Patrick O'Brian: The Making of the Novelist, 1914-1949

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9780393061307: Patrick O'Brian: The Making of the Novelist, 1914-1949

A complex, layered portrait of the man considered by many to be the greatest British novelist of the twentieth century.

This is the story of Patrick O'Brian's life up to his decision to move to Collioure in the south of France. His childhood; his precocious writing success; his sailing experiences; and the truth behind his first marriage, divorce, and name change are set forth with candor and sympathy. Along the way Nikolai Tolstoy reveals the seeds of inspiration that would one day lead to comparisons to Jane Austen and even Homer. Tolstoy was O'Brian's stepson, and their acquaintance lasted forty-five years. He stayed with his mother and O'Brian at their French home and was a frequent correspondent with the reclusive author, discovering facets of his character and creative genius that were hidden from others. Over the years he accumulated a vast collection of the author's papers, correspondence, and notebooks, many of which are reproduced here. On the basis of this trove of original material, Tolstoy has written the definitive biography that O'Brian and his admirers deserve. 16 pages of illustrations

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About the Author:

Nikolai Tolstoy is a highly recognized historian and biographer. He is a White Russian and heir to the senior line of the Tolstoy family. His great-grandfather was a cousin of the world-famous novelist. In compiling Victims of Yalta, Tolstoy spent five years of intensive research traveling all over Europe to interview survivors and inspect sites of repatriation operations. His previous works include The Coming of the King, The Quest for Merlin, The Minister and the Massacres, The Night of the Long Knives, Stalin's Secret War, and The Tolstoys. He lives in Somerset, England.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER ONE: Embarkation

My mother groan'd, my father wept,
Into the dangerous world I leapt;
Helpless, naked, piping loud,
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.
(William Blake, 'Infant Sorrow')

For much of his life Patrick O'Brian was widely reputed to be of Irish ancestry and brought up and educated in that country. In fact he was born and educated in England, possessed not a drop of Irish blood, did not visit Ireland before his early twenties, and assumed the surname O'Brian by deed poll in 1945. It was not until October 1998 that anyone, beyond a diminishing circle of close relatives and friends old enough to have known him before his transformation, became aware of the fact that this aspect of his persona represented a fiction as imaginative as anything found in his novels. In that year, however, his innocuous pretence was exposed to worldwide publicity and strangely ill-informed comment.

Patrick's paternal ancestry was in reality German. His grandfather, Karl Russ, was born in 1842 at Braudis, near Leipzig in Saxony. According to family tradition the family had migrated some generations earlier from Eastern Europe, which may account for their surname, Russe being German for 'Russian'. For several generations the family had conducted business as furriers. Young Karl possessed an adventurous spirit, and after completing his apprenticeship travelled to Belgium and France, before eventually settling in Britain in 1862. After working for a number of City firms, he followed the family tradition by setting himself up as a furrier. His industry and enterprise made business so profitable that in 1874 he was able to buy a shop in the West End, at 70 New Bond Street, where the fine quality of his garments swiftly attracted the custom of the fashionable world. Four years later he was awarded a Gold Medal at the Paris Exhibition, and before long amassed a considerable fortune.

In 1870 Karl had become a naturalised British subject, anglicising his name to Charles, and two years later married a charming twenty-two-year-old girl, Emily Callaway. He bought and furnished lavishly a large house in St John's Wood, and became a characteristic figure of solid Victorian prosperity and respectability. His wife fulfilled another familiar aspect of Victorian upper middle-class life, bearing him thirteen children during the fourteen years which followed their marriage, the last of whom sadly died five months after his birth.

Two more died in tragic circumstances, while the eldest daughter Emily returned to Germany, where she married and settled down. In 1893, while his wife was staying with Emily to assist with the birth of her first child, Karl Russ died at the age of fifty-one. His health had been deteriorating for three years, and it became necessary to sell the business.

The head of the family was now Patrick's father Charles, his father's eldest son, who was only seventeen at the time of the bereavement. In common with many of their more enterprising compatriots, the Russ family had by now become effortlessly absorbed into middle-class English society. There being nothing particularly Teutonic about 'Russ', it had not even been thought expedient (as with many other immigrant families) for Karl Russ or his sons to anglicise their surname. This attitude was confirmed by the family's immunity from the hysterical outburst of Germanophobia which erupted in Britain at the outset of the Great War, when patriotic citizens expressed defiance of the enemy by flinging stones at dachshunds in the streets. In February 1917, as the British army prepared for its bloody assault at Arras, a schoolfriend presented Patrick's elder brother Victor with an instructive work entitled 'The History of the Hun'. Clearly it did not occur to either that a Russ could be anything but a patriotic Briton.

Karl Russ's eight sons had been educated at a reputable minor public school, Shebbear College in North Devon, to which his son Charles in turn sent two of Patrick's elder brothers. One of the major purposes of the English public school system as it evolved in Queen Victoria's reign was to produce a homogeneous class of gentlemanly administrators, qualified by classical education, probity of character, and physical prowess to administer a burgeoning economy and ever-expanding Empire. While this system was by nature highly élitist, within its enclosed and unselfconscious world distinctions of class and wealth were largely eschewed as 'bad form', and respect was primarily gained by status within the school hierarchy, above all through prowess on the playing-field.

There was consequently nothing in Patrick's family background to provide him with rational cause for embarrassment. Nor is there any reason to suppose that self-consciousness over his German ancestry played any part in his dramatic decision years later to sever himself from his roots. None of his brothers and sisters is recorded as having suffered any disquiet on this score: on the contrary, his inexplicable decision to abjure the family name provoked surprise and offence. They were justifiably proud of their grandfather's remarkable achievement, and Patrick's elder brothers Victor and Bernard were at pains to ensure that his grave in the family vault at Hampstead Cemetery was kept in good repair.

Both Charles Russ and his younger brother Sidney used their inheritance to put themselves through medical school. Of the two, it was Sidney who prospered. Before obtaining his doctorate in physics in 1909, he spent his early postgraduate years as a demonstrator in Manchester, where he studied under Lord Rutherford. He also worked with Röntgen in Germany, and returned to England to become a pioneer in understanding of radioactive material. In due course he was appointed Emeritus Professor of Physics at Middlesex Hospital Medical School, received numerous prestigious acknowledgements of his outstanding authority in his field, and was author of a number of scholarly books. He collaborated with medical colleagues in pursuing research on the effects of radiation on human tissues, specialising principally in the treatment of cancer. For his achievement in the field of radium work he was awarded the CBE in 1931. Many years later Patrick, who admired his uncle's achievements, received the same honour from the King's granddaughter.

Though he too was endowed with considerable talent and energy, Sidney's elder brother Charles was to prove erratic — not to say eccentric — in his scientific pursuits and achievements. Ultimately his career would prove a failure — as the evidence suggests, an embittered one — but all that lay in the future.

Charles married in 1902, a year before he qualified at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington. His bride, Jessie Goddard, was accounted by all who knew her a beautiful, intelligent, and sweet-natured girl. He was thirty-six and she twenty-four, an age difference by no means unusual for married couples at the time. Their marriage appears to have been one of unalloyed happiness. Jessie came of good family, but suffered the misfortune of being orphaned in childhood and brought up in fosterage. However she was well educated and a gifted painter. Patrick's brother Victor understood that his mother had been a fashion artist before her marriage.

Jessie bore her uxorious husband nine children in fifteen years. After living for some time in successive London homes, in 1908 Charles established his growing family in a handsome country house situated in what was then an unspoiled rural backwater in the valley of the little River Misbourn, between Chalfont St Peter and Gerrards Cross in south-east Buckinghamshire. Its extensive grounds and fine trees had led a previous owner to name it 'Walden', after Thoreau's famous wilderness retreat. The interior of the house reflected much of the splendour of grandfather Karl's house in St John's Wood, with ponderous family furniture, portraits, and silver laid out in lavish display.

It was an idyllic spot for young children to grow up, and the young Russes were fortunate in being numerous enough to organise their own complex and imaginative games in the grounds. The oldest was Godfrey, who was born just over nine months after his parents' marriage. Next came Victor, followed by their first daughter Olive. In 1909 a third son Michael arrived, who was succeeded in the following year by twin daughters Nora and Connie, and a further son Bernard in 1912. Patrick, the subject of this biography, was born at the end of the momentous year 1914. Christened Richard Patrick, he was known throughout his life as Patrick.

For the ever-increasing tribe of young Russ children, Walden was a self-sufficient magical world. Each child was known by a nickname. Some were customary abbreviations such as 'Olly' for Olive or 'Mike' for Michael, while others were more arcane. Godfrey was known as 'Roguey', Victor as 'Bew', Nora as 'Bish' (supposedly from a preference for using her bishop at chess), while Bernard was 'Bun' - a diminutive by which Patrick knew him throughout his life. Little Patrick became simply 'Pat'.

The atmosphere at Walden was overwhelmingly secure and happy. Uncle Sidney, who joined the family as a permanent resident, was popular with the children, in whose games he frequently joined. Jessie Russ was devoted to her family. An active gardener, she also retained her skill and enthusiasm for painting. Bernard later recalled how 'Mother loved gardening, and I remember her setting up her easel on the lawn and creating lovely watercolours of her beloved flowers', while Victor 'remembered her painting a flower picture for their Fathers birthday . . . [he] attributed his love of gardening to his Mothers influence'. Jessie Russ was always present as a focus of comfort and security to her youthful tribe, as they tirelessly romped around the house and its spacious grounds.

During the week the children saw little of their father, who travelled each day with his brother from nearby Denham railway station to his work in London. From 1906 until 1912 he wo...

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