Tall Tales from the Sea: C.S. Forester and Patrick O'Brian
By Jeet Heer
National Post (November 13, 2003)

For those who love a good sea story, two writers stand out as the foremost naval novelists of the 20th century: C.S. Forester and Patrick O達rian. Yet as biographical research has revealed, the two men were master yarn-spinners in more ways than one: both fudged the facts of their lives, creating public masks as imaginatively fictional as the beloved characters in their novels.

From 1937 until his death in 1966, Forester wrote a multi-volume series featuring the dauntless hero Horatio Hornblower, a British sailor who rises from a midshipman to an Admiral in a career spanning the Napoleonic era. Forester sold millions of books in his lifetime and continues to influence popular culture today, notably in an endlessly replayed A&E series devoted to the Hornblower saga.

After Forester died, two cagey publishers, feeling that there was still an ample market for aquatic derring-do, recruited the novelist Patrick O達rian to develop a series in the Hornblower tradition. O達rian complied by writing Master and Commander (1969), the first of a twenty volume series featuring Captain Jack Aubrey and his mysterious friend, the naval surgeon and spy Stephen Maturin. Also set during the Napoleonic era, these novels traced how Aubrey rose in the British navy with Hornblowerian distinction. Like their best-selling predecessors, the Aubrey-Maturin novels won a wide popular audience by celebrating the courage and moral rectitude of the British navy at its best. The new film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, with Russell Crowe at the helm as Aubrey, is based on two of O達rian痴 novels.

As biographer Dean King notes, O達rian痴 most popular novels 田hiefly concern ethical characters operating in a generally benevolent world. The same could be said of Forester痴 main work. Yet in their own lives, the two bards of the British Navy inhabited a murky and morally complex world.

C.S. Forester was born under the name Cecil Lewis Troughton Smith, in 1899 in Egypt, where his father worked as a school teacher. Forester was a frail young man who spent his boyhood voraciously reading. Even during World War I, when the British army was hungry for recruits, the young Forester was rejected because of his weak heart. Later in life, Forester cultivated the false impression that he saw wartime service.

After failing to join the army, Forester tried to follow in the footsteps of a successful older brother, who was a doctor. However, Forester lacked the medical aptitude of his brother and while faltering from his studies, pursued a career as a writer. He took the pen name Forester, since he believed that Smith was a dull by-line. Around this time, he also broke ties with his family.

Forester痴 early novels were shoddy pulp confections, which he hacked off with great speed and little regard for plausibility. But over time he became a more conscientious author, so that when he wrote historical novels like the Hornblower series he made sure that he got the period details right. Aside from their confident and accurate descriptions of naval battles, the Hornblower books benefited from their timely publication. In the late 1930s, as in the Napoleonic era, Britain found itself as a beleaguered island fighting against a Continental tyranny. As British soldiers and sailors took up arms against Hitler, Horatio Hornblower made for morale-lifting light reading.

The British government certainly realized Forester痴 value as a propagandist. During the War he served the Minister of Information by writing films that celebrated the British navy.

Forester had two sons from his first marriage, John and George. During his father痴 lifetime, John Forester regarded his father as 鍍he embodiment of the enlightenment, standing for truth, reason, and competence in every aspect of life. Yet after his father died, John started coming across many facts that darkened this idealized image. In an important 1997 essay in The American Scholar, John described how documentary evidence, including many family letters, proved to him that 鍍he stories that [C.S. Forester] had told me about himself and his family had a large admixture of lies.

Among the more memorable tales that Forester concocted was the story that he himself was only half English because his mother had had an adulterous love affair with a prominent Egyptian. It痴 difficult to know why Forester fictionalized his past, although John has offered the interesting speculation that his father 電espised his parents and all his life dreamed of having a better, or at least more colourful, lineage.

Patrick O達rian痴 life strikingly parallels Forester痴 troubled personal history. Like Forester, O達rian underwent a significant name change. O達rian was born in 1914 as Richard Patrick Russ, the son of a sprawling Anglo-German family. O達rian痴 mother died while he was only three, leaving the young boy and his numerous siblings in the care of their scatter-brained father, Dr. Charles Russ. A daffy inventor, Dr. Russ spent much of his career developing bizarre and frightening gizmos designed to cure venereal disease through electrolysis.

Finding life under Dr. Russ痴 chaotic care rather unsettling, the young O達rian retreated into the imaginative pleasures of literature. In 1930, the teenage O達rien published under his real name his first novel, an animal fantasy entitled Caesar: the Life Story of a Panda Leopard. As a fledgling writer, O達rian continued to write Kipling-inspired adventure stories, often about animals or the British empire in India. (At that time O達rian knew India only from books, but some reviewer praised him for his authenticity).

In the mid-1930s, the young O達rian fell in love with a spirited Welsh woman, Elizabeth Jones, who he married in 1936. The couple had two children, a son named Richard and a daughter Jane, who suffered from spina bifida and would die when she was only three.

Possibly unable to deal with the emotional strain of raising a handicapped child, O達rian abandoned his family in the summer of 1940. O達rian and Elizabeth finally divorced in 1945. During the onset of the Second World War O達rian tried to join the army but was rejected as unfit. Instead, he served his country first in the ambulance service (where he met his future wife Mary Tolstoy) and later helping the British government develop propaganda to bolster the European resistance against Nazi rule.

Shortly after the war in Europe ended, O達rian married Mary and officially changed his name (along with that of his new wife and his son Richard). Why did Richard Patrick Russ become Richard Patrick O達rian? As with so many important life decisions, a host of reasons came together: O達rian wanted to bury his painful early life and failed first marriage, he sought to cut ties with his embarrassing father and intrusive siblings, his work as an intelligence agent gave him a taste for secret identities, he desired a more romantic ethnic identity than being a simple Englishman, and he admired Irish writers such as James Joyce.

Moreover, re-inventing the self through re-naming was a family tradition of sorts: earlier O達rian痴 brother Michael changed his name to O達rien and his uncle Earnest anglicized himself into being a Russell. Eventually, O達rian痴 son Richard, in the act of separating himself from his father, would revert to the name Russ, thus completing the family circle of cognomenial game-playing.

Under his new name and with his new wife, O達rian re-launched himself as a writer. Sill rooted in the tradition of Kipling and Conrad, his fiction now had a greater maturity and seriousness: rather than simply borrowing exciting plots and locals from Kipling and Conrad, he started to echo their thematic concern for duty and honour. He wouldn稚 achieve fame until the Aubrey-Maturin novels started gaining an audience in the 1970s and 1980s. During his last decade, he became widely celebrated but this had the unwanted side-effect of making people curious about his past. In 1999, a year before he died, the Daily Telegraph revealed the secret of O達rian痴 identity make-over.

As scaffolding for his Irish name, O達rian had constructed an elaborate structure of lies. 典he accepted view was that he was born in Ireland, the son of well-to-do Anglo-Catholic parents, the Telegraph noted in a forgiving obituary. 滴is upbringing was supposedly with relatives in Connemara and Co Clare and with family friends in England. The boy took up small boat sailing for the sake of his health. He also crewed on a friend's barque - a type of vessel which is partly square-rigged. As we致e already seen, most of this was false. (Biographer Dean King has done yeoman痴 labour in unearthing the true story behind O達rian痴 carefully built facade. With its excavation of long-hidden past, King痴 2000 book Patrick O達rian: A Life Revealed makes for fascinating reading, although the prose is marred by a slobbering fannish tone).

What are we to make of fictive lives created by the make-believe Egyptian Forester and the pretend Irishman O達rian? Although O達rian inspired Master and Commander, in many ways his story (and that of Forester) calls to mind a much quieter film, The Human Stain. Coleman Silk, the hero of The Human Stain, is born a light-skinned African American yet in the 1940s he finds it advantageous to pass as white. While this act of imposture gains him social mobility, it costs him the love of his mother and siblings. Skilful liars, Forester and O達rian gained fame as writers even as they became estranged from their kin. Their talent as storytellers made them too confident in re-fashioning themselves. They would have been wiser to keep their fictions confined to the novels they wrote.