Forester, C. S. Hornblower During the Crisis.

Boston: Little, Brown, 1967.

Captain Jack Aubrey is widely considered the “best” Royal Navy hero of the Napoleonic wars these days, and he might well be (those books are amazing), but for modern readers over forty, Horatio Hornblower is where it all began. It certainly did for me, when I began reading my father’s collection as an adventure-addicted adolescent back in the ‘50s.

Forester didn’t follow Hornblower’s career straight through in his writings but jumped around as new plot ideas occurred to him, and filled in many of the spaces. His very last novel, left incomplete at his death in 1966, was set in 1804 and concerned the young Commander Hornblower being called back to London from His Majesty’s Sloop Hotspur on Brest blockade duty. He had been recommended for promotion to post captain — the goal of every officer, since, as long as you stayed alive and weren’t cashiered for some great offense, longevity would see you eventually hoist your flag as an admiral.

Hornblower has hitched a ride with a water hoy and is putting up with beating up and down the Channel, waiting for a favorable wind for Plymouth, when a message comes from the Channel Fleet: The Hotspur has already been lost due to bad handling by its new captain and, as the previous captain, he’s needed to give evidence. After the court martial (automatic when a ship is lost, even when everyone knows it wasn’t your fault), the hoy is crowded with the officers and warrants from the Hotspur, all trying anxiously to get home — and then a French brig turns up. The little gaff-rigged hoy, of course, is no kind of warship and has no chance whatever . . . but the French also have no reason to expect it’s carrying three dozen bloody-minded and vastly experienced British officers.

The capture of the brig (was there any doubt?) also means the capture of its papers and dispatches, which Hornblower delivers to the Port Admiral when he finally gets to Plymouth, and then finds himself carrying the lot on to the Admiralty in London. And the papers are found to include a letter to the French admiral in the Caribbean signed by Bonaparte, who has only recently crowned himself Emperor Napoleon. Villaveuve’s fleet is tucked away in the harbor at Ferrol, Spain, and Admirals Nelson and Calder need to pry him out of there and bring him to battle. (This is the prelude to the climactic fight at Trafalgar.) But how? Hornblower, usually diffident, has an idea involving forgery and secret agents.

And that, unfortunately for his fans, is where the story ends. One knows that Hornblower will be successful in his activities as a spy behind the lines, but one can only wish Forester had lived just a few months longer.

Also included in this slender volume, just to fill it out somewhat, are two short stories, both originally published in Saturday Evening Post and both worth the reading. “Hornblower’s Temptation” features the newly promoted Lieutenant Hornblower, only recently released from imprisonment in Spain, as signals officer aboard the Renown, when an Irish deserter is brought in, a participant in the recent rebellion who had escaped to France. And now he’s going to hang, but the court martial doesn’t want him making speeches to the Irish members of the fleet, as is the traditional right of a condemned man. And that’s Hornblower’s job. Not a major story but worth reading.

“The Last Encounter” is a nice one, set in 1848 at the other end of his career, about the aging Lord Hornblower, now retired but still Admiral of the Fleet, tucked away with Lady Barbara in his comfortable manor at Littlefield on a cold winter’s night. Then there’s a knock at the door. A traveler’s coach has overturned on the icy roads and it’s imperative he get to the coast so he can catch a ship to France. The visitor says his name is “Napoleon Bonaparte,” bringing a snort from Hornblower and the conclusion that the man must be mad, but he’s a gentleman and he offers his assistance anyway. If you know your history, you’ve already realized that this young man will very shortly be Emperor Napoleon III. It’s a neat little story and a nice one to end Our Hero’s career with.

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