Master storyteller's blockbuster

ONCE considered the best-kept secret in the British literary world, the adaptation of one of his books into a blockbuster film has turned the spotlight on Patrick O'Brian.

ONCE considered the best-kept secret in the British literary world, the adaptation of one of his books into a blockbuster film has turned the spotlight on Patrick O'Brian.

But the sudden interest in the late author of Master and Commander has uncovered some dark secrets he would rather have kept hidden.

They include walking out on his wife and handicapped child while the family lived in an isolated East Anglian cottage, it has emerged.

The writer, then known as Richard Russ, changed his name soon after and cut himself off from his family.


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Master and Comander has been made into a maritime epic, starring Russell Crowe, which was released in the UK yesterday.

It is one of a series of seafaring novels written by O'Brian who, despite becoming a publishing sensation in the United States, remained relatively unknown in Britain.

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He only made his debut appearance on British television in 1996 and died in 2000, aged 85, in a hotel room in Dublin.

O'Brian, who was born in 1914 in Chalfont St Peter, Buckinghamshire, was always determined to become a writer and wrote his first book at 15.

He married his first wife, Elizabeth Jones, in Chelsea, west London, in 1936 and the couple had two children, Richard, in 1937, and Jane, who was born with spina bifida, in 1939. O'Brian had just had his third book, Hussein: An Entertainment, published.

Dean King's best-selling biography of O'Brian says the family moved to an isolated property in Suffolk that year, referred to only as Gadds Cottage.

The shock of fathering a seriously handicapped child is said to have devastated the author, who abandoned his family and their East Anglian home for London in 1942.

O'Brian had, for some time, been having an affair with Countess Mary Tolstoy, the wife of a London divorce lawyer and mother of the historian, Nicholas Tolstoy.

In archive papers recently released, Elizabeth said O'Brian had refused to see his desperately ill or offer any sympathy after her death in 1943.

Soon after leaving East Anglia, O'Brian changed his name to make a clean start and strengthen his Irish links. He had claimed to be born in Ireland.

He married Mary Tolstoy in 1945 and embarked on a bitter custody battle for his son, also called Richard Russ, from his first marriage.

He won the wrangle after convincing a judge Elizabeth was not fit to supervise his upbringing and education.

She later succeeded in winning back some custody rights, the archive papers add.

Richard, who is now 66, is said to have had a turbulent relationship with his father and they lost contact in 1964. Elizabeth died in 1998, as did Mary.

O'Brian was persuaded to write Master and Commander by an American publisher and it was released in the UK in 1970. He penned a series of historic seafaring novels from the Napoleonic age and, as his audience grew, he was appointed a CBE in 1995.

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