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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Russ set up a shop on New Bond Street, in London's fashionable shopping district, and he quickly made a name for himself as one of the most innovative furriers of his day. By improving dressing and dying techniques, he popularized alternatives to expensive Russian sable. His work won a gold medal at the Paris Exhibition in 1878, and his furs caught the eye of Queen Victoria. But, as his advertisement indicates, he was not too proud to appeal to all women:

[Carl] Russ, court furrier, invites inspection of his Large Assortment of all articles of Fashion in Furs, Embracing all the newest designs in Jackets and Paletots, lined and trimmed fur. Sortie de ball, etc, etc. Specialties. Genuineness of quality and excellence of workmanship at manufacturer's prices. 70 New Bond Street. 

"Never have sealskin jackets been so well and so elegantly shaped, and for the first time they fit the figure accurately," the Queen, a women's newspaper, wrote about his furs in 1888. And if sealskin was too expensive, one could try his musquash (muskrat), which resembled seal quite nicely. 

Russ was not just good at his trade; unlike his father, he was a shrewd businessman as well. He owned several London properties and shares in four merchant ships: John Redhead, Carl Rahtkens, Fernbrook, and Baron Clyde. He grew rich and moved the family to St. John's Wood, an upper-middle-class neighborhood, where nurses watched children playing in gardens and men in bowler hats commuted into the City on horse-drawn omnibuses. Russ's grand home, Clifton Villa, filled with mahogany and walnut furniture and brass beds, was a monument to success. Thirty-one gilt-framed oil paintings and four watercolors decorated the dining room, which was furnished with a table for twelve, a couch and chairs, a massive mahogany sideboard, and both a Story and Clark organ from the United States and a pianoforte. After dinner, Russ and his male guests retired to the garden and smoked pipes or Egyptian cigarettes of the finest tobacco. 

Clifton Villa teemed with children. Nonetheless, Emily, with her piercing eyes and lively manner, always looked the part of an elegant woman from a fine family. She wore gold spectacles, a sable cape, and diamond jewelry. She was unflappable, with a firm but pleasant manner that made the servants prompt and demure. 

Carl was a stout, taciturn man, commanding, sometimes stern, but not unkind. His broad face was defined by an imposing beard, close-cropped on his square chin but hanging Poseidonlike from his cheeks. A dense mustache bridged his sidebeards. Naturally, to a man in his field, dress was important. At age sixteen, Fritz Müller, the third son of Russ's boyhood friend Carl Müller, came to stay with the Russes in London, and Carl often admonished the boy, "Never forget, a top hat, a clean collar and clean boots make a gentleman. " But Russ had few words for his children, though he was good at providing for them. With Teutonic precision, he saw to it that they were all baptized at St. George's Church in Hanover Square and given accounts at Westminster Bank. The family went to church twice on Sundays, and grace was said before each meal. 

This industrious and happy life was tragically interrupted shortly after Emily delivered Walter, her twelfth and next-to-last child, on July 13, 1886. Five months later--on the evening of December 13--a cinder sparked from the fireplace and caught fire to the linen in his crib. Walter burned to death. 

Soon thereafter the eight surviving boys were dispatched to Shebbear College, a long-established boarding school in North Devon. Charles, at age eleven, and his younger brothers Emil, Percy, and Sidney (who was just eight years old) left home in 1888. Ernest, Albert, Frederick, and William soon completed the Russ contingent at Shebbear, a school founded by a Low Church group and later affiliated with the Methodist Church. The brothers often remained at school even during holidays. 

Copyright © 2000 Dean King

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