Early last year I read the Aubrey-Maturin series (Patrick O'Brian's historical novels set in the British Navy in the early 1800s). Then I read a briography of O'Brian, and for the past few months I've been working my way through audiobooks of the series. Audiobooks of books I've already read may be the best use of the format, for me at least. Since the contents aren't new to me, I'm not completely lost if I get distracted and miss a bit.
It's oh so tempting to make sweeping assumptions about fictional events in a book and how they relate to an author's personal history, especially an author with a history as complicated as O'Brian's. I try not to do this to excess -- I do, after all, know the difference between fact and fiction -- but I find I can't help but see Stephen Maturin as an alter ego for O'Brian, at least to some degree. They share a job (military intelligence) and a hobby (zoology), though Maturin is far more talented and even internationally renowned in both. They also share qualities of temperament (a certain cantankerousness, lack of affection for children), personal background (Maturin was Irish, O'Brian pretended to be) and plot details as well: Maturin's fortune rose with O'Brian's; Maturin's wife died when O'Brian's did; etc.
There's also a shift in point of view that seems to reveal something of O'Brian's sympathies: in the early books of the series, he does a pretty good job of balancing the point of view between the two main characters, Stephen Maturin and Jack Aubrey. By the end of the series the story unfolds mainly from Maturin's point of view. Aubrey is still a critically important character, but he's seen more through Maturin's eyes than his own.
I wouldn't go so far as to call Stephen Maturin a Mary Sue. O'Brian was an excellent writer, and (by my definition at least) Mary Sues are the sole provenance of bad writers. Still, I was highly amused to realize that Maturin carries the hallmark Mary Sue physical characteristic: a strikingly unusual eye color, which is always described with the same adjective. Of course, a Mary Sue is likely to have violet or silvery grey eyes which enhance her remarkable beauty. Maturin's very pale eyes are called "reptilian" and make him even more unattractive. I don't think most creators of Mary Sues could bear to see their avatars as cranky and ugly. Royal Society membership or international man of mystery not-withstanding.
Anyway, I'm in the middle of The Commodore, the 17th book in the series. And I've come to a place where I'm kind of sorry I read the biography. Because much of the first half of the book is taken up with Maturin coming home after years at sea and discovering that his daughter is severely autistic and his wife has run off, abandoning the girl and him. Maturin's "gentle giant" Irish manservant comes home too, and within a few months cures the daughter's autism, simply by being nice to her and speaking to her in Irish. It's a complete and total transformation, from a child who speaks so rarely no one knows if she's capable of it, to a bouncy outgoing girl who shrieks with delight and makes friends with everyone she meets.
I know nothing of autism and I have no idea if this is possible, or was thought possible in 1995 when the book was written. But I have to say, it's not plausible. It rang false when I read the book last year, and it's bothering me much more now that I know O'Brian's personal history. Which included him abandoning his first wife and two children, one of whom was a baby girl with spina bifida. O'Brian walked out on his family and never looked back, leaving his wife to deal with their child's death by herself.
O'Brian's real daughter died only a little younger than the age of Maturin's daughter at the beginning of The Commodore. Except that in the book, it's the feckless wife who abandons the sick child, and our hero Maturin who provides the magical cure. I know this is incredibly unfair based on slim public information, but it's hard not to see the two children as connected. Hard, in fact, not to see the fictional child as O'Brian's attempt to rewrite rather despicable events from his own past, the way he created a romantic Irish family history for himself.
All of which is to explain why, although I'm mainly very glad I read the biography, in a small way I'm sorry I did. It's too easy to make these kinds of connections between fiction and reality. Good golly, I'd hate for someone to look at my Tarot deck and invent ugly revelations for my past. Good thing I'm not famous and no one would care enough to make up crap about me.