EPS Review #39 - Patrick O'Brian, A Life Revealed

The biography starts with O'Brian's grandfather, Carl Russ, and I thought: who cares about his grandparents, why do biographers always do this? But it was actually interesting, even germane. His grandfather was a poor German furrier, who became quite wealthy by moving to London and pursuing his trade. Patrick's father Charles was therefore a bit spoiled and never much of a success himself, and also unloving. There's a picture of Charles' invention to cure VD by sticking an electric wire up someone's urethra, which surprisingly enough never proved popular.

I knew from magazine articles and a British TV show that O'Brian had changed his name and fabricated his past, and had developed into a prickly old man (and even a snob). This was saddening as I had imagined him as a charming erudite person. I was further surprised to learn from this book, that he had married Elizabeth Jones and had two children, the second a girl with spina bifida, and had just walked out on them all one day. Dean King is careful never to criticise, but thinks that O'Brian, in the Aubrey-Maturin series, created the best portrayal of male friendship in all literature. Explanations for his behavior include his father, his mother's death, the War (a secret agent?), his need to be an artist, but it's still a very strange thing. His second marriage, to Mary Tolstoy, an amazingly uncomplaining yet presumably bright woman, lasted the rest of their lives together.

The desciption of Patrick and Mary's time in a Welsh sheep farming community is very interesting. So is the story of his very long journey to literary fame -- his original US publisher gave up on him. One of the chief points of interest to me, increasingly obsessive book collector, is the bibliography: I once spent an afternoon in a bookshop going through old bound copies of "Chums" magazine looking for the original edition of "Skogula the Sperm Whale" written when O'Brian was a child (didn't find it). At one point O'Brian threw away all his author's copies of his books because they were taking up too much space!

Book review #19 was of The Yellow Admiral, one of his weaker efforts. I have since read the next one The Hundred Days, which is very much a return to form, with great action, humor, intrigue, and natural history. Only one left now.

Oh, and the book documents that POB went to his son-in-law's wedding in our very own town of Radlett! Gosh.

Martin wrote: The last one's pretty good by the way, I think.