Forester, C. S. Hornblower and the Atropos.

Boston: Little, Brown, 1953.

Hornblower was first introduced to the world in the trilogy consisting of Beat to Quarters, Ship of the Line, and Flying Colours, published in 1937-38 — and later reissued in a single volume as Captain Horatio Hornblower, my father’s copy of which I read in junior high in the ‘50s, and which made me a lifelong fan of Napoleonic sea adventures.

The self-doubting captain was so popular with the public, Forester naturally wrote more about him, both earlier and later in his career, from his midshipman days to his dozing retirement in the 1830s. If you think about it, this isn’t that easy to do when you’re constrained by the later history you’ve already outlined, but Forester produced four first-rate novels about the younger Hornblower that show clearly how his personality and professional style developed. This volume is the fourth of those, coming just before Beat to Quarters.

There are a couple of introductory episodes before Hornblower sets off for the Mediterranean in the smallest three-master in the fleet in the autumn of 1805. First, journeying with his pregnant wife and infant son from Gloucester to Deptford, below London, he travels by passage-boat on the Thames and Severn Canal at the dizzying rate of nine miles per hour. It’s a new mode of water travel for him and he’s fascinated by the experience, even to the extent of ignoring his domestic duties — but then one of the boatmen injures himself while drunk and Hornblower takes over the tiller so as not to delay their journey. And it’s a humbling experience.

Then, when he takes command of the tiny Atropos, the Admiralty’s orders that are waiting for him put him in charge of making arrangements for the first stage of the state funeral of Admiral Lord Nelson, recently killed at Trafalgar. This is the procession of the body up the river to Whitehall Steps, involving thirty-odd boats and ceremonial barges (the most ungainly vessels ever devised), and the whole nation will be watching. Naturally, it won’t come off without a hitch, but Hornblower is a resourceful officer, however much he might castigate himself as a potential failure.

His cruise in the Mediterranean, after he finally reports to Admiral Lord Collingwood off Toulon, takes him to the Levant on a treasure-salvaging expedition and Forester does a good job of leading the reader through the complications of deep-water work in the days before diving suits and dynamite. And there are the Turkish authorities and navy to deal with, too. Later on, Atropos will have to contend with a Spanish warship with twice her number of guns (and three times the weight of broadside), but you know Hornblower will manage things, even though he’s half-convinced he’ll screw everything up.

It’s an episodic book, but a naval cruise is episodic by nature. The narrative is absorbing and subtly educational and a great deal of fun. In fact, the only thing missing is the redoubtable Lieut. Bush, whom we got to know in the previous two volumes, and who will play a strong supporting role in all the subsequent ones. I recommend you find a copy of Mr. Midshipman Hornblower to start with and settle in with his whole career chronologically. Even post-O’Brian, this is still arguably the best naval series out there.


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