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W.W. Norton & Company

Happy Birthday, Patrick O’Brian, Author of the "Aubrey-Maturin" Series of Novels

December 12, 2009
by Liz Colville
Patrick O’Brian was a beloved British novelist, biographer and translator; creator of the 21-book, “Aubrey-Maturin” British naval adventure series set during the Napoleonic Wars; and so fluent in the customs of the 19th century that he was described as having “walked out of another era.”

Patrick O'Brian's Early Days

Patrick O’Brian was born Richard Patrick Russ, on December 12, 1914, in Buckinghamshire, England, to a doctor and his wife. (O’Brian claimed to have been born in Ireland, though this has been proven untrue.) He “suffered a lonely, sickly childhood,” according to a BBC obituary, and “saw his father fritter away the family fortune.” The misfortunes didn’t end in childhood. O’Brian’s London home was bombed during World War II, destroying much of his early writings and studies. Because of his illnesses as a child, he did not enter the military himself, but studied so intently that he considered himself as possessing the “jewel of authenticity” in his knowledge of 19th-century life, particularly his knowledge of the British Navy. Among the books in his library was a “well-thumbed” 1810 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

O’Brian began his first written work at the age of 12. “Caesar: The Life Story of a Panda-Leopard” was published by W.W. Norton in 2000, as was “Hussein: An Entertainment,” written when the author was 20. Both books had long been out of print until Norton resurrected them for the U.S. audience.

O'Brian's Notable Accomplishments

The Aubrey-Maturin series was named for its principal characters; Jack Aubrey, a captain of the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars; and Stephen Maturin, his ship’s surgeon. The first book, “Master and Commander,” was published in 1969 and was one of several in the series to inspire the 2003 film starring Russell Crowe.
“Popularity came late to O’Brian,” the BBC noted in its obituary of the author. It wasn’t until some 40 years after his publication of “Caesar” that the first installment of the Aubrey-Maturin series made it into bookstores, and sometime after that the books reached across the pond. O’Brian was brought to wide U.S. attention in 1991, when he was featured on the cover of The New York Times Book Review in an article by Richard Snow called “An Author I’d Walk the Plank For.”

O’Brian’s writing has been compared to great naval writers like Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad, as well as to Jane Austen. In a tribute to O’Brian following his death, the playwright David Mamet wrote that the Aubrey-Maturin series “will outlive most of today's putative literary gems as Sherlock Holmes has outlived Bulwer-Lytton, as Mark Twain has outlived Charles Reade. God bless the straightforward writer, and God bless those with the ability to amuse, provoke, surprise, shock, appall.”

The Rest of the Story

W.W. Norton, Patrick O’Brian’s publisher in the United States, wrote in a biography of the author that O’Brian seemed to have “walked out of another era.” In an article on Norton’s Web site for O’Brian, the publishers note that O’Brian often referred to himself as someone of another time. He was quoted in “Patrick O’Brian: Essays and a Bibliography”: “Obviously, I have lived very much out of the world: I know little of present-day Dublin or London or Paris, even less of post-modernity, post-structuralism, hard rock or rap, and I cannot write with much conviction about the contemporary scene.” The publisher added: “ … in his interactions with his publisher, he displayed a level of courtesy and civility rarely seen in our times.”

A private person who traveled to the U.S. on behalf of his American publisher only three times, O’Brian seems to have benefited from a life of seclusion in a farmhouse in the village of Collioure, France, where he spent nearly 50 years. He survived his second wife, Mary, by two years. Fluent in French and Catalan, he churned out 20 novels and one incomplete manuscript in the Aubrey-Maturin series, as well as biographies of noted figures, including Pablo Picasso and Sir Joseph Banks. He also translated French works by authors such as Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Lacouture. O’Brian is thought to have based the character of Stephen Maturin, who is of Irish and Catalan descent, on himself.

O’Brian died in a Dublin hotel room on January 2, 2000, according to a Web site devoted to him. His body was flown back to Collioure, and he was buried there next to his wife. Though he had said he would end the series at 20, he began a 21st book in the Aubrey-Maturin series, “The Final, Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey,” which was published posthumously in 2004 and displays O’Brian’s handwritten and typed manuscript pages side by side.

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