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

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.

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