Roosevelt Reads is a monthly column in Antioch College's online publication, The Independent.
Writing that breaks new ground often has trouble reaching a large readership, but momentum builds as these works find advocates among bookish people. For the past few years the hottest such books have been Edward St. Aubyn’s spectacularly maudlin novels about the hideous parenting and drug-addled youth of British aristocrat Patrick Melrose. As I write today, St. Aubyn is being supplanted by the similarly autobiographical but remarkably un- histrionic Norwegian author, Karl Ove Knausgaard, two volumes of whose semi-fictional magnum opus have been published in America as My Struggle.
In the early 1990’s if you were asked in an urgent tone - “are you reading them?” - it was very likely that the “them” referred to the novels of Patrick O’Brian.
The story of O’Brian’s novels emergence as literary favorites is almost as spectacular as the novels themselves. Originally published in the United States by Lippincott in 1969, poor sales caused the publisher to drop the series after only the third installment in 1973. The novels continued to be published in Great Britain, receiving modest attention and commercial success. Authors of historical fiction often struggle to find an audience, and despite his mastery of the form, O’Brian was no exception. One British critic, Peter Wishart, wrote that “The relative neglect of Patrick O’Brian by both critics and the book-buying public is one of the literary wonders of the age. It is as baffling as the Inca inability to invent the wheel; or conversely, it is as baffling as the Inca ability to possess an ordered, sophisticated society without the wheel.”
Finally in 1990 WW Norton returned O’Brian to print in America, publishing the twelfth installment, The Letter of Marque, in hardback and its predecessors in uniform paperback editions. By this time a small coterie of loyal and influential readers had become aggressive proselytizers and, in retrospect, O’Brian’s eventual success seems inevitable. But a jolt of some kind was required. That jolt was provided by Richard Snow, Editor of American Heritage, whose January 1991 front page article in the New York Times Book Review was entitled “An Author I’d Walk the Plank For.” Snow seemed to realize he had just one chance to make his case and pulled no punches, calling O’Brian’s series “the best historical novels ever written.” He concluded: “On every page O’Brian reminds us with subtle artistry of the most important of all historical lessons: that times change but people don’t, that the griefs and follies and victories of the men and women who were here before us are in fact the maps of our own lives.”
Snow’s essay inspired me to read the first novel, Master and Commander, and I was immediately hooked. I read the next eleven already published volumes in less than a year and eagerly awaited the arrival of each new installment. The twenty-volume series has given me as much pleasure as any books I have read.
O’Brian’s books revolve around the exploits of the British navy during the Napoleonic wars, the same terrain as C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels for younger readers. The action, as many early reviewers pointed out in a critical way, is rather limited and not at all the main draw. The novels are about character and how character interacts with society and culture, in this case mostly the character of ship captain Jack Aubrey and ship physician Stephen Maturin and how they relate to each other and their compatriots in the Petri-dish like world of a British frigate, the Surprise. Aubrey is a creative sailor, combatant, and leader much more assured at sea than on land. Maturin is a doctor, a spy, and a leading naturalist who searches for new species of bird and beetle as the Surprise pursues the French to all corners of the globe.
And there is something else - an excited embrace of life’s possibilities as exhibited by adventuresome and curious folk in the early nineteenth century, barely two hundred years past but worlds away from how we live today. This change in zeitgeist is described well by Anthony Lane in his review of the enjoyable 2003 film, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” comprised of events in several of the novels. Lane writes that “What the novels leave us with, and what emerges more fitfully from this film, as if in shafts of sunlight, is the growing realization that, although our existence is indisputably safer, softer, cleaner, and more dependable than the lives of Captain Aubrey and his men, theirs were in some immeasurable ways better – richer in possibility, and more entrancing to the eye and the spirit alike. As Stephen said of the Iliad, ‘The book is full of death, but oh so living.’ Just so: if you died on board the Surprise, it would not be for want of having lived.”
Who was the man who created these wonderful books? Perhaps above all he was hard working, publishing many other novels, stories, biographies (including one of Pablo Picasso) and translations (including the popular prison escape memoir Papillion) in addition to the Aubrey/Maturin series. And he was an indefatigable researcher, steeped in early nineteenth century life on the seas and on land, a particular expert in the arcane details of scientific explorations and naval battles. He was also a private man who countenanced few personal questions from interviewers, and a bit of a recluse, who made his home in Collioure, a small Catalan port in southern France. He was also a fibber.
O’Brian manufactured critical parts of his biography. He said that he was born and raised in Ireland, but he was born Richard Patrick Russ to middle class parents in England. He changed his name by “deed poll” from Russ to O’Brian in 1945 at the time of his second marriage. For most of his life, he failed to acknowledge his siblings as well as his first marriage and two children.
Whether these personal limitations should matter to us is a subject for legitimate debate. It is sufficient here to note that O’Brian’s misstatements of fact went unquestioned for the most part until Dean King, the author of several books about the Aubrey/Maturin novels, started delving into the historical record, eventually publishing Patrick O’Brian: A Life Revealed in 2000, a few months after O’Brian’s death at eighty-six. This biography is inspiring. O’Brian kept plugging away. He believed in his work and withstood years of disappointment until, well past seventy years of age, he received the accolades and financial rewards that his hard work and talent should have afforded him long before. But O’Brian’s story is also sad. He so isolated himself from many relationships, with his siblings and his own son, that his life feels more of a retreat than his admirers might have hoped.
An artist such as O’Brian leaves readers the legacy of his books not his flawed personal conduct. So, as time and age have dimmed my memory, I will soon return to his novels. Once again I will be grateful for this wonderful gift of a fully drawn portrait of a world very different from my own, peopled by characters it would have been good to know, and graced with vivid accounts of explorations that take me back to the time, not that long ago, when our kind was still cataloging the discovery of unknown species. For a few happy months at least, these twenty volumes will distract me from the knowledge that just two hundred years later, our energies are devoted to documenting the extinction of many of those same species, doomed by human activity with its origins in an industrial age, which at the time of Aubrey and Maturin was visible on the horizon, but was still far less menacing than the outlines of an approaching French Man of War, under sail, preparing for action.
Mark Roosevelt is the president of Antioch College.
Roosevelt Reads was produced and edited by WYSO Miller Fellow Wyatt Souers