ON October 11, 1996, a banquet was held in the Painted Hall of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich – a huge room designed by the astronomer-architect Sir Christopher Wren, its ceilings detailed with images of British maritime power. This was where Admiral Nelson’s body lay in state after it was shipped back from the battle of Trafalgar, preserved inside a cask of brandy. An auspicious space to honour the historical novelist Patrick O’Brian for his written visions of sailing and fighting across ocean battlefields through the Napoleonic wars.
When his novel Master And Commander – newly adapted into a film full of spirit, hot blood and saltwater, starring Russell Crowe – was first published in 1970, one critic said it was “as though, under Mr O’Brian’s touch, those great sea paintings at Greenwich had stirred and come alive”.
Writing from seclusion somewhere in France, O’Brian continued the adventures of the robust and ingenious English Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey and his pale, polymathic Irish-Spanish friend Dr Stephen Maturin, just for himself and a small, loyal readership, until they became more widely recognised throughout the 1990s as constituting a sustained narrative masterpiece. Deciding that thanks was overdue, the newspaperman and war historian Sir Max Hastings booked the Painted Hall, invited O’Brian to dinner, and offered 500 places at the table.
They were taken up by fans from as far as New Zealand, 17 members of the Cayman Islands Patrick O’Brian Society, and the heads of MI5, MI6, and army and navy intelligence. Security was tight. Royal marines played fifes and drums. And the Tory MP Sir William Waldegrave gave a fine speech, thanking O’Brian “for his love of nature and the sea, for his celebration of courage, honour and humanity. We raise our glasses,” he concluded, “to our great storyteller.”
Kevin Myers, an Irish Times journalist who was there, who knew O’Brian personally, and whose heartfelt praise is stamped onto the covers of the paperbacks, says it was “a stupendous night”. “One of the best nights I’ve ever had, and it must have been the greatest moment of Patrick’s lifetime. But looking back, it was the magic hour, before disaster struck.”
Because when they called O’Brian a great storyteller, they had no idea what that really meant. O’Brian was a character, all right – a walking anachronism, a revenant of the 18th century. He would describe a good meal as “prodigiously fine”, and refer to aircraft as “flying machines”.
“I have lived very much out of the world,” he said, proudly, having achieved fame at an old age. “I know little of present-day Dublin or London or Paris, even less of post-modernity, hard rock or rap.” But he knew a lot about the past, in vivid detail and various languages. His erudition was immersive, almost pathological. He wrote translations of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Coming Of Age and Jean Lacouture’s De Gaulle:The Rebel, an introduction to Sir Francis Drake’s Histoire Naturelle Des Indes, and a passionate biography of Pablo Picasso.
With the Aubrey/Maturin novels, O’Brian knew the wooden ships right down to the nails, but also the art, science, music, politics, philosophy, food, social codes and nautical language of the period, and washed his plots and characters in all that clear, living colour. Admirers of those books include John Updike, Tom Stoppard and the late Iris Murdoch. As a literary achievement, they have been seriously compared to the works of Trollope, Powell, Melville, Conrad, Proust and Austen.
“God bless the straightforward writer,” said David Mamet after O’Brian’s death, at 85, in a Dublin hotel room on January 2, 2000. “And God bless those with the ability to amuse, provoke, surprise, shock, and appal. Patrick O’Brian, rest in peace.”
Mamet was more forgiving than some. Because by then, everybody had learned that Patrick O’Brian himself was a largely fictional figure, and they were provoked, surprised, shocked, and appalled, but not amused. “To be honest,” says Kevin Myers, “I can’t even read the novels anymore.”
Myers was among the first journalists to declare O’Brian’s genius in the mid-1970s, and the first to discover that the man had an “extremely unpleasant side to him”. When it came to his private life and personal history, O’Brian was as aggressively, terminally sensitive as a guillotine. All anyone knew was what he allowed them to know – that he was born an Irish gentleman in Ballinasloe, west Galway, in 1914, and had been a sickly, semi-neglected bookworm of a child, but grew up to sail on square-rigged ships, serve in the Special Operations Executive during the second world war, and live comfortably in France with his wife Mary, an ex-Russian Countess.
Initially, Myers wrote a letter requesting an interview, and received a courteous refusal, with thanks for his positive reviews. But years later, O’Brian befriended Myers on his own terms. “He was very civil,” says Myers. “Very entertaining, with an enormous fund of stories.” But when Myers and his wife asked some polite questions about O’Brian’s work in the war, he was suddenly “transfixed with anger”. “He said I was no gentleman, and had no breeding, he was sorry to be burdened with my company. Essentially, he said my services were dispensed with, and walked out.”
O’Brian had once said that he did not regard questions as “a civil form of conversation”, but this was obviously an iron rule extending to everyone. Myers took it as an outrageous expression of O’Brian’s fetish for manners, reluctantly apologised, and put his personal and professional curiosity aside for the sake of the old man’s friendship. “I didn’t know then of all these secrets and shame that he had about the past and his terror of discovery,” he says.
But the more public, popular, and wealthy O’Brian became in his last years – embarking on book tours in the United States and banquets in Greenwich – the more people were inclined to wonder. “There was something about O’Brian,” said Dean King, the American aficionado who wrote A Sea Of Words, a geopolitical guide to the Aubrey/Maturin novels, and went on to make inquiries for his biography Patrick O’Brian: A Life Revealed. “He protested too much about his privacy.”
But when King tugged at one particular rope, the whole fabric of O’Brian’s identity fell down – King discovered that in 1945 O’Brian had changed his name by deed poll from Richard Patrick Russ. He was no gentleman, had no breeding and wasn’t even from Ireland – Russ was born to relatively poor parents, of German immigrant descent, in Buckinghamshire.
He never sailed on square-rigged ships either, though he drove ambulances during the blitz, and did some modest translation and propaganda work for the department of political intelligence. And before he moved to France with the ex-wife of Count Dimitri Tolstoy he reinvented his identity to disguise or escape the fact that, at 25, he had abandoned his semi-literate first wife, young son Richard and infant daughter Jane, who was dying of spina bifida.
Russ had also severed contact with his eight brothers and sisters and, when King tracked them down, surviving relatives offered him their impressions of a “social and intellectual snob” who was bitterly ashamed of his nieces and nephews living in poverty in Birmingham, while lauding the ancestry and Etonian education of his Tolstoy stepchildren.
These revelations first appeared in 1998, shortly after the death of O’Brian’s wife, and his acceptance of an honourary doctorate from Trinity College, Dublin. “I don’t think he drew a happy breath after that,” says Myers. “He was frightened and broken. He thought everyone was laughing at him. He had all that new wealth, but it meant nothing because he had lost the woman he needed, and the self-image that had sustained him.”
True lovers of the novels are uncertain how to feel. Myers, for one, is still certain that O’Brian is “lodged in the literature of the English language in the way that Robert Louis Stevenson is, or Arthur Conan Doyle”. “The Patrick O’Brian industry is just getting started,” he says. “But I know many whose lives were transformed by these books who have trouble reading them now.” Bad men write good books all the time, of course, but O’Brian himself said the essence of his work was “human relationships and how people treat each other”. The joyous humanity and worldly wonder of the Aubrey/Maturin stories, the integrity and decency of those characters, now seem more fictional than ever. But King reasons that O’Brian was trying to reconcile and project himself through his imagination.
“What O’Brian wrote,” he has said, “and how he lived were not consistent. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t moved by life, or can’t move you in the same way.” Any man would want to be like Aubrey and Maturin – tough, smart, good, and happy – and Richard Patrick Russ probably wanted it more than most.