Nikolai Tolstoy’s talk, launch and book signing at Ognisko Polish Hearth Club

December 4, 2019

A most interesting and enjoyable book launch of the biography of Patrick O’Brian by Nikolai Tolstoy (O’Brian’s stepson). O’Brian was one of those slightly mysterious and enigmatic figures whose life was ‘moulded’ by a sad childhood, his mother died when he was 4, and working in ‘intelligence’ during the war. Though until his later years he was a relatively unknown novelist he wrote Hussein: An entertainment, set in India, which was published in 1938, when O’Brian was 23. It was notable for being the first book of contemporary fiction ever published by the Oxford University Press, to whose annuals for boys he had been a regular contributor for some years.

However, in his seventies he caught the eye of an American publisher who encouraged him to write a series of novels inspired by the ‘Hornblower’ series by C. S. Forrester who had recently died. The books are set in the early 19th century and describe the life and careers of Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend, naval physician Dr Stephen Maturin. Apparently O’Brien according to a friend, who took him sailing, had no practical knowledge of the sea however this didn’t hinder the success of the novels which sold over 6 million copies!

The series of twenty novels, the first of which is Master and Commander, 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 21st novel in the series was published posthumously containing facing pages of handwriting and typescript.

O’Brian wrote a number of other novels and short stories, most of which were published before he achieved success with the Aubrey–Maturin series. He also translated works from French to English, and wrote two biographies.

The Aubrey–Maturin series drew more readers and favourable reviews when the author was in his seventies near the end of his life, and in the same year that he lost his wife, British media revealed details of O’Brian’s early life, first marriage, and post-war change of name, causing distress to the very private author and to many of his readers at that time. He died in 2000 in Collioure in France near the Spanish border, incidentally one of my favourite places in France!

The event was organised by the famous London portraitist Barbara Kaczmarowska Hamilton as a part of “Friends in town” launches taking place at Ognisko – Polish Hearth Club.

Author: David Watts-Russell

Pictures: Barbara Hamilton, Wojciech Lisowski, British Poles

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