Cover image for Patrick O'Brian : a life revealed
Patrick O'Brian : a life revealed
King, Dean, 1962-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Henry Holt & Co., [2000]

Physical Description:
xviii, 397 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PR6029.B55 Z736 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



The untold life story of a novelist whose greatest fictional creation was his own identity.

In a 1998 article in New York magazine, Dean King offered readers a small sampling of the secret history of Patrick O'Brian, the creator of the bestselling series of Aubrey-Maturin novels. O'Brian has always guarded the secrets of his personal history with a zealousness that has bordered on the obsessive. And for years his fanatical readers have speculated on the true story and spun myths about his past based on the lives of his characters.

Dean King at last unveils the story of Richard Patrick Russ, a writer and intellectual who emerged from the Second World War as Patrick O'Brian, a persona created in his own imagination and later refined by decades of rumor and speculation. What motivated this radical change of identity? Was it connected to O'Brian's service during the war, or the messy divorce from his first wife? Or was it the inexplicable act of an eccentric genius?King has crisscrossed Europe to speak to long-lost relatives, friends, and colleagues of his famously reclusive subject and has fashioned this wealth of information into a dramatic narrative that will appeal to an audience far wider than O'Brian's already dedicated fans.

Author Notes

Dean King is an established expert on nautical literature and on Patrick O'Brian. His previous books include A Sea of Words (Owl Books, 0-8050-5116-3), Harbors and High Seas (Owl Books, 0-8050-5948-2), and Every Man Will Do His Duty (Owl Books, 0-8050-4609-7). He is the editor of the Heart of Oak Sea Classics series.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

A publishing phenomenon in the 1990s, adventure novelist Patrick O'Brian has written professionally since his first fiction was published as a teenager in the 1930s. Before he struck gold with his Aubrey/Maturin series of Royal Navy tales set during the Napoleonic wars, O'Brian scraped by translating Simone de Beauvoir, writing a biography of Picasso, and churning out assorted short stories and novels. Biographer King was not granted O'Brian's cooperation for the present work, as the author recoils from media inquiry. His attitude, however, can't be enforced on relatives and editors, who supplied King with enough material to at least trace the outlines of O'Brian's life. We learn that O'Brian didn't get along with his family and, over the years, remade his identity by changing his name and claiming he was born in Ireland rather than England. O'Brian's fans will be most interested in the background on the novels, and King delivers the goods with detailed commentary ranging from plot summaries to publication history and a review of each book's critical and commercial reception. Critics disagree whether O'Brian's sea stories rate with Forester's Horatio Hornblower yarns, but the judgment of the marketplace has been unequivocal. Expect this competent life story to attract interest from O'Brian's many devoted readers. --Gilbert Taylor

Publisher's Weekly Review

After navigating the bestselling Aubrey-Maturin novels' far-flung geography and obscure terminology (in Harbors and High Seas, etc.), King discovered in 1997 that the reclusive O'Brian had invented his own life story as well as his characters'--beginning with changing his name from Richard Patrick Russ and concocting a patrician Irish-Catholic lineage. King's biography, though sometimes patchy, portrays a complex, unhappy family history, a multifarious artistic career and a flawed, indomitable personality. Born in England into the large family of a bankrupt doctor of German origin, the sickly Richard (known as "Pat") began writing boys' adventure stories when only a boy himself. This early literary phase was halted by WWII, during which O'Brian worked in the Foreign Office's shadowy Political Intelligence Division, where he met Mary Wicksteed Tolstoy. After the war, they divorced their spouses and married, O'Brian legally changing his name from Russ. Although his subsequent serious fiction was well received, the O'Brians lived in obscurity, at times near poverty, in Wales and southern France, while O'Brian translated Simone de Beauvoir and lesser writers to get by. King's retelling of the origin of Master and Commander and the following 19 Aubrey-Maturin novels depicts how O'Brian transformed an editor's idea for a C. S. Forester replacement into a genre-busting sea-going roman-fleuve. The glimpses into O'Brian's personal life that King salvages from the author's secrecy include estrangement from his surviving siblings and his son from his first marriage. Steering just clear of judging O'Brian's shortcomings, King's charting of this stormy life makes it clear that O'Brian (who died earlier this year at 85) saved his best for his beloved Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Patrick O'Brian, who passed away this January at age 85, did not authorize King's intriguing and extraordinarily detailed biography--which is understandable, since O'Brian fictionalized so much of his life. O'Brian is best known for his 20-book naval series on the Napoleonic wars--and, more particularly, the friendship between the two protagonists, Capt. Jack Aubrey and surgeon/intelligence agent Stephen Maturin. King (author of A Sea of Words and Harbors and High Seas and editor of Holt's "Heart of Oak Sea Classics" series) argues that O'Brian's prolific and knowledgeable writing--acclaimed and translated into several languages--owes more than a little to his divided life, his failures, and his need to reinvent himself. Born in London (not in Ireland, as he claimed), O'Brian changed his name from Richard Patrick Russ after World War II. Previously, he had left his wife (a domestic) and two children and married an English-born Russian countess. From that point on, O'Brian disowned his past, revealing to others only what he chose to invent. Ironically, this new existence allowed O'Brian to write knowingly of injustice, human relationships, love, and humanity. This worthy biography, the first major study of O'Brian, is recommended for all libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/99; the manuscript is being updated to incorporate information on O'Brian's death, so the publication date may slip.--Ed.]--Robert Kelly, Fort Wayne Community Schs., IN (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.