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Patrick O'Brian (12 December 1914 – 2 January 2000; born as Richard Patrick Russ) was an English novelist and translator, best known for his Aubrey–Maturin series of novels set in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars and centered on the friendship of Captain Jack Aubrey and the Irish–Catalan physician Stephen Maturin. The 20-novel series is known for its well-researched and highly detailed portrayal of early 19th century life, as well as its authentic and evocative language. A partially-finished twenty-first novel in the series was published posthumously containing facing pages of handwriting and typescript.
The widely held belief that O'Brian was born in Ireland began to unravel in 1998 when British journalists uncovered that O'Brian was in fact born in Chalfont St. Peter, Buckinghamshire and that he was the son of a physician of German descent and an English mother of Irish descent. Dean King's life of O'Brian, Patrick O'Brian: A Life Revealed, documents the complex personality and life of this enigmatic man of letters.
Historian Nikolai Tolstoy is O'Brian's stepson through O'Brian's marriage to Mary Tolstoy, who divorced Count Dmitri Tolstoy and in July 1945 married O'Brian. In November 2004, Nikolai Tolstoy published Patrick O'Brian: The Making of the Novelist, the first volume in a two-part biography of O'Brian using material from the Russ and Tolstoy families and sources including O'Brian's personal papers and library, which Tolstoy inherited on O'Brian's death.
O'Brian published two novels, a collection of stories and several uncollected stories under his original name, Richard Patrick Russ. His first book was written at the age of 12 (and published three years later in 1930); "Hussein" was published in 1938, when he was 23. Richard Patrick Russ legally changed his name to Patrick O'Brian in August 1945. This was a bold stroke in many ways, not least because O'Brian necessarily had to abandon the reputation for quality writing he had already built up under the name Russ.
In the 1950s O'Brian wrote three books aimed at a younger age-group, The Road to Samarcand, The Golden Ocean, and The Unknown Shore, the latter two were based on events of the Anson circumnavigation of 1740–1743. Although written many years before the Aubrey–Maturin series, the literary antecedents of Aubrey and Maturin can be clearly seen in the characters of Jack Byron and Tobias Barrow.
As well as his historical novels, O'Brian wrote three adult mainstream novels, six story collections, and a history of the Royal Navy aimed at young readers. He also was a respected translator, responsible for more than 30 translations from the French, including Henri Charrière's Papillon into English, Jean Lacouture's biography of Charles de Gaulle, as well as many of Simone de Beauvoir's later works.
O'Brian also wrote a detailed biography of Sir Joseph Banks, one of the leading scientific figures of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and the man largely responsible for the colonization of Australia.
O'Brian's biography of Pablo Picasso, Pablo Ruiz Picasso: A Biography, is a massive and comprehensive study of the artist. Picasso lived for a time in Collioure, the same French village as O'Brian, and the two came to be acquainted there.
Peter Weir's 2003 film, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is loosely based on the novel The Far Side of the World from the Aubrey–Maturin series for its plot, but draws on a number of the novels for incidents within in the film.
Mary's love and support were critical to O'Brian throughout his career. She worked with him in the British Library in the 1940s as he collected source material for his anthology "A Book of Voyages", which became the first book to bear his new name--the book was among his favorites, because of this close collaboration. He claimed that he wrote "like a Christian, with ink and quill"; Mary was his first reader and typed his manuscripts "pretty" for the publisher. Her death in March of 1998 was a tremendous blow to O'Brian and in the last two years of his life, particularly once the purported details of his early life were revealed to the world, he was a "lonely, tortured, and at the last possibly paranoid figure." (Tolstoy 2004; xi).