Patrick O'Brian: the Final Chapter

The full story of the author's unhappy brush with fame revealed for the first time

Michael McCarthy
Saturday 26 August 2000 00:00 BST

He so nearly got away with it, and one cannot but think that had he done so, Patrick O'Brian's concealment of his true identity and background would have been almost as satisfying an achievement for him as the great series of historical novels which, in the last 10 years of his life, brought him the fame he always craved. But there are two sides to fame, and one of them is the disagreeable propensity of your admirers to want to know more about you than you find it convenient to reveal.

He so nearly got away with it, and one cannot but think that had he done so, Patrick O'Brian's concealment of his true identity and background would have been almost as satisfying an achievement for him as the great series of historical novels which, in the last 10 years of his life, brought him the fame he always craved. But there are two sides to fame, and one of them is the disagreeable propensity of your admirers to want to know more about you than you find it convenient to reveal.

When he died in January, aged 85, O'Brian was at the pinnacle of his success, revered throughout the English-speaking world for his extraordinary 20-book saga centred around Jack Aubrey, a bluff and courageous naval captain in the age of Nelson, and his "particular friend" Stephen Maturin, a half-Irish, half-Catalan physician, naturalist and spy. The books not only sold millions of copies, their author was compared to Proust and Tolstoy, lionised on both sides of the Atlantic.

However, to his great dismay, his secret was out: the identity he had carefully presented to enthusiastic followers - of an enigmatic Irishman who had served in Intelligence in occupied Europe - had been revealed as a sham. The reality was more banal and a lot less noble.

The story of this powerful writer's last decade (as revealed in the first major biography of his life, to be published next week) is to a large extent that of his struggle to conceal the truth about himself while basking in transatlantic renown. He lost, as he probably had to. O'Brian was perfectly at home in the world of the early 19th century, where courtesy and reserve were second nature and were, indeed, enforced by social convention. But he was not at all attuned to the intrusive era of modern mass-communication which eventually got the better of him.

It is his comprehensive recreation of that earlier period, the Regency world of Jane Austen, which gives such keen pleasure to his readers. O'Brian wrote naval adventure stories, broadly speaking in the CS Forester Hornblower tradition, but infinitely richer than Forester. The background is delineated with an erudition at once staggering in its sweep yet not in the least intrusive: the reader slips easily into another age and hears its intimate small sounds as well as its distinctive speech, grows accustomed to its manners, its culture and its codes of behaviour, even eats its dinners - the Strasbourg pie and the lobscouse, the spotted dog, the figgy-dowdy, the drowned baby.

Through it all winds the long personal saga of Aubrey and Maturin. It is a profound examination both of the depths and the limits of friendship, moving, exciting and hilarious by turns, and of the values they share, which permeate the books and which form one of O'Brian's attractions to his readers, who tend to be neither young nor politically radical. They are immutable virtues, but now very old-fashioned: courage, honour, loyalty, self-discipline, respect for authority, chivalry.

For all that, success for O'Brian was a long time coming. He had been a professional writer since 1945, producing translations from the French, biographies and novels, many of them lauded. But real fame still eluded him when he began the Aubrey-Maturin cycle in 1967. As the series steadily appeared, it began to collect admirers, but only as slowly, it might have seemed, as a ship collects barnacles on its hull. When fame did come, at last, it came explosively, the spark being an article on the cover of The New York Times Books Review in February 1991 which proclaimed the 14 Aubrey-Maturin volumes so far published as "the best historical novels ever written". O'Brian's sales took off, as did his reputation, and by the end of that year he possessed the beginnings of a literary renown that was to grow steadily through the decade.

He quickly became more than just a celebrity: he became a cult in the way that Tolkien did in the Sixties (though for a very different audience). The sense of shared knowledge of his created world seems to link his admirers powerfully and initiates bond at first meeting, exchanging banter filled with arcane 18th-century naval terms such as futtock-shrouds and loblolly boys. It led on to a veritable O'Brian industry: out came dictionaries of his naval terms, CDs of the music Maturin and Aubrey play together, even an O'Brian cookbook with recipes for lobscouse and drowned baby. But his passionate admirers began to ask more and more: who is he?

O'Brian gave a very guarded and enigmatic answer to this. People did not know - even his editors did not know - and he did not want people to know. "Question and answer is not a civilised form of conversation," he has Stephen Maturin say. But, as the new biography of him by the American writer Dean King makes clear, he revelled greatly in his fame - he had a powerful ego and had spent years in poverty and obscurity - and, to some extent, the question could not be avoided. So when the British Library paid him the signal honour of compiling a Patrick O'Brian bibliography in 1994 (thought to be its first for a living author), O'Brian agreed to contribute an autobiographical essay.

He revealed that he lived in a coastal village in south-west France (Collioure, but he did not name it) with his wife, whom he had met during the Second World War. He gave an account of his daily working life as a writer and how he had come to begin the Aubrey-Maturin saga. But, when he touched on his earlier years, creativity took over. He claimed to be Irish. After the death of his mother, he said: "I was sent to live with... relatives in Connemara and the County Clare." As for wartime service, he said: "I joined one of those intelligence organisations that flourished in the war... our work had to do with France, and more than that I shall not say..." He gave the distinct impression that he had played a role in the Europe occupied by Hitler, just as his hero, Stephen Maturin, had done in the Europe occupied by Napoleon.

It all added to his mystique and his lustre yet, naturally, people wanted to know more. O'Brian resolutely kept the curious world at bay, declining to answer any personal question and turning an icy contempt on any of the myriad interviewers beating a path to his door who dared to ask one. But as the accolades flowed in and year by year he delightedly accepted them - the CBE, the Heywood Hill Literary prize, triumphal tours of the United States, a resplendent dinner in his honour at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich - his reticence merely intensified the interest. Eventually the BBC asked if they could make a television documentary on his life and, in what King implies may have been his fatal mistake, O'Brian agreed.

Perhaps his vanity at last outweighed his caution; perhaps he reasoned that he could engage with such a production on his own terms and thus control it. In that he was, at least initially, successful and when BBC2's Patrick O'Brian: Nothing Personal was aired in September 1998 the author's fencing with producer David Kerr was memorable; he fended him off remorselessly. Viewers were left with a picture of a hawk-like man of prodigious intelligence and steel will; but who he really was, and where he came from, remained a mystery.

Not for long. Barely a month later, a newspaper article finally blew his cover: Patrick O'Brian was not who he claimed to be. In a cryptic reference in his biography King says that the TV programme "led to" the newspaper article, but does not explain exactly how. He does, however, give the full, complex story of the author's true identity.

O'Brian was originally Richard Patrick Russ, but had changed his name by deed poll in July 1945. He was not Irish at all but the son of a London doctor of German origin specialising in sexually transmitted diseases. His wartime intelligence activities had been confined to desk work in a black propaganda department in London.

He had changed his name, King makes clear, just after he married for the second time. This was in order to turn his back on a previous existence which had included a first wife and two small children whom O'Brian - or Russ, as he was - had cruelly abandoned and with whom he eventually severed all contact.

Most strikingly, King reveals for the first time just how devastating was the disclosure of these extremely uncomfortable facts for an author who, over a heady decade, had become accustomed almost to worship. O'Brian was "deeply distressed" by the revelations, King writes - not least "because he had recently been awarded an honorary doctorate from Trinity College in Dublin in the belief that he was Irish". He was actually staying in rooms in Trinity at the time, working on the 20th and last of the Aubrey-Maturin novels.

He had 14 months left to live. Can they have been peaceful ones? In an indication of the inner turmoil that his exposure must have caused him, King relates that last year, during his final tour of the United States, O'Brian "refused to answer personal questions and continued to make reference to his Irish background, despite the public evidence to the contrary". The tour ended on a sour note; after a row at a dinner party, he cut it short and went home.

His remarkable effort to embrace renown while keeping his awkward secrets was perhaps always likely to fail. His books had harked back to an age of aristocratic understatement and reserve, but his own attempt to have his cake and eat it in terms of celebrity had been brutally thwarted by a modern mass media which knew nothing of such codes.

"'Tis the white stag, fame, we're a-hunting," cried the cocksure young Ezra Pound, on behalf of writers everywhere. "Bid the world's hounds come to horn!"

Patrick O'Brian would have agreed with that sentiment to the bottom of his soul but, at the end of his life, he surely also knew the bitter truth that if you run with those hounds they will sometimes turn around and turn on you.

* 'Patrick O'Brian: A Life Revealed' by Dean King is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£18.99)

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