Alan Judd

Past Master

Patrick O’Brian: A Very Private Life


William Collins 608pp £25 order from our bookshop

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.

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