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.