The 100th anniversary of the birth of Patrick O’Brian, one of the 20th century’s most outstanding authors, piqued our curiosity. We share something in common with him: a love for the secluded French-Catalonian port town called Collioure. For Sojourner Tours, we’ve based our French-Spanish Borderland sojourns in the very spot where the British author chose to live for 50 years. But, who was he? The answer isn’t as simple as one would expect. The author carefully concealed his true identity throughout his lifetime by weaving an elaborate new identity.
Residents of Collioure would have known him as a former Irish WWII Intelligence agent. His literary success; however, would unmask him.
O’Brian is best known for his highly acclaimed Aubrey-Maturin series, a twenty-volume collection of historical novels set during the Napoleonic Wars. The first book in the series, entitled Master and Commander, was made into a widely distributed film. But, he also translated works by Simone de Beauvoir while her work was still quite controversial, and wrote a biography of fellow Catalonia-aficionado Pablo Picasso. These distinguished and notable contributions to the literary world brought O’Brian the great prestige which was, in a way, his private downfall.
His skillful writing won the secretive author fans and accolades. He was the first author to be awarded the Heyward Hill Literary Prize and the Queen granted him the title of “Commander of the British Empire”. With that came fame and attention, interest and prying.
Readers either love or hate O’Brian’s naval works. Those who love the works, really love the works. O’Brian’s historic novels create such vivid characters and an engrossing world that many pour over the details with profound pleasure. So, it is only natural that fans would want to know more about the author.
But, O’Brian didn’t want to tell. That aroused even greater interest.
Shortly before his death, his real identity was revealed.
During WWII the author changed his name to the one we know him by. Shortly after the war he slipped away to the remote corner of France frequented by many of the most famous artists of the time, notably painters like Picasso and Matisse. There he slipped comfortably into his new identity which no one had cause to question.
Speculators postulate that O’Brain wanted to hide his past. Perhaps he wanted to disassociate himself from his father who was a German-English doctor specialized in sexually transmitted diseases. Perhaps he didn’t want people to know that he had left his first wife with a sick child after the death of another child. Only O’Brian knows.
Born Richard Patrick Russ in England on December 12, 1914, the author lived peacefully in Collioure, a small harbor-town in southern France, under the name O’Brian from 1949 until his wife’s death in 1998. They had a home near the harbor with a vineyard. In 2000 he was buried next to her in French Catalonia.