Some years ago I was seated at dinner next to an editor from Collins, Patrick O’Brian’s publishers. I could not resist asking how they viewed my stepfather’s seafaring novels. My neighbour responded that, while they were of an unquestionably high literary standard, they attracted a small and loyal ‘cult’ readership, whose numbers, Collins felt confident, were unlikely ever substantially to increase. There was no reason to question the publishers’ judgement, since successive volumes had consistently received polite but scarcely prominent or (generally speaking) overly enthusiastic reviews. The protagonists, the setting and the style of writing pursued an even course throughout the series, and when, in about 1990, Patrick awoke, like Byron, to find himself a celebrity, no one was more astonished than he.