Summary and book reviews of Patrick O'Brian by Dean King

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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Book Summary

Patrick O'Brian was in his mid 70's when The New York Times Book Review proclaimed him the writer of the greatest historical novels ever written. This is the first biography of this famously secretive man.

"It is only in knowing the truth about O'Brian's life that we can fully grasp the magnitude and nature of his accomplishment.... His genius was largely that he had connected with his 'different self' to create from disappointing reality--quite magically--extraordinary fiction, fiction that, for so many of us, embodies the sheer joy of reading.

In 1991, when The New York Times Book Review proclaimed Patrick O'Brian the writer of "the greatest historical novels ever written," making him an overnight sensation in the United States, O'Brian was already in his mid-seventies and had already had two distinct and remarkable writing careers. In less than a decade, O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series, ultimately twenty novels strong, became an unprecedented literary juggernaut, with legions of devoted fans around America and around the world. With O'Brian's death in January 2000, curiosity about the carefully guarded secrets of his life has peaked.

Here, Dean King tells the story of a man, an artist and an intellectual, born Richard Patrick Russ, who first achieves literary recognition as an adolescent, when he publishes a series of popular adventure stories. After the Second World War, he emerges as Patrick O'Brian, a writer of dark, sometimes tortured short stories and highly literary novels. He enjoys success as a translator, even as a biographer. Slowly, the O'Brian persona, forged in his own imagination and refined by years of rumor and speculation, takes form, until his ultimate triumphant arrival as a masterful historical novelist and chronicler of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars.

O'Brian's past--both real and imagined--is linked directly to his writing, as he drew deeply on the painful events of his early life. It has long been assumed that he himself was the model for the polymathic naval surgeon and intelligence agent Stephen Maturin, who, along with rough-and-tumble Captain Jack Aubrey, forms the heart of O'Brian's monumental roman-fleuve. The truth is more complex: each of these indelible characters is wholly original, yet in each we can hear deep echoes of O'Brian's own history.

King's biography, the first ever of this famously secretive man, is an extraordinary achievement, a vivid, searing portrait of an intense and complex human being, whose grudges were as fiercely held as his loyalties; who was as famous for orneriness as he was for brilliant artistic creation; and whose encyclopedic knowledge of everything from ornithology to Catalan history delighted hundreds of thousands of readers and will surely enthrall generations to come.

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 ...

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Media Reviews

Los Angeles Times

[O'Brian] devotees should rejoice at this account of his life, written with appreciative balance, rich with literary insight.

Author Blurb John Bayley
My wife, Iris Murdoch, and I fell in love with Master and Commander and Post Captain as soon as we read them. (This was a rare event for Iris, a famous novelist who hardly ever read modern novels. But she was bewitched by O'Brian.) Dean King's biography reveals in fascinating detail that the private man behind the novels was no less of a magician than the author who created them. This is a truly remarkable book which uncovers the secrets of a professionally secretive man.

Author Blurb Jay Parini, Author of John Steinbeck A Biography and Robert Frost: A Life
Like many admirers of Patrick O'Brian, I've always wondered about the man behind that remarkable shelf of books--one of the unexpected peaks of modern fiction. Dean King has done a magnificent job here, proving himself an able sleuth, putting real flesh on this immensely gifted, complex--difficult, even--storyteller. This absorbing biography provides all the details one could hope for, and more.

Author Blurb Wolcott Gibbs, Jr., Patrick O'Brian's First U.S. Editor
Given his subject's passion for self-concealment, Dean king has performed a prodigy of detective research in tracking down the details of Patrick O'Brian's real life. Much more to the point, however, Mr. King has painted a fascinating, compassionate, honest portrait of a complex and difficult man who was also a consummate writer. The Aubrey-Maturin odyssey seems likely to stand among the major achievements of twentieth-century fiction, and Mr. King now makes it possible for readers to properly connect the work and its author.

Reader Reviews

Ron Hurst

I have just finished rereading the book and confirmed my view after the first reading. It is a superb piece of work. The author acheives a perfect balance between the detailed exposure of O'Brien's private life and the chronological synopsis of the ...   Read More

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