Forester, C. S. Hornblower and the Hotspur.

Boston: Little, Brown, 1962.

I’ve always thought this was one of the best entries in Forester’s groundbreaking series about the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, because the focus is on young Commander Hornblower’s first experience with the responsibility of sole command and how he deals with it. And also how it shapes the development of his own personality.

The story opens in late 1803, just a few weeks after the close of Lieutenant Hornblower. He’s just gotten his step to commander — a life-changer, considering how many officers never advanced beyond lieutenant — and he’s also just gotten married to Maria. He’s not entirely sure how that latter event happened, but she seemed to expect it and he didn’t want to disappoint her. Besides, he doesn’t believe he’ll be on shore that much, with the war starting up again after a year or so of relative peace (during which, of course, the government shut down most of the Navy). Sure enough, Hornblower and his sloop are attached to the Inshore Squadron of the Channel Fleet, with the job of looking into the harbor of Brest each day and taking the latest intelligence back to his superiors. His ship is “the final sensitive fingertip of that long arm” of English sea power in its renewed blockade of France. Bonaparte has plans under way to invade England and the Navy is there to see that it doesn’t happen.

Much of the narrative, in fact, deals with the long, tedious months on blockade duty — back and forth and back and forth and back and forth — punctuated by raids on the coastal trade and the invasion barges the enemy is gathering. Hornblower is fortunate in having William Bush as his First Lieutenant (his only lieutenant, actually, in so small a ship), since he had actually been junior to Bush when they first met in the previous book. Bush is rather unimaginative, not given to looking very far ahead, but he’s a first-rate sailor and motivator of those under him — a born executive officer. Hornblower’s own brain is constantly fizzing with ideas and plans for ways to confound the French and Bush provides the solid grounding he needs for balance.

The necessities of his day-to-day job bossing the ship are also interrupted by the letters to Maria over which he agonizes, especially since she’s now pregnant. And, although he’s only thirty-odd miles away from Plymouth, he won’t see her until after the baby is born. Being the most junior commander of a vessel in the fleet isn’t an easy life, but Hornblower is fortunate in having the interest and support of Admiral Cornwallis — and that will serve him well at the very end of the book, when Cornwallis retires. A fascinating and exciting story in the Hornblower saga.

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