William Waldegrave

How troll stories blighted the life of Patrick O’Brian

The canards that circulated about his treatment of his first wife and family are finally laid to rest by Nikolai Tolstoy

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Patrick O’Brian: A Very Private Life

Nikolai Tolstoy

William Collins, pp. 576, £25

Patrick O’Brian, born Richard Patrick Russ, never wanted his life written, and this passionate wish presents the first hurdle to someone as fond of him as was Nikolai Tolstoy, the son of O’Brian’s second wife, Mary, by her first husband. Why pry further? Why deploy papers and diaries which O’Brian expressly instructed should be destroyed?

To this objection, Tolstoy can offer two replies, and both are powerful. First, one biography already exists, not only unauthorised but deeply resented by O’Brian in his lifetime; and on the basis of that book, and of partial evidence from one faction within a fairly dysfunctional family, some unpleasant accusations have been made about O’Brian’s behaviour towards his first wife, Elizabeth Jones. Tolstoy now owns O’Brian’s papers, allowing him to counter some of those accusations, and it is understandable that he does not want the record to remain uncorrected.

Second, O’Brian was a fine biographer himself, of Joseph Banks and of Picasso. Years ago, in an effort to keep the conversation flowing at my end of the dinner table at home while Patrick was next to my wife and sister at the other end, I tried to interest a somewhat somnolent guest beside me. ‘Patrick wrote what the Spanish consider is the best biography of Picasso,’ I announced quite loudly. ‘He is a very offensive man, your husband,’ I heard Patrick say. ‘Why does he think that only the Spanish say it is the best biography of Picasso?’

Without stirring up fans of John Richardson’s magnum opus on the same subject, it is indeed true that O’Brian’s book is very good, and though it was not published until after its subject was dead, it was started before; and O’Brian, as Tolstoy shows, perfectly accepted that the artist’s background and family and other relationships were relevant to understanding the origins of his work. So, what was sauce for the goose must be sauce for the gander. But it is possible to wait — and to avoid pointless hurt.

For my part, as a friend of Mary’s and Patrick’s, I wholly sympathised with their desire to protect their privacy. The clear hurt done to them by the destruction of that privacy could only have been justified by some public good. But they were not public people. O’Brian was a writer — for most of his life almost wholly unknown. He made no public pronouncements, fought no campaigns and the details of his very unhappy first marriage were of no possible public interest in his lifetime, even if one accepts that the scale of his literary achievement would one day make him fair game.

Tolstoy is able conclusively, with letters and contemporary sources not previously available, to lay to rest some of the canards. O’Brian did not abandon his first wife because she gave birth to a spina bifida daughter; he had indeed been having an affair with Mary Tolstoy long before poor Jane was born, but he did not leave Elizabeth until after the child died. This is not to say that he or anyone else behaved in a saintly way during the break-up. But those who write about other people’s marriages should be careful not to be too sure they know the truth — let alone confidently to assign blame — when they can speak to none of the protagonists and have little written record to go on.

Tolstoy demonstrates that the story of O’Brian disowning his son by the first marriage is also poppycock: Mary and Patrick regarded Richard as their child, and the latter holidayed happily with them for years as a teenager and young adult. It was his right, of course, to separate from his father and stepmother when he married, and to change his name back to Russ, but Tolstoy shows very plausibly that the break was not initiated by the O’Brians.

And what of Patrick’s bogus Irishness? He got trapped in this after his random choice of the name O’Brian (derived, says Tolstoy, from an understandable desire of Mary’s not to be the second Mrs Russ; in fact Patrick once told me that it was he who didn’t want a second Mrs Russ). Though he truly loved Ireland and knew it well he never, in my presence, laid any claim to be Irish. That others attributed Irishness to him became embarrassing, and I suppose he could have made a fuss about it. But why did it matter?

So many of the nastiest things written about O’Brian, which made his and Mary’s life a misery, fall into the category of trolling: the attaching to the names of famous and successful people vitriolic stories which cannot easily be removed. Their fundamental motivation is jealousy, or pure vandalism in relation to someone else’s popularity. They sometimes derive from people who falsely claim acquaintance with the victim. Tolstoy has a go at taking at least some of the troll stories down.

Does he also add to ‘serious’ O’Brian studies? Patrick would have hated the concept; but just as Picasso’s genius makes him fair game for scholarship, so does O’Brian’s achievement in producing one of the greatest series of historical novels ever written (and some extremely good other fiction too). The answer must be yes. Tolstoy contributes important background knowledge, and makes the case that O’Brian’s unhappy childhood, his disastrous first marriage, his extreme poverty for many years, his love for Mary and his deep attachment to Collioure in French Catalonia, where he lived, all provided raw material for his books.

Of course they did: what writer doesn’t draw on their own experience? The question is, for the kind of literary criticism which regards the text as less important than the context, do we learn to understand where the books came from by reading this detailed account of O’Brian’s life? I think we do. Tolstoy shows how not just one but two pretty frightful men — Patrick’s father and Mary’s first husband, Tolstoy’s own father — damaged the couple. (With apologies to Tolstoy, Mary told my wife: ‘I married a Russian once, my dear. Not a good idea.’)

To those who love (but would also fear to meet) Patrick’s great creation Stephen Maturin, it is indeed fascinating to see how much of himself the author put into the character: the cyclical depression, the blind rages, the sometimes cruel wit, the intelligence, the capacity for love, the courage. I imagine Maturin looking like O’Brian — and not like the brilliant but too handsome Paul Bettany in the great film of Master and Commander. (On the other hand, Jack Aubrey surely does look and sound just like Russell Crowe.) Sometimes Patrick would merge with his character, to the danger of those around him (mostly Mary), remaining in a temper all day when Aubrey would not anchor off the Galapagos and allow Maturin ashore.

Fortunately Maturin never had to drive a motor car. By far the greatest threat to O’Brian’s literary achievement, Tolstoy tells us, was not writer’s block or hostile critics but his and Mary’s incapacity to pass a single year without a road accident, some of them nearly fatal. The television presented almost as much a challenge as the car — though with less risk of death. For someone so exact in describing the workings of that most complex of machines, a Nelsonian man-of-war, O’Brian’s battle with modern technology was comical — but only because it was (just) not tragical.

As Tolstoy shows, O’Brian suffered from an acute form of imposter syndrome. He had to pretend to disbelieve all praise for superstitious reasons (though he longed for it). He thought it ‘obscurely disreputable’ when his British paperback sales hit one million, and above all loved the approval of scholars such as the naval historian Nicholas Rodger, full of insecurity as he was about his own lack of a university degree. Every new book he wrote he initially thought no good, and then would privately accept that it was all right after all — though if Mary (first reader and typist of them all, virtually until her death) lacked enthusiasm, panic would break out.

There were two love stories in O’Brian’s life. The greatest was that of his second marriage. Without Mary there could have been no Patrick O’Brian, the author of world renown, or indeed no enjoyment by Patrick of any kind of successful life at all. And he knew it. The second was his love for Collioure, its people and its wildlife, and his house, Correch d’an Baus, built largely with his own hands when he was as poor as could be. Any guest felt it. He taught me to pick up the call of the Scops owl, and differentiate the bee-eaters. He loved the flamingoes and herons. The little writing chamber he built, with his pens and books laid out, was as touching as the study where that other great historical novelist, Walter Scott, worked — in that case against a self-imposed and honourable penury caused by the failure of his publisher and printer.

Safely in the hands of two great editors, Richard Ollard and Stuart Proffitt, O’Brian lived life the other way round — with wealth coming after years of poverty. But both writers are safely ensconced in that restricted pantheon of the greatest historical novelists. I only wish that Correch d’an Baus had been preserved, because future generations could then have glimpsed the sheer unremitting hard work and discipline that lay behind O’Brian’s achievement — as Abbotsford makes so plain for Scott.