Forester, C. S. Lieutenant Hornblower.

Boston: Little, Brown, 1952.

No one seems to read Forester much anymore, and that’s a shame. My local library hasn’t even bothered to replace the volumes in the series that have gone missing or worn out over the years. But without Horatio Hornblower, there would be no Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, no Richard Bolitho, no Nicholas Ramage, no Thomas Kydd — no world of adventure novels set in the Royal Navy of the Napoleonic era, really.

And even though I’ve never sailed under canvas, even though my family produces army men, not sailors — and even though it took me some years of paying close attention to understand what was going on aboard ship — I love this stuff.

By internal chronology, this is the second in the series, set in 1802-3. Hornblower is in his late twenties and is serving as Fifth Lieutenant (i.e., the most junior commissioned officer) aboard a seventy-eight-gun ship of the line. But this episode is different, because we don’t see things through his eyes but rather from the viewpoint of Lieut. William Bush, who is Hornblower’s senior by one year. Bush is a stolid, unimaginative, phlegmatic sort, not possessed of much tolerance, and not prone to think too far into the future. He’s entirely honorable and an excellent seaman, but his intellectual and psychological horizons are limited. Hornblower, on the other hand, though he habitually keeps himself on a tight emotional rein, nevertheless throws off ideas like a Roman candle, and Bush doesn’t quite know what to make of him.

They have a more urgent problem, though, and that’s the paranoid mental breakdown of their captain. Buckland, their middle-aged First Lieutenant, has been reduced to an ineffective and trembling nonentity by the captain’s bullying of his officers and toadying to the crew. The ship’s company are becoming restive and dangerously uncontrolled. And yet, with the captain virtually holding the power of life and death over all of them via the laws of Parliament, there’s not much any of the officers can do but grit their teeth and keeps their heads down. If only something would happen to the captain! And then, of course, it does. And Hornblower knows a good deal more than he’s telling. Nor will he ever reveal what he knows.

The bulk of the book follows Buckland hesitantly assuming command while the captain is under restraint in his cabin, and reading the Admiralty’s secret orders, and taking the ship to eradicate a nest of privateers in Hispaniola — keeping in mind, as they all warily do, that the slaves on the island are in revolt under Toussaint L’Overture against both the French and the Spanish. Buckland, who also doesn’t have much imagination, screws things up, and Bush becomes aware that Hornblower’s carefully thought-out schemes may be their only recourse.

In addition to the action of the ship’s attack on the Spanish, which is vividly depicted in much detail, the focus is mostly on Hornblower’s management of both the situation and of his superiors from a very junior position of almost no authority, and also of Bush’s realization of his subordinate’s gifts. Fans of the series know that Bush will become not only Hornblower’s most loyal supporter but also his closest friend, and this book shows you how it all began. Oh, and don’t forget the whist!

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Many historical fiction authors, such as Bernard Cornwell, look up to Forester as the ideal. Cornwell even outlined his books to learn how to write.
    How did you like the movies?

    • The original film with Gregory Peck had to play down ship-handling and the Napoleonic Wars for the benefit of an uneducated general audience. I’ve only seen a couple of the more recent A&E series with Ioan Gruffudd, and while they’re okay, they also tended to sacrifice the intellectual adventure for pure visuals. I had the same problem with Master and Commander.

      • Agreed. The books and movies definitely have different audiences, the movies aiming much broader. Personally, I found it helpful to read the books after the movies (having not grown up reading them). It helps me visualize the characters better.


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