He was the son of a German-born London doctor who specialized in sexually transmitted diseases.
He abandoned his first wife and two small children.
Neither of these facts was known until the last two years of his life.
By that time, his sea fiction series--which he had begun late in life at the suggestion of C. S. Forester's own editor--had been proclaimed by Richard Snow, in a cover article for the New York Times Book Review, to be "the the best historical novels ever written." Writing shortly after the author's death ten years ago, Michael McCarthy reminded us why:
[Patrick] O'Brian wrote naval adventure stories, broadly speaking in the CS Forester Hornblower tradition, but infinitely richer than Forester. The background is delineated with an erudition at once staggering in its sweep yet not in the least intrusive: the reader slips easily into another age and hears its intimate small sounds as well as its distinctive speech, grows accustomed to its manners, its culture and its codes of behaviour, even eats its dinners - the Strasbourg pie and the lobscouse, the spotted dog, the figgy-dowdy, the drowned baby.
Through it all winds the long personal saga of Aubrey and Maturin. It is a profound examination both of the depths and the limits of friendship, moving, exciting and hilarious by turns, and of the values they share, which permeate the books and which form one of O'Brian's attractions to his readers, who tend to be neither young nor politically radical. They are immutable virtues, but now very old-fashioned: courage, honour, loyalty, self-discipline, respect for authority, chivalry.
In the decade since O'Brian's death, an entire industry has arisen around the author and his most famous fictional creations. Some of these, such as the recent biographies depicted below, remind us that O'Brian was a distinguished translator and biographer long before he sat down to pen the Aubrey-Maturin series:
Other books help readers navigate the complexities of the series itself:
Because food plays such a prominent role in the series (no hardtack for O'Brian's heroes!), there are even books about the series' gastronomy:
But O'Brian's series, great as it is, represents but a fraction of the truly excellent sea literature that has been published over the past century. We shall survey a few highlights in our final post of this series, tomorrow....