Patrick O'Brian

(1914—2000) novelist

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English-born novelist in the mould of C. S. Forester who changed his name from Richard Patrick Russ and created the Aubrey–Maturin series of sea novels. His mother died when he was four and his father, a bacteriologist, was unsuccessful, and the boy's childhood was unhappy and dysfunctional. When he was 14 he started writing a novel about a fictional beast called Caesar. It was published as a children's book in 1930 and was well received. He then began writing for children's magazines, and published a book of stories, but he could not earn a living from his published work, and in 1934 he joined the Royal Air Force as an acting pilot officer. For whatever reason this was not a success and his commission was terminated at the end of the year. He continued to have his adventure stories for children published and in 1936 he married, but the marriage only lasted four years. He worked as a tourist guide and in 1938 another novel, Hussain: An Entertainment, was published to considerable acclaim in Britain and the USA. When war came poor health prevented him from enlisting; instead he joined the London Ambulance Service, but in 1942 he was recruited into the Political Warfare Executive. This was a secret intelligence organization whose task was to wage propaganda against the Germans and help sustain resistance in occupied countries, work that later encouraged him to cover his past in a veil of secrecy and subterfuge.

In July 1945 he married again and shortly afterwards changed his name to O'Brian. He moved to Wales, continued to write short stories, some of which were published in book form, and began encouraging the belief that he was Irish. In 1949 he and his wife Mary moved to France, and in 1952 he published a novel, Three Bear Witness (Testimonies in the USA). It established his reputation in America and between then and 1967 he wrote several others, two of them historical novels, The Golden Ocean (1956) and The Unknown Shore (1959), based on the voyages of Anson. Both had been reviewed as children's books but when C. S. Forester died in 1966 an American publisher suggested O'Brian try and step into Forester's shoes. The idea appealed to O'Brian and in September 1967 he signed a contract for Master and Commander (1969/1970). It was the first of a series of twenty novels to follow the adventures at sea of Captain Jack Aubrey and the surgeon and philosopher Stephen Maturin during the Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815). Success and an international reputation came slowly but by the time O'Brian died, while working on the twenty-first novel in the series, the Aubrey–Maturin series had sold more than 3 million copies, and he had been awarded the CBE for services to literature and won the first Heywood Hill Literary Prize for ‘a lifetime's contribution to the enjoyment of books’.

King, D., Patrick O'Brian: A Life Revealed (2000).O'Neill, R. (ed.), Patrick O'Brian's Navy: An Illustrated Companion to Jack Aubrey's World (2002).


Subjects: Literature — Maritime History.

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