'Patrick O'Brian - the Making of the Novelist'


by Nikolai Tolstoy

Published by Century 2004 ISBN 0 7126 7025 4 price £20

Reviewing this – the first part of Nikolai Tolstoy’s biography of his step-father [and my first cousin once removed] – for the family history website, I should perhaps begin by confessing that I find O’Brian’s novels almost unreadable. I therefore come at the book as a contribution to family history.

Tolstoy expresses a desire to correct the factual inaccuracies of Dean King’s earlier unauthorised biography and has had full access to a wide range of sources within the Russ family, and of course to his own direct knowledge of O’Brian and his life; he has therefore had much more material available to him than did O’Brian’s previous biographer Dean King – who, nevertheless, with the help of several research assistants managed to add a considerable amount to our collective knowledge. But Tolstoy has unfortunately not focussed on accuracy and many unnecessary errors remain in his text – Charles Russ the furrier was born in Brandis not Braudis; his twelfth [not thirteenth and youngest] child died in tragic circumstances and only one other [Pauline] died in equally tragic circumstances – errors from the first two pages!

Tolstoy has certainly added to our knowledge of Dr Charles Russ and his family, although his interpretations of inter-sibling relationships is not always recognised by some of those he spoke to. He has not, however, added anything to our knowledge of the rest of the family. The book could also have done with more aggressive editing to remove unnecessary errors and to shorten the length substantially by reducing the often irrelevant digressions.
O’Brian was clearly a secretive individual and Tolstoy has been forced to infer many facts from the early novels; whether this is a fair way to go, I cannot judge – not least because I have not waded through the extensive quotes and pages of analysis that Tolstoy has included. I note – without surprise – that several critics in the press have commented unfavourably on the length of the book: at 500 pages for part 1, it does go on a bit!
I enjoyed his description of O’Brian’s life in north Wales – his move there, life in a tiny cottage, his awakening to the pleasure of the hunt; his description of life in London during the war, with O’Brian working for the Foreign Office in the Political Warfare Executive is also interesting.

Is it a book to buy for Christmas? Well – if you love the Aubrey / Maturin novels and are interested in the early development of O’Brian’s craft: yes. If you simply enjoy the books and doubt whether an attempt to understand O’Brian’s early life is worthwhile: probably not. If you want to learn more about the history of our family: then I recommend you browse the website and look at the details for Dr Charles and his wives Jessie and Zoe, of his children – in particular Richard Patrick and his wives Elizabeth and Mary, and of Patrick’s son Richard. Then make up your mind whether to buy – or borrow – the book.