The biography draws extensively on the diaries, letters and accounts of Tolstoy’s “parents” (that is, his mother and O’Brian), though the latter had specifically requested that his private papers be destroyed after his death. It’s a pity the book hasn’t been better edited — it’s rambling, repetitious and too long. Moreover, it has to be said that Tolstoy fails to refute the major charges against his stepfather. But he does succeed in softening the hard edges of some of the evidence against him. He also shows us another, more attractive side of O’Brian.
It is one thing to seek to redress the balance. It is quite another to subject the reader to a barrage of repetitive justification. Tolstoy takes numerous swipes at the “frenzied accusations” and “embittered rancour” of O’Brian’s detractors, and “a vociferous ill-natured segment of the London press and would-be literati”... Try as he might to redeem O’Brian, Tolstoy tends only to make matters worse. The cash-strapped stepfather toiling on his manuscripts with his steadfast wife Mary is irascible, obsessively secretive, depressive, harsh, hypersensitive, snobbish, child-hating and chippy... By the end of this long-winded, minutiae-filled apologia, instead of setting the O’Brian reputation gently amidships, he has clumsily holed it below the waterline.