Sailing the Seas With Horatio

I’ve been reading the C. S. Forester “Horatio Hornblower” novels, one after the other. It’s really my husband’s fault. He’s usually extraordinarily recalcitrant about watching movies, whether at home or in a theater. One Friday night, he indicated his willingness to consider it, so we looked over the DVD collection and embarked upon the A & E “Hornblower” series at the sedate pace of one-episode-per-week. (Of course, we did not stop there, but proceeded to Master and Commander and the 1951 Hornblower movie with Gregory Peck and Virginia Mayo.) For those who have not had the pleasure of reading these stories, Horatio Hornblower is a fictional naval officer during the Napoleonic Wars. Actual events and personages are woven into the tales, although Forester takes care that the exploits of his hero do not alter history.

As visually appealing as the films are, we immediately reached for the books. I’d read a few of them many years ago, but never had the experience of moving from one adventure to the next, watching the maturation not only of the titular character but of the author.

C. S. Forester must have been quite a character. After writing propaganda for Britain during WW II, he came to Hollywood to write the script for a pirate film. Before he could finish it, the Errol Flynn movie Captain Blood came out, effectively stealing the thunder from Forester’s project. To make matters worse, Forester was facing an impending paternity suit (I am not making this up — it’s from the biographical notes at the end of the Back Bay Press editions), so he “jumped aboard a freighter bound for England.” He spend the voyage outlining the first of the Hornblower novels, Beat to Quarters (The Happy Return), which was published in 1937. Subsequent volumes followed: Ship of the Line and Flying Colors (1938), Commodore Hornblower (1945), and Lord Hornblower (1946).

Then Forester went back to the beginning of Hornblower’s career with Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (1950), Lieutenant Hornblower (1952), and Hornblower and the Atropos (1953). After this, the correspondence between story continuity and date of publication breaks down even further. I’m intrigued bu the inconsistencies between the “middle stories” Hornblower — a character highly colored by 1930s cinematic swashbuckling romance — and the more thoughtfully developed yet younger and less mature man, as depicted by an author with a decade and a half more experience.

Despite these lapses, perhaps noticeable only because I am reading the books in chronological order, not order of publication, the stories are great fun. Battles and naval maneuvers go on for pages, but pages that I turned quickly. This is a wonderful technique, one in which the reading experience mirrors the pacing of the actual events. Even though some of the actions — ships moving this way or that, cannons being aimed and fired, this shot or that maneuver in the wind — are repeated, I never experienced them as tedious. I got a vivid sense not only of the strategies involved, but of the length of time these battles lasted, the devastation to men and ships. Again and again, I was impressed with the immense physical demands of sailing these ships, not to mention the battles themselves and the awesome work of repairing the ships afterward.

There were so many nautical details, my eyes would glaze over, yet another reader (like my husband) would relish them. (I get so dreadfully seasick, I am unlikely to ever experience such things first-hand.) One of Forester’s appeals was that I didn’t have to memorize or analyze what each phrase or technical term meant; I could get a general sense of what was happening and still be absorbed in the suspense. On the other hand, I was very interested in the characters and most particularly, the way Hornblower thinks and the clashing incongruity between how brilliantly competent he is as a captain and strategist, and how personally insecure he is.

Forester wrote, “Years of frightful strain, of peril and hardship, and made a very different man of him from what he would have become otherwise. Hornblower was no born fighting man; he was a talented and sensitive individual whom chance had forced into fighting, and his talents had brought him success as a fighter just as they would have brought him success in other walks of life, but he had had to pay a higher price. His morbid sensitiveness, his touchy pride, the quirks and weaknesses of his character, might well be the result of the strains and sorrows he had had to endure.” (Lord Hornblower, 1946) To be sure, Forester veered off from some of the most emotional moments, but he dived right into others, so on the whole I was inclined not to track down his ghost and give him a piece of my mind.

Here’s where I think Forester shines:
1. He plays out dramatic sequences, thereby creating a vaster canvas in time and desperation. Despite superficial repetition, each beat of action is varied and urgent.
2. He offers geekery details for those who care about them, but enjoyment of the stories does not rely upon them.
3. He gives us a central character full of internal conflict and often in great personal and professional danger, yet one who is capable and insightful.
4. He balances the romanticism of the times with reminders of the grim and harsh realities of the times in a way that leads to greater emotional depth. To today’s gritty tastes, he undoubtedly paints an unnecessarily rosy picture, but the whole is not unduly sanitized.

The Hornblower novels are not profound psychological studies; they are fast, enjoyable reading. Yet the central character has rung a chord in the public imagination, to the extent that Hornblower makes an appearance in a number of other fictional stories and was the subject of a biography by C. Northcote Parkinson. Other series, some of them set in space rather than on Earth’s oceans, feature characters closely resembling Hornblower. All this is worth paying attention to.

Next up, Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey and Maturin?

The illustration at the beginning of the article is the HMS Resolution, a watercolor by Midshipman Henry Roberts, 1771 (public domain).

Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her novels Jaydium and Northlight, and short story “The Casket of Brass” are available as multiformat ebooks here on Book View Cafe.



Sailing the Seas With Horatio — 16 Comments

  1. I had to be talked into reading Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels (on which Master and Commander is based), because I’d read all the Hornblower books and I didn’t think I needed another Napoleon-era sea adventure story. Boy was I wrong! O’Brian’s books are terrific. Stephen Maturin (a sort of Darwin analogue, if Darwin had also been an Irish nationalist and a spy) is my favorite character — quite different from the character in the movie, much edgier, though the character in the movie was charming.

    So if you liked the Hornblower books, you’re likely to enjoy the O’Brian books as well. Oh, and also Darwin’s Origin of Species or the Voyage of the Beagle. His books are accessible to the non-scientific reader, and Darwin is quite a good writer.


  2. I loved the Hornblower books as a teen–I just relished all that action. (My early novels all had seagoing episodes, complete with battle plans that are a crack-up now, the few that survive).

    But when I read Patrick O’Brian, it was from the candle to the sun.

  3. The other great charm of the Hornblower books (as with O’Brian) is that there are so many volumes. For years I was careful never to read them, keeping them for some extremity or disaster. Finally, one hot summer I was stranded in Portland, pregnant and taking care of a toddler. I went to the library, checked all the volumes out, and zoomed through them in chronological order. And it no longer mattered that nobody in town had air conditioning, and the entire population was stewing in astonished and querulous misery.

  4. A number of friends have said that the O’Brien books are much better, so I’m looking forward to them and to seeing if by comparison the Hornblower books are dated by Forester’s own time and sensibilities.

  5. And some of us read and reread Hornblower but never liked O’Brian’s characters and so haven’t ever gotten past the first 30 pages of the first one I tried.

  6. The O’Brian books are endless sources of enjoyment. I made the mistake of trying to read one at random, and quit because it made no sense. But several years later I started at the beginning and never looked back. I’m on my second trip through the series, and finding things I missed on the first trip. The writing is exquisite and subtle and just plain wonderful.

  7. The O’Brien books are excellent, but the first one may seem a little slow after the Hornblower books. At the second one I was completely hooked.

  8. My parents had the entire Hornblower series on their bookshelves – apparently my Dad was a fan.

    So I bought the first volume of Patrick O’Brian’s series for my Dad, since everybody kept saying they were like Hornblower, only better. I figured I’d be set for Christmas and birthday presents for years to come. Alas, my Dad never took to Patrick O’Brian. He got a few pages into the book and then went back to his motorbike magazines.

  9. There is a lot more -action- in Hornblower. Also it’s paced quite differently. It is argued that the Aubrey-Maturin novels are actually a roman fleuve, a single very long work.

  10. I read all the Hornblower books back when I was 13 or so, but haven’t looked at them sense. I remember being obsessed with them, but it was so long ago that I don’t remember anything about the stories except that Hornblower was always seasick the first couple of days. Probably time for a nice re-read. I didn’t realize they weren’t written chronologically, so now I’m intrigued to see the jump from writing in the 50s back to the 40s.

    Let me add my voice to those praising the Aubrey/Maturin series. I read them all in order last year and had a wonderful time.

  11. I like the O’Brian books, but Hornblower is more fun.

    In a way, I think Bujold’s Warrior’s Apprentice is the heir of the young Hornblower books, and O’Brian is more linked to the older Hornblower books. Both of them take tales that are to some extent episodic and turn them into rich sagas, but they have very different worldviews.

    O’Brian also writes in a late victorian style, the same as is presented in Darwin’s the Voyage of the Beagle, which Forester does not. Essentially: there are so many books that I love. Yay! Wouldn’t it be terrible if I had to pick? Hornblower or O’Brian? Miles or Temeraire?

  12. Temeraire is a lot of fun. I have some questions about the economics of the setup, but then I have questions about the economics of a lot of fantasy worlds.

    It’s funny, a lot of folks try O’Brian and bog down in the first book. I read the third one first and then backtracked.

    I’m particularly a sucker for mysterious second bananas — Stephen Maturin, Illya Kuryakin, Mr Spock…


  13. It is also a difficult art to keep a series going — the fifth book is, alas! frequently weaker than the first. Even Forrester fails in this way; only the avid completist rereads LORD HORNBLOWER with pleasure.