Excerpt from Patrick O'Brian by Dean King, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Patrick O'Brian

A Life Revealed

by Dean King

Patrick O'Brian
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2000, 397 pages
    Dec 2000, 400 pages

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Chapter I
A Top Hat, a Clean Collar, and Clean Boots

Thy wife shall be as the fruitful vine:
upon the walls of thine house.
Thy children like the olive-branches;
round about thy table.
Psalm 128

It was once the custom in Germany that a young craftsman who had apprenticed for four years, usually with his father, took to the road to work for and learn from other masters at his craft. He was then a journeyman, and he carried a "wandering book," which the masters inscribed with testimonials and the dates of his service. Before moving on to a new master to serve and learn in another town, the journeyman also acquired the signatures of the burgomaster and police chief and recorded the travel time to his next destination to prove his diligence. After several years on the road, the successful craftsman returned home or to another town where his services were needed and became a master in his own right. 

Carl Russ's good friend Carl Müller, a ropemaker seven years his senior, did just that, wandering from the town of Taucha, six miles north-east of Leipzig, in Saxony, all the way down to Bavaria and back. In 1858, at the age of sixteen, Carl, Patrick O'Brian's future grandfather and the second son of a furrier in Taucha, a town of two thousand people, set his sights a bit higher. He had already worked in Leipzig, one of the fur centers of Europe. He now traveled to Paris, and after honing his skills there, he and an older cousin caught a ship bound for Edinburgh in 1862. Carl's father had perhaps urged his son to go abroad, for he had fallen deeply in debt and would soon have to auction off his property. 

As family lore has it, after the two cousins disembarked, they were walking along and saw a sixpence lying on the ground. They picked it up. A little farther along, they found a half crown, which they also collected. "There's money in this city," the cousin said to Carl, "I'm staying. You go down to London." Russ dutifully headed south. 

In London, the fur capital of the world, he found a burgeoning industry ripe for an ambitious young man. Pelts of every imaginable sort arrived there from around the globe: those of fur seals encrusted in salt, wrote an industry observer, were "moist, dirty, brown and most repulsive objects"; of beaver, "flat and hard as a board"; and of mink and ermine, "frequently inside out; exhibiting a singularly unpleasing appearance." Sold at auctions in Mincing Lane, they were then transformed by the furrier.

By 1869, Russ had settled in Clerkenwell, a workingman's district just northwest of the City, where he Anglicized his given name to Charles (although, for the purposes of this story, I will continue to call him Carl to differentiate him from his oldest son). Once a breezy hillside known for its spas, Clerkenwell had absorbed wave after wave of immigrants after the Napoleonic wars, creating a quagmire of sweatshops and noisome alleys. 

The process of converting a "skin" into a "fur" took hours of tedious, often noxious, labor: blubbering, washing, unhairing, leathering, dying, fluffing, and combing, among other things. Only then was the skin called a fur, ready to be matched, styled, and assembled as a garment. A creative and enterprising sort, Russ fared well at his trade, which he knew thoroughly, from the dullest tasks of transforming the foul hide to the most artful: designing a voluptuous garment to sit on the shoulders of a rich woman. At twenty-six, he established his own business, leasing a residence and shop on Northampton Square for ten years at £50 per year. 

Russ would do well both in business and family-making.  After pledging his loyalty and fidelity to Queen Victoria and to the United Kingdom, he married Emily Callaway, the twenty-two-year-old daughter of a manager of one of London's old-line furriers. By 1876, Emily, a raven-haired beauty with sparkling black eyes, a deep voice, and a curvaceous figure, had given birth to four of the couple's thirteen children: three daughters and a son, Charles, Patrick O'Brian's future father.

Copyright © 2000 Dean King

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