian, how writing fiction was the only way to make sense of life. 

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