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.