O’Brian’s World

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This is the third and last part of a short sequence on Patrick O’Brian’s twenty naval novels. ‘A Friendship of Opposites’ (in Issue 40) was about Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, two great originals of twentieth-century fiction, and how they draw us not just into the warfare of wooden ships but into the whole Georgian era, which O’Brian makes as fresh as if we were part of it, living in the midst of its chaos and energy, experiencing its harshness, courtesy, relentlessness, absurdity and the rest. ‘The House that Jack Built’ (in Issue 42) turned to the two men’s marriages, which are easily as compelling – affectionate, complicated, believable relationships, full of misunderstanding and comedy as much as of love. It also touched on Jack’s other great love, the Navy, which for him is almost the staff of life despite its radical flaws – most the result of folly and greed – and its casual cruelty. This last piece is about a different sort of relationship, that of the author and his subject. It’s largely about Stephen, because when O’Brian drew Stephen he had one eye on himself.

Everyone who knew O’Brian spotted at once that he and Stephen Maturin appeared to be very alike – both outsiders, both odd-looking, learned, extremely reticent men who were not what they seemed. But in reality it was the likeness that was not what it seemed. Stephen’s reticence concealed feats of espionage, cryptography, black propaganda, political intrigue and sudden violence, O’Brian’s that sadly he couldn’t lay claim to anything in that line. He might well have been very effective but he was never given the chance he wanted, even during the War. So he didn’t, as some authors do, put himself into his books, he put his invented self into them. He liked to suggest that he’d sailed in a square-rigged three-master, but it seems he never did, nor did he experience the seas he described so dazzlingly well. He did live for years in Collioure, so he knew Catalonia, but on the other hand there was nothing Irish about him at all – he hardly went there. He was not even Patrick O’Brian before he chose to be. His early life as Patrick Russ was so disastrous he ruthlessly put it behind him, and almost came to believe in the past he would rather have had.

O’Brian certainly was like Stephen, though, in the range of his knowledge. It’s amazing to read that he spent only three years at school, and otherwise was largely self-taught, becaus

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About the contributor

Grant McIntyre has worked with books and with sculpture, but is all at sea when it comes to ships.

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