The Reverse of the Medal

Article excerpt

[Patrick O'Brian: The Making of the Novelist, Nikolai Tolstoy, W. W. Norton and Company, 512 pages]

The Reverse of the Medal

NIKOLAI TOLSTOY'S new biography of Patrick O'Brian is a useful, if painful, contribution to our understanding of a writer who elevated the popular seafaring tale to the level of truly great literature. Transcending C.S. Forester's estimable Hornblower, O'Brian created something more akin to Jane Austen afloat.

Tolstoy, an historian and distant relative to the novelist Leo Tolstoy, is a devoted stepson of O'Brian. He offers the reader a robust portrait of a deeply flawed human being for whom the world of Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin-ship's surgeon, spy, naturalist-offered a refuge from his own failings and inadequacies.

The Aubrey-Maturin series spans 20 novels, beginning with Master and Commander and ending with a partially completed story, 21, which was published posthumously-"an unforgivable betrayal" by O'Brian's literary estate, in Tolstoy's opinion. They portray life within the circumscribed community of a Royal Navy fighting ship during the Napoleonic War with empathy and authentic detail, recounting not just the routines of life aboard ship and the rigors of war but also the social and cultural realities of the time, on land as well as at sea. While the relatively few combat narratives are without peer, the novels are remarkable mosaics of music, natural history, friendship, and social relations in a bygone era.

This biography, apparently the first of two volumes, includes, as it must, chapters on O'Brian's neglected childhood (his mother died when he was 3); his abusive father; an unfortunate tour in the Royal Air Force; a failed first marriage; his abandonment of two children, one dying from spina bifida; acrimonious custody battles; his change of name (he was christened Richard Patrick Russ); a tormented relationship with his natural son; a writer's block of many years; and his misleading statements or intimations regarding his sailing experience (probably nonexistent), schooling (only four years, failing all exams), and his Irish heritage (German, actually).

Much of this became public knowledge in the late 1990s. Dean King wrote an unauthorized biography of O'Brian in 2000. Many of Tolstoy's criticisms of King and other journalistic accounts may strike the reader as minor or even pedantic. But there are areas where he brings a crucial, contextual understanding to O'Brian's behavior.

It is true, for instance, that O'Brian could not stomach small children. He also regretted, bitterly, his poverty and lack of social standing. These, no doubt, were the reasons for his leaving his first wife, son, and doomed daughter. Nevertheless, he continued to support them financially. He also paid for the education of his son at private schools and tutored the boy himself. Tolstoy is able to portray this situation accurately without justifying O'Brian's many failures.

Tolstoy, whose mother, Mary Wicksteed Tolstoy, was O'Brian's tether to sanity and creativity for over half a century, brings immense advantages to this enterprise. He knew O'Brian for decades. He acquired the author's library, journals, and letters-even the index cards upon which O'Brian recorded his observations of birds.

In The Fortune of War, Stephen Maturin describes a young man suspected of intrigue, whom he had known long enough "to be sure that he was no monster of any kind, except perhaps of erudition." Tolstoy, too, is a monster of erudition whose insights into, for example, the differences between English foxhunting-on horseback and quite social-and the Welsh variety-on foot over mountainous terrain-are illuminating. He provides an excellent portrait of rural life in Sussex, which, in the years before World War II, still resembled the haunts of Jack and Sophie Aubrey.

Tolstoy takes great pains to explore several of O'Brian's "autobiographical" novels and short stories as a means of interpreting his early life, most notably Three Bear Witness, The Catalans, and Richard Temple. …