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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Boarding school was primarily a privilege of the rich, but conditions at Shebbear did not betray that fact. The boys took to eating their peach pits to stave off hunger, a habit that little Sidney would maintain the rest of his life. When at home, the brothers proved that they had absorbed their Latin lessons, calling their mother "Mater." But they were not coddled at home either. "Pater" would not tolerate idleness or airs in his boys, who were put to work during holidays learning the furrier trade. 

In 1891, the Russes' oldest daughter, Emily, married Otto Müller, Carl Müller's second but more enterprising son. Russ, perhaps feeling the stress of his intense career, retired the following year, and it was soon thereafter, during a trip to the Continent with Emily and Charles, that the first signs of his ill health appeared. On November 2, 1893, while Emily was in Germany helping with the birth of her second grandchild, Carl suffered a stroke. He had just finished celebrating his son Emil's sixteenth birthday. Two days later, at the age of fifty-one, Carl died with his son Charles and Fritz Müller by his side.

Emily received a telegram informing her of her husband's death. Charles, who at seventeen became the male head of the family, met her at Victoria station. "What terrible news," she said, with remarkable composure. They took a cab home and ate supper. Then Emily went to the mortuary to see her husband's body, remained there for an hour grieving, and returned to her home as unruffled as when she had arrived from Germany. 

Despite Emily's apparent stoicism, the loss of the almighty Russ patriarch shook the family profoundly. Patrick O'Brian's grandfather was said to be a spiky, brilliant, driven man, intensely private. He had been proud and showy in his newfound wealth but had never forgotten where he came from. These traits would travel farther in his descendants than the small fortune he had amassed. Russ's children inherited a fair amount of money, and his sons were gratefully freed of the expectation of becoming furriers. But they also found themselves without their father's discipline and practical guidance, which would prove financially disastrous for Charles, who Mater particularly indulged. At one point, for example, Charles was enthralled with photography and owned twenty-three cameras. Charles's extravagant ways and poor business sense would eventually color the lives of his children, particularly the younger ones, like Patrick. 

One last sad event needs to be recounted before moving on to the next century and the next generation. Mater had already suffered the strange death of her youngest son. In June 1898, she lost her second daughter, Paulina, under distressing circumstances that would become a haunting fixture in the family lore. 

At twenty-four, Lena, as she was called, was puportedly suffering from long-standing acute indigestion, which had led to low spirits. Her doctor recommended sea air, so she and Mater went to a boardinghouse in Cliftonville, on the coast of Kent. Soon Lena seemed to perk up, and Mater relaxed her vigilant watch over her daughter. One rainy, blustery morning, Lena slipped out of the boardinghouse to mail a letter, or so Mater later rationalized when she discovered the girl was gone. In fact, Lena had wandered out to the edge of the forty-foot cliff at Foreness Point, where she sat wild-eyed in the pouring rain. 

Upon seeing Lena, a startled walker cautioned her: "It is a silly thing to sit so near the edge of the cliff, especially on such a day as this is; the cliff has been falling away lately and the cliff might go down and you might go with it." Lena made a show of moving back. The man continued on the path down and around the cliff. But when he was below, Lena called out to him, "Please pick up my umbrella!" 

Copyright © 2000 Dean King

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