From Church & State: Summer 2005

Patrick O'Brian And The Importance Of Being Irish

Part One

Every so often Angela Clifford used to send me a newspaper article of some kind about Patrick O'Brian. Despite my ten-year long enthusiasm for O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin seafaring novels, I've tried to avoid finding out too much about the man himself. The glimpses which those articles gave me tended to reveal a vain, calculating, callous sort of person, disagreeable to know or to know about, idolized by Kevin Myers. Emotionally cold, he had nothing in common with the 'touchy-feely' spirit of our age, unless maybe the touchy bit. Of course, its unreasonable of us to expect our favourite writers to be thoroughly admirable men and women, and of course none of them are, with the possible exceptions of Walter Scott and Samuel Johnson.

Anyway, it seems I'm now being drawn into taking a closer interest in O'Brian's life. I was recently given Nikolai Tolstoy's Patrick O'Brian: The Making Of The Novelist (Norton 2004), in which Tolstoy follows his stepfather's life up to his mid-thirties in 1949, a few years after his second marriage, to Tolstoy's mother, and change of name from Russ to O'Brian. Coincidentally, a couple of O'Brian's early novels, The Catalans and Richard Temple, have just been republished by HarperCollins. According to William Waldegrave (who, with Grey Gowrie, is one of O'Brian's cheerleaders) the former is a "well-crafted story of love and betrayal in the French Catalonia to which Patrick and Mary O'Brian had moved not long before", while the latter is—

"a less successful novel; a sort of Pincher Martin story of a life told in flashback as Temple, a British agent, lies in a Gestapo cell in occupied France at the end of a long period of interrogation by torture. He has in fact outwitted his interrogators, having created such an impenetrable carapace of an invented life for himself that his fiction is more real to himself, and to the Gestapo, than the truth."

We seem to be getting onto something here, and Waldegrave's comment that we can use these novels as "source material for O'Brian's life" is rather on the obvious side.

Despite his fondness for the telling cliché, Tolstoy's book is well-written in a non-showy way, and beautifully produced. The tone is sympathetic but it's certainly not hagiography. The more one reads the more fascinating the mystery, and the greater the disjunction between the lonely neglected hyper-sensitive, even paranoid, child and the sane, sure-footed, middle-aged novelist. O'Brian's recreation of himself in 1945, signalled by the name change, was somehow essential to his transformation from a tormented 'high art' novelist into a storyteller whose literary gifts were placed at the disposal of the narrative. Julian Barnes, Sebastian Faulks et al take note!

The questions that immediately arise from O'Brian are: first, what was he running from? and, secondly, what was he running to? The two questions are linked, but I want to concentrate on the second. The first would warrant a book in itself, which is what it has got.

Tolstoy summarises the position as follows:

"In 1945 Patrick adopted the drastic measure of repudiating his earlier life: a rejection which involved the extreme steps of changing his name and reinventing his past. He was to maintain this precarious pretence until his death over half a century later. Though he was astonishingly successful in deluding all but a small and diminishing group of family and intimate friends who had known him before he came to assume his fresh identity, there remained the far more difficult problem of reconciling himself to a past he regarded with such revulsion. Thus a fundamental aspect of his early 'autobiographical' novels and stories was a thorough exorcism of unacceptable aspects of his formal {former?} life. This therapeutic process necessitated subtle restructurings of reality, since excessive invention or distortion would have been inadequate to afford him the requisite degree of conviction. This translation of fact into fiction had the further advantage of transferring events to a plane where art transcended venial lapses in conventional morality."

So far so ordinary. "Subtle restructurings of reality" are the autobiographer's stock in trade, let alone the author of autobiographical novels. No doubt the re-writing of the past life was felt to be necessary, but it was far from the revolutionary adoption of a totally different persona.

It's interesting to note that O'Brian, in common with other Hibernophiles such as John Betjeman and Arnold Bax, was of German origin, his paternal grandfather Karl Russ having been born in 1842 near Leipzig, possibly with ancestry in Russia or Eastern Europe. He anglicised his Christian name to Charles, was a successful and fashionable furrier in New Bond Street, settled in St. John's Wood, and, by the time of his death at the early age of 51, the family had become "effortlessly absorbed into middle-class English society".

O'Brian (Richard Patrick Russ) was the eighth of nine children of Karl's eldest son Charles, a General Practitioner and medical researcher whose speciality was sexually-transmitted diseases. Charles was decreasingly successful in his career and by 1917 the family had been forced to 'downsize' from a rural idyll in Buckinghamshire to the more prosaic Harrow. (There were many shifting scenes of life for the young O'Brian.) Shortly after the move, and after the birth of her youngest child Joan, Charles's wife Jessie died at the age of 41 from cancer. O'Brian was three at the time, just old enough for the loss to imprint itself on him. Maybe, like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, this meant that he spent the rest of his life feeling like an exile from Eden. In O'Brian's case, he was also afterwards haunted by the fear that he was lacking in any real affection or concern for other people, a fear that unfortunately seems to be justified in the light of some of the events of his later life. And to this was added the whole unfounded conviction that he was disliked by his brothers and sisters, among whom he passed a lonely and shapeless existence with no parent at hand. Thus we have the recipe for the child who live most intensely in his imagination.


"…there is every indication that after the death of his first wife Charles Russ became inordinately selfish, authoritarian, and possibly sadistic, and that his cold or harsh treatment blighted several of {his children's}lives in greater or lesser measure".

As for school,

"…one of the most astonishing aspects of Patrick's achievement lies in the fact that his education comprised a total of four years' schooling, during which time he passed not a single examination. The tragedy is that, so far from feeling pride in becoming one of the world's most acclaimed authors despite this severe handicap, he remained so deeply ashamed of his lack of academic qualifications that he kept it a profound secret even from his closest friends… The first certain fact of Patrick's education is that he was sent to grammar school at the age of ten. To have been accepted, he must have attained at least elementary proficiency in reading, writing, and basic knowledge of required subjects. But if, as appears to be the case, he never attended primary school, how had he acquired this knowledge?"

Tolstoy goes on to dismiss O'Brian's devious evasions as follows:

"There is no reason to suppose that ill health played any part in depriving him of formal education, his concession that “I did go to school from time to time” seems excessively dismissive of his four consecutive years of attendance at grammar schools {Marylebone and Lewes}, and there is reason to believe that he was never 'instructed by tutors'.

"Nevertheless the account is 'psychologically true', to the extent that it reflects Patrick's idiosyncratic perception of his early years. In particular he felt impelled to suppress experiences so distressing that he found it impossible to confront them directly. These arose chiefly from his deeply troubled relationship with his father. In this miniature autobiography Charles Russ has effectively been removed from the picture… The family's ever-increasing poverty remained a source of deep embarrassment to Patrick, which he ascribed to the Wall Street Crash and the Depression of the 1930s."

Why the Irish alias? O'Brian's first known acquaintance with Ireland was in 1937 and Belfast at that, where he went after the birth of his son Richard, apparently to get some peace and quiet for writing. After a month or two he removed to Dublin. He didn't revisit Dublin for another twenty years or so, to visit Tolstoy who was a Trinity undergraduate.

"Even so it is abundantly clear that he had fallen in love with Ireland at first sight. His memories of happy evenings at his lodgings in Leeson Street show how readily he took to the people, whose unaffected good manners, lack of excessive concern with social status, and spontaneity in conversation could not have presented a stronger contrast to everything he resented in English life."

His love of Ulysses, published in England in 1936, was apparently inspired by—

"…its efflorescent humour, luxuriant parade of learning, genial disrespect for authority and convention, fluidity of Anglo-Irish diction, and happy evocation of the then unchanged topography of Georgian Dublin."

In 1996, two years before the shock exposure of O'Brian as a faux Irishman, Kevin Myers wrote in the Irish Times: "Patrick O'Brian is from Galway. His first language was Irish. I trust the omission in The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature will be rectified in its next edition." Myers affected to be a confidant, and he then affected blithe unconcern as to his hero's national origins.

Unfortunately Tolstoy is unable to get himself too worked up about it either. "Above all it must be recalled how deeply Patrick was concerned to abjure his early life. In order to sustain the mask, he had little choice when pressed but to provide an alternative version." What a bland, couldn't care less, tossing aside of what for most people is the central mystery of his subject's life.

"Why", asks Tolstoy, "did he choose in 1945 to live in rural Wales when he might as readily have found a comparable cabin in Ireland?" With a very plodding step indeed, Tolstoy goes on to explain patiently to his readers why O'Brian's Irish identity (which he managed to protect for only fifty years!) could not have been founded on any desire to "acquire a romantic and colourful background". It would seem that—

"…in the summer of 1945 the Republic of Ireland was not the most popular nation in British eyes. There was widespread resentment of the advantage Germany had obtained from Irish neutrality, and the IRA's eager collaboration with the Nazis was notorious in informed political circles among which Patrick moved".

Next comes the reference to de Valera's condolences to the German Ambassador. Whatever O'Brian's views on this ghastly perfidy might have been, Tolstoy, novelist though he may be, simply does not have a clue about why the adoption of Irishness might have been essential to the inner life of someone so obviously out of love with himself as O'Brian. It freed him up to be something he could not otherwise have been. It was a personal and literary necessity and no other identity would have done as well.

If 'm allowed a Part Two I'll try to show what I think the importance of being Irish consisted in for O'Brian, with some illustration from the novels, which I hope will be found to be interesting and instructive!

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