Patrick O'Brian . . . again!

Since I made it to the, um, final rounds in the BoB thingy I feel under a little pressure to come up with a super-literary post. Luckily, I have a perfect topic. Not only is it, you know, literary, but also it gives me yet another opportunity to blab about my favorite author, Patrick O'Brian, and perhaps entice new readers to give him a try.

I just started reading his new biography, Patrick O'Brian: The Making of the Novelist, 1914-1949, by Nikolai Tolstoy. As you may recall, O'Brian came under some scrutiny and negative criticism in the late '90s when it was revealed that in his youth he had deserted his (first) wife and their severely disabled child, changed his name from Russ to O'Brian, and acted as though his previous life had never happened. He allowed people to believe he was born and educated in Ireland (he wasn't), and had very little contact with his family of origin. He remarried, moved to France, and churned out no less than twenty amazing novels about the British Royal Navy in the Napoleonic era, co-starring Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin.

O'Brian led the life of the Reclusive Author and as far as I know he didn't dignify his detractors with a response to these base accusations. But his stepson (his second wife's son) has done so in this new tell-all biography. Wooo-hooo!

I haven't gotten very far -- ok, I'm only on page 11 -- but since when have I ever waited to finish a book before reviewing it? It's a very bad habit, I know, but I have a hard time keeping quiet while I'm reading. And what I've read so far doesn't bode well, unfortunately. Here's a sample:
Jessie bore her uxorious husband nine children in fifteen years. After living for some time in successive London homes, in 1908 Charles established his growing family in a handsome country house situated in what was then an unspoiled rural backwater in the valley of the little River Misbourn, between Chalfont St Peter and Gerrards Cross in south-east Buckinghamshire.

Well, I'm sorry to be so snarky, but first of all, isn't it already obvious that her husband must have been pretty randy uxorious if she bore him nine children in fifteen years? Adding the word uxorious just sounds like he's showing off. And what about successive? What else could the houses have been but successive? Concurrent? What he meant was "a succession of." And let's not even get into how clunky and un-mellifluous is the rest of that sentence.

And what makes this so painful is that Patrick O'Brian's writing is truly exquisite, on every level. Take out your mental magnifying glass and go word by word: not one is out of place. The rhythm and flow of his writing is perfect. And the bigger picture: character, setting, plot, structure. Wonderful. The mix of humor and drama, the pacing of the action, the incredibly three-dimensional characters, the vivid descriptions of shipboard life, all come together for a reading experience like no other.

My husband's favorite aspect of the series is the naval battles. He's a history teacher, and he especially loves military history, tactics, strategy, etc. So he really grooves on the battle scenes. To me? These books are about true friendship and good manners. (Can you have one without the other?) I really like 19th century manners, at least as they are portrayed in fiction. I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Maturin's pet peeve that question-and-answer as a form of conversation is extremely rude. I would like it very much if we asked permission to use each other's first names. (Cf. the O'Brian novel, I forget which one, where Stephen absentmindedly signs a letter to Sir Joseph with his first name only, and Sir Joseph -- the head of Naval intelligence -- writes back how honored he is to be on a first-name basis with him.)

Patrick O'Brian was big on 19th century manners too. Of course he didn't dignify his detractors with a response! But I will keep slogging away at this biography and when I find out what really happened I'll let you know.


  • Well you've turned me off the stepson's book, but made me desperately keen to get my hands on a Patrick O'Brian novel! (I'd not heard of him)

    Funny word, 'uxorious'. I was just wondering the other day why there is no female equivalent (and wrote a short post about this, believe it or not!)

    posted by Blogger jellyhead on 4:13 PM  

  • I was just checking the finalists over at the BoBs and saw you made it so I had to dash (as fast as my slow-assed computer would let me) over to congratulate you!

    You deserve it girl!

    posted by Blogger Sleeping Mommy on 4:32 PM  

  • Congratulations on your nomination!

    posted by Blogger Suzanne on 8:47 PM  

  • Wonderful news about your nomination! I don't keep up w/ these contests, but for you, I'll check it out. :) I won't even joke about all the ice cream you must have sent...

    posted by Blogger GEL on 11:11 PM  

  • I did not know he was your favorite. I bought Master and Commander for my husband last Christmas and he never got around to it. I thought it would be all war stuff and so I didn't pick it up either. Since I respect your literary opinion so very highly, I'll think hard about reading it. Or should I start with something else?

    posted by Anonymous Laura on 11:23 PM  

  • Hi hon, (hubby here)

    Sorry Tolstoy jr. (2nd? 3rd?-??) didn't come through--seemed like a promising 'brand'. I guess I DID hope you'd read it (and enjoy it!) and tell me about the "REAL" Patrick O. I very much prefer my favorite authors/composers/etc. to be likeable, or at least, respectable. It's bothered me that he was such a let-down

    In teaching about Romanticism this semester, I looked into Richard Wagner's antisemitism. I'd known it was there, but never read up on it. (It was actually rather interesting to see *how* he connects with Hitler--there's more than just the 'Germanic' nature of his music and his having made/written harshly antisemitic statements. His daughter actually befriended Hitler. There are many sites that cover this--I'm not sure how this one compares: .) But in reading about him, the websites indicate he wasn't as bad as some other composers--Chopin, Brahms, etc.

    Darn it all--why can't these creative geniuses keep their private lives in order---you know, the way *I* want them to be?

    Hmmm. I'm thinking there's a lesson in there somewhere.
    For my 10th graders. And for me. And for some of the leaders of this great, 'free', diversity-loving?, country of ours.

    --Bookworm Hubby

    p.s. for the record, I ALSO like the parts of the O'Brian's books that deal with character-to-character interaction---but I am a plot-driven reader.

    posted by Anonymous bookworm hubby on 11:06 AM  

  • Congrats on being a finalist! If you win does that mean that in the parallel universe I win too? ;)

    posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 12:55 PM  

  • Congratulations, Julie! I wish I could figure out how to vote. Do you just leave a comment?

    (P.S. I followed a referrer back to the BoBs last week, and all I can say is... thanks.)

    posted by Blogger Phantom Scribbler on 4:53 PM  

  • Congratulations again, and I think you absolutely deserve this!

    posted by Blogger Running2Ks on 5:33 PM  

  • Julie, I am so happy that you are a finalist, and I plan on voting for you, big time!

    posted by Blogger Sharon on 7:18 PM  

  • Oh, the heck with the post, Julie. CONGRATS!!!

    (The post was pretty good, too.)

    posted by Blogger Fred on 8:58 PM  

  • I've only read one of the books, and really enjoyed it. My Dad is a die hard fan, though, and has read them all. I heard Patrick O'Brian on PBS once, a long time ago, before I had any idea who he was, and he was a very very funny man, a delightful interviewee. There are plenty of folks who were sublime in their art, and shits in their personal lives. I guess everyone has to figure out what to do with that information.

    posted by Anonymous martha on 11:44 AM  

  • I read all 20 POBs last year, (I'm saving '21' as a reward for myself when I do something wonderful), it took me some time to get hooked by POB, but halfway through HMS Surprise, the line went taut and we were off! I most like the contrast between the lives of the sailors, and the lives of the women back home. POB added a new dimension to my appreciation of Jane Austen. Persuasion has new depth and sparkle for me now, knowing that Captain Wentworth and his friends might have served with and been friends of Aubrey and Stephen. Its a nice thing POB did, giving us this lovely series. However I dont believe I will be reading the Tolstoi biography. Based on a review of his wrangles and scuffles with other POB scholars and critics, he doesnt seem to be worth my precious reading time. Just found your blog this morning, am adding to my list of favorites!

    posted by Anonymous Zelda on 12:43 PM