Wednesday, February 20, 2008

C. S. Forester

The African Queen
by C. S. Forester
Recommended Age: 16+

I still haven't seen the Katharine Hepburn-Humphrey Bogart movie, directed by John Huston, for which Bogie won his acting Oscar. But now I've read the book the movie was based on: The African Queen by C.S. Forester, author of the Hornblower saga. Written in the mid-1930s, it takes place in about 1914 when WWI is gearing up.

Rose Sayer is the sister of a middle-class English missionary in German Central Africa. When hostilities break out the Germans come and recruit all the black Africans to be soldiers or bearers in their army. I mean ALL, men, women, and children, to defend the vulnerable and isolated colony. This effectively destroys all that the old missionary has worked for and in his despair he goes into a fit of malaria and dies, leaving his shapely but horse-faced, 33-year-old spinster sister all alone.

She is not alone long. The other Brit in the colony, a trim little cockney engineer who works at the German-licensed, Belgian gold mine up the river--his name is Charlie Allnutt--drops in, helps Rose bury her brother, then takes her on board his wood-burning steam launch, the African Queen. His plan is to elude the Germans until the end of the war, which he expects will be any day. Her plan is to use the supplies he was picking up for the mine--which include air cylinders and TNT--to blow up the steam-powered gunboat that patrols the lake at the bottom of the river and effectively cuts off any chances of the British penetrating into German territory.

Allnutt is frightened half to death, but being of a meek and nervous disposition (and ill-inclined to endure the "silent treatment") he gives in to Rose's plan. Her strength of will and till-now-hidden talents get them through a series of rapids, then other seemingly impossible challenges. Through weeks of heartbreaking toil, danger, pestilence and sickness, heat and the peccadilloes of the rickety old steam launch, the two do the seemingly impossible, the almost unheard-of--they get the African Queen downriver to the edge of the lake, and lay their plan to destroy the German steamer (the Koenigin Luise, aka the Louisa), and are about to put their plan into effect, when...

Well, that would be spoiling the whole thing for you. Forester again demonstrates his ability to build up to a shattering climax, and his propensity to let off tension with a sudden anticlimax. The book finally isn't really a story about a military achievement, and its ending is neither tragic nor quite what you would call a "Hollywood ending." It's really about the love that develops between the almost comical, hard-luck little engineer and the flinty, determined young woman who gradually frees herself from a lifetime of inhibitions and self-reproach. The one finds his manhood and the other her womanhood, both in their flowering love for each other. Even that plot arc undergoes a bit of anticlimax, I suppose, but the real story in the end turns out to be about them and how they go from what they were to what they become, individually and together. And patriotism, warfare, and the management of the African Queen turn out to be but the hothouse in which their romance grows.

Forester proves again where he truly excels--the inner workings of character, the depiction of complex people who in their three-dimensioned realism practically jump off the page. He is at the same time compassionate toward them and given to moments of wry humor. These are not ideal people, and it is not a glamorous romance. The morality and attitude toward Christianity depicted in this book is questionable, but the love affair in it is not so much erotic or scandalous as it is touching and character-developing.

If you read this book, be prepared for a rousing adventure, a moving relationship, and a heartbreaking disappointment--though, as I said, the ending is not tragic. Though the characters do not exactly reach the goals they set for themselves, they do arrive at the end in a better place than where they began, malaria notwithstanding.

The Captain from Connecticut
by C. S. Forester
Recommended Age: 16+

This is a different C.S. Forester adventure. It's a naval adventure of course, but in this one and only this one, Forester depicts the exploits of an American naval captain. The time is about 1814, the climax of the war between England and America that we call the "War of 1812," which happened at roughly the same time as some of the Hornblower stories. Yes, at the same time England was fighting a war against France (under Napoleon), they were also fighting a war against the USA (under James Madison), which resulted from the British navy's desperate measures which are somewhat understandable when you realize that practically the whole world was against them. Merrie Olde Englande was attacking Atlantic shipping, including trading vessels coming and going from the USA (which was neutral in the wars going on in Europe at the time). Moreover, they were "pressing" into service American sailors, that is, forcing them into the crews of the seriously undermanned British navy and its harsh conditions and cruel discipline. The result was another front of war in which England was really kicking the US's butt, invading from Canada and blockading the whole Atlantic coast and burning Washington and bombarding Baltimore (that's where "The Star Spangled Banner" came into being) and getting but a few setbacks, like Andrew Jackson's great battle of New Orleans.

Another of the US's assets in this war, though in this case a fictional one, was Captain Josiah Peabody of the USS Delaware, one of the few ships to successfully break the British blockade and which mostly spent its time after that, disrupting British trade in the West Indies. As a hero, Peabody has a lot in common with Hornblower, though there are differences too--on the whole, he is a more easy-going and cheerfuller guy, with less of an inclination to torture himself and more inclination to enjoy what happiness he can find. But he is haunted by the religious rigors of his Puritan upbringing under a monstrously cruel father and a shamefully drunken mother, and at times his conscience is persecuted by an ever-present feeling of sin.

He is also disgusted with his youngest brother, Jonathan, whom he brings on board as his personal clerk and whose service on the Delaware turns out as badly as you can imagine. And for the greater part of the book, he is locked in a frustrating stalemate with the commodore of a British squadron, Capt. Hubert Davenant, with whom he matches wits and honor while both men's ships are virtually held prisoner by the laws of neutrality in the French port at Martinique (this is after the French monarchy is restored and France is neutral again). He questions his own valor after a battle with a Haitian pirate named Larouge who almost kills him in hand-to-hand battle, and he questions whether he owes "Providence" or his own weakness for the sudden happiness of his whirlwind marriage with a beautiful, brave, sweet French girl named Anne.

Surprisingly, though, there aren't a lot of real naval adventures in this story. It's more as if the novel is about the character of a promising young American officer, and his prospects for finding happiness with honor in a war in which he seems condemned to harry trade shipping and avoid big battles. There are a few battles, mostly early on--first with a two-decker ship of war that pursues them out of Long Island Sound, then with three British sail Peabody draws away from escorting a trade convoy so some privateers can snap up the defenseless vessels, and the duel with the pirate ship too. Then there are a few chases and sailing escapades, and a duel, and a couple of really clever plans that don't quite come to fruition, but other than that, the majority of the book has Peabody locked up in the harbor of Fort-de-France trying to figure out a way to get back out to sea, with three British sail waiting to kill him and the French determined not to let them do so in their waters, or to leave their waters on any terms the British and Americans will agree to.

So as I said, the majority of the novel develops the tense and complex relationships between the British, French, and American characters juxtaposed by this problem, and particularly of Peabody, his interior battles, his problematic brother, his romance with Anne, his determination to go out and meet death face to face, his underlings and rivals and how all these things effect him. The contrast between the American and British navies is also interesting to explore.

My quibble with this method of telling the story is that the author has to fall back on the Deus ex machina device on too many occasions. You probably know what that is, but I'll tell you my understanding of it anyway. A "God from the machine" was a stock plot device in old dramas and operas, in which right at the climax of tensions when it looks like the only possible resolution will be fatal to somebody or everybody, one of the gods came down and magically made everything okay. Most of Hornblower's exploits he was blessed with good luck and, even when not, his strength of character and ingenuity paid off. Peabody has the same strengths and ingenuity, but too often in The Captain from Connecticut, when that crisis comes he's not given the opportunity to prove his worth, the tension isn't brought to a resolution that really pays off.

I mean, you wait for two-thirds of the book for a battle that never comes, and it's all just one tease after another, resolved in each case by a convenient surprise that comes out of the clear blue, rather than by any actual show of strength or cleverness or good seamanship, etc. So plot wise, I think The Captain from Connecticut is a let-down compared to the Hornblower stories. But the characters are good, the depiction of an interesting and not-much-looked-at slice of naval history is interesting, what adventures there are are effective, and even though the tense bits prove to be a let down, the tension they build up is very real. It's a "guy novel," of course, but if you Yanks ever get interested in naval fiction this might be a little more accessible than the Hornblower novels, because it starts from a frame of experience closer to your own and deals with history you're more likely to know already. But on the other hand, having read the Hornblower books prepared me to understand a lot of what's in this story.

The reasons Forester didn't write a whole series of Peabody novels is obvious, though Peabody does make a very creditable hero. Reason One is that his naval novels, particularly the Hornblower ones, focus on a period of history that I think Forester considered the golden age of naval warfare. It was just advanced enough, but not too advanced, to be really cool, sort of at the pinnacle of the art. But whereas Britain had 20 or more years of uninterrupted warfare during that period, and boasted the mightiest navy in the world, America had hardly any navy to speak of and it was only at war for a couple years here and there. There simply wouldn't have been material for a long saga like the Hornblower novels. Still, I wish the ending had been a bit more triumphant in this case. I would even have settled for tragedy, or an uncertain ending (like, last line: "Mr. Murray, the guns, if you please!"), before choosing the one C.S. Forester went with. Oh, well...

The General
by C. S. Forester
Recommended Age: 14+

Forester was already a past master of military history and historical fiction when he wrote this novel of the First World War in 1936. He had written biographies of Napoleon and Josephine, the great Hornblower series of naval adventures, and other land and sea blockbusters set in the Napoleonic period. And he never idealized war or the people who fought it, crafting instead flawed heroes laboring under nightmarish conditions, serving masters they hardly understood.

The General was a tour de force of realistic, military fiction. It was also one of the chief books that criticized the British leadership in World War I. Its fictitious hero, Herbert Curzon, is a fearless, determined, old-fashioned cavalry officer who rises rapidly through the ranks between the Boer War and the outbreak of WWI.

Obsessed with class and decorum, averse to talking strategy, Curzon is part of a system that perpetuated old ways of making war as the age of modern warfare dawned. Because dinosaurs like him set the strategy for World War I-- on both sides, mind you-- thousands upon thousands may have needlessly died. Simply because their officers could not adapt to the new realities of tank warfare, barbed wire, poison gas, and machine guns.

This is a riveting, shattering, scathing look at the attitude and character that (in Forester's view, apparently) typified the officers' corps in World War I. And the book made its point so effectively that Hitler is said to have made it required reading for his war leaders-- though there is no evidence that their strategy benefited from it. As for me, I found Curzon the ultimate "character you love to hate," and I enjoyed every flesh-crawling page of his rise and fall.

One hopes that every generation need not learn lessons as hard as Curzon's did. Read this book and learn, enjoy, shudder, and hope for yourself!

Rifleman Dodd
by C. S. Forester
Recommended Age: 16+

It's about a green-coated British infantry rifleman in the Napoleonic Wars, an age when rifles were a novelty and most of the army was red-coated and carried muskets. Private Matthew Dodd gets separated from his regiment during a retreat and finds himself stranded behind enemy (French) lines in Portugal. With the occasional aid of some natives, but mostly on his own, he harasses the French with his rifle and tries to prevent them from building a bridge across the Tagus River. It's a remarkable tale of survival and solitary achievement, of a rank-and-file soldier who lives by his wits and slowly learns to make plans without orders, and shows leadership qualities and a knowledge of warfare. It's also a grim portrait of the conditions behind French lines in "the Peninsula" (meaning the Iberian Peninsula, which contains Spain and Portugal) at the turning point of Napoleon's war against the rest of Europe. Basically, the whole book depicts a semi-guerilla war in which starvation is the chief weapon and the two sides must simply out-starve each other.

There's a lot of brutality and death in it, and that's to be expected because it depicts war realistically and unsentimentally. An odd thing about this book is that it depicts all the same events twice, alternating points of view between Dodd and a handful of his French counterparts, a group of boyhood friends from Nantes following their pal Sgt. Godinot. They're really just boys yet--decent enough kids, appealing characters, you really feel for them. And of course Dodd has nothing against them personally, it's just that he cuts them all down one by one (more or less by chance) in his struggle to survive and to get back to his regiment. You really feel the heartbreak of being a French soldier at that time. And the final fate of Godinot is so bitterly ironic that it's practically tragic, though with the cold indifference toward human life that is a part of warfare, the crowning irony is that Dodd never even knew he existed.

It's a thin book, and action-packed, but not for the faint at heart. Godinot isn't the only person who has to pick himself up and move on after witnessing the death of his friends. The first acquaintance Dodd makes is a gentle young idiot (I mean, cracked in the head) who follows him like a puppy dog, then due to the exertion of a long march combined with cold, wet, and starvation, catches a fever and Dodd makes the tough decision to leave him in his delirium to die alone on a hillside. A whole villageful of Portuguese "irregulars" who join him are slaughtered by the French, to the last man, woman, and child. And his last two friends, including the one that was with him through most of the novel, are hanged before his eyes. Godinot meanwhile loses one buddy after another until...

But it is by chance, mainly - chance, and the grim determination of Dodd's character - that the Englishman wins and the Frenchman loses. And in the final solution neither of them really matter, because they're just footsoldiers in an age when only Generals mattered. Right?

The Horatio Hornblower tales
by C.S. Forester
Recommended Age: 14+

Cecil Scott Forester's writings are mainly fiction based on military (especially naval) history, which he delivered to the minds and hearts of more readers than any other writer in that area. Besides the celebrated novels and short stories about Mr. Horatio Hornblower of the British Navy at the time of the Napoleonic wars, Forester also wrote a biography of the Empress Josephine, a novel called The Captain from Connecticut about an American naval officer in the same era, and (representing the sharp-shooters who fought against the French in Portugal) Rifleman Dodd. Forester also wrote on the World Wars, including a controversial critique of the British management of WWI called The General, and a story about a spinster missionary and a cockney pilot who harry the Germans in the heart of the dark continent, called The African Queen (memorably filmed with Bogey and Kate Hepburn). I can personally recommend each of these books.

But I especially recommend the Hornblower saga, which is what first brought me into the world of C.S. Forester. The philandering British writer was in Hollywood, working on a screenplay about pirates for one of the major studios, when a rival studio released a film of Captain Blood and stole Forester's thunder. Rather than let all his painstaking historical research go to waste, Forester sketched Beat to Quarters while fleeing back to England to avoid a paternity suit in the States. The result was the smashing trilogy that continued with Ship of the Line and Flying Colours, all published in 1938 and '39, and the magnetic, contradictory, eternally enigmatic character of Horatio Hornblower. So fascinating was this character, and so enthusiastic his reception, that Forester obliged the public with several more novels and short stories, until his sudden death in 1966 cut short what would have been the novel Hornblower During the Crisis.

The Hornblower novels combine magnificently realized historic research with suspenseful chases, heartpounding battles, fevered love stories, and - best of all - the always fruitful study of the inner workings of Hornblower the man. In these books you feel that you are living virtually an entire naval life, and a remarkable one at that.

Now you are going to ask: Are you crazy? Why should anyone who likes Harry Potter like this stuff? Well, that's a good one. I guess one answer is that I like Harry Potter and I like Horatio Hornblower too, so it could happen. Give it a shot and see for yourself. But maybe a better answer is what I wrote in my review of The Coral Island, which I won't repeat here. If that works for you, then try these books!

Only one other question must now arise: what order should I read the Hornblower stories in? Answer: It's up to you. But I can offer you not one, but TWO suggestions for you to consider.

Either you can take the route I took, and read them - as a current series of paperbacks numbers them - in chronological order from the beginning of Hornblower's career to the end. Or you can do what I often wish I had done, which is read them in the order Forester published them, so you can experience Hornblower the way his first generation of fans did, and meet him where the world first met him (Beat to Quarters, etc.). The books are reviewed below in the order of publication. The "Career of Hornblower" order of the eleven books is as follows:
  1. Mr. Midshipman Hornblower--actually a series of short stories about Hornblower's earliest naval adventures, published between 1948 and 1950.
  2. Lieutenant Hornblower--published in about 1952.
  3. Hornblower and the Hotspur--the tale of Hornblower's first command, 1962.
  4. Hornblower During the Crisis--the beginning of the novel Forester left unfnished at his death in 1966, plus two short stories (one of them from 1950) which actually belong at different points in Hornblower's career.
  5. Hornblower and the Atropos--another "first command" sort of scenario, written in 1953.
  6. Beat to Quarters--the beginning of the original trilogy, 1938-39.
  7. Ship of the Line--the heart of the first trilogy, 1938.
  8. Flying Colours--the conclusion of the first trilogy, 1938-39.
  9. Commodore Hornblower--the story of Hornblower's rise through the ranks continues, 1945.
  10. Lord Hornblower--drawing the Napoleonic wars to a climactic close, 1946.
  11. Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies--another set of short stories dating from 1957 and -58.
These are somewhat adult stories. They aren't smut by any means, but there is a bit of questionable morality (particularly in the romantic area), so parents might want to read the books themselves before deciding whether to give them to their kids. Also, there is some pretty graphic violence and death in them, and some of the deaths are pretty heartbreaking. War is hell, don't you know.

And last but not least, readers might want to warm up for these books by skimming a history of the Napoleonic wars, and keep a dictionary of naval terms handy if you aren't a sailor yourself. Some Americans might not even know who Wellington and Nelson were, leave alone the difference between a main brace and a main sheet. Some of us might even think Waterloo is a college town in Iowa, and Trafalgar is a character in The Lord of the Rings, and the yardarm is the thing they use in football games to mark first downs. If you resemble these remarks, you have a choice of doing a bit of preliminary study, or picking things up as you go along. If you're the type who gives up easily, I recommend the preliminary study. As for me, I just guessed my way through all 11 books, and then looked up reference books to find out how much I had learned along the way. It was quite a bit!

Beat to Quarters
by C.S. Forester

This is the real "first Hornblower novel," even though the present edition lists it as 6th of 11. It is not only a masterpiece of naval adventure but also a kind of tragic love story, but most of all, a magnificent feat of characterization--Horatio Hornblower is, in complexity and depth and contrariness, in inner conflict and appealing self-deprecation, one of the most awesome creations in all the fiction I have read. I would spoil it to say what became of the temptation of Lady Barbara in this volume, perhaps even by saying that my worst fears were unfounded and yet, in his typical complex fashion, Hornblower does not get off with a clean conscience. One of the most telling things about him, as I've said all along, is his ambivalent friendship with Lt. Bush--there's nothing ambivalent about it from Bush's side.

Bush is a strong, brave man of war and a capable seaman, but he has none of the penetrating intelligence, creativity, or imagination that Hornblower has--Hornblower the brilliant strategist, who is himself a good seaman and navigator, but who lacks physical prowess and is constantly tormented by inner conflict, the side effects of his intellect I suppose. Hornblower holds Bush at arm's length, partly envying him and taking a certain mean delight in Bush's rare signs of human vulnerability, but depending on him as his own right hand as far as the ship is concerned. He snaps at Bush when he feels his dignity has been threatened, though he inwardly repents of it afterward; he finds it next to impossible to show any human feeling toward Bush, and even harder to tolerate the affection and admiration Bush shows towards him. The interplay of their characters is always fascinating, and in this book Bush, who has already shown himself a keen observer especially of his Captain, gets a chance to talk about it and bring it out in the open (thanks to a compelling third character, Lady Barbara Wellesley). My favorite passage is the one in which Bush and Lady Barbara are "sitting talking in the warm moonlight night beside the taffrail." Let me quote in part...
"The men worship him, ma'am. They would do anything for him. Look how much he has done this commission, and the lash not in use once a week, ma'am. That is why he is like Nelson. They love him not for anything he does or says, but for what he is."

"He's handsome, in a way," said Lady Barbara--she was woman enough to give that matter consideration.

"I suppose he is, ma'am, now you come to mention it. But it wouldn't matter if he were as ugly as sin as far as he was concerned."

"Of course not."

"But he's shy, ma'am. He never can guess how clever he is. It's that which always surprises me about him. You'd hardly believe it, ma'am, but he has no more faith in himself than--than I have in myself, ma'am, to put it that way. Less, ma'am, if anything."

"How strange!" said Lady Barbara....

"Look, ma'am," said Bush, suddenly, dropping his voice.

Hornblower had come up on deck. They could see his face, white in the moonlight, as he looked round to assure himself that all was well with his ship, and they could read in it the torment which was obsessing him. He looked like a lost soul during the few seconds he was on deck.
That inner torment was partly a result of what had gone on in the previous chapter, of course, but you get the idea. And in this story there is plenty of fodder for Hornblower's self-torment machine. For one thing, he gets virtually impossible orders from the British Admiralty, to carry out on pains of court martial, and in spite of all odds being against him he carries them off with miraculous skill and flair. Then he finds out that, while he was out of touch with the authorities, England and Spain became allies and his miraculous capture of a Spanish ship of war has become, in fact, a dreadful embarrassment--and even worse, he has to go back and risk his life and his ship to recapture or destroy the same ship AGAIN in order to repair the damage he has done; only this time, no matter how brilliantly he distinguishes himself, he knows that he will get no glory for what is essentially an unnecessary battle (or would have been, if he hadn't followed orders so well).

I can't even begin to explain the knots and conflicts in this tale without telling you the whole darn story, so you might as well just read it and see if you agree that poor Hornblower gets pulled through the ringer, and no matter how heroically and magnificently he performs, he continually lives under an interior cloud of failure and shame. PLUS through it all he has to deal with a woman with whom he has the most complicated conceivable relationship, owing to both of them being equally complicated people. It's simply DELICIOUS. And the miracle of it is that, in addition the towering creation of his main characters, C.S. Forester manages to deliver a page-turner of an adventure full of stomach-turning violence, exquisite dread, and the smell of salt spray.

Ship of the Line
by C.S. Forester

The sequel to Beat to Quarters is one of the most gripping books in the series. At the end of Beat to Quarters, after surviving a brutal duel of ships in which he and his frigate Lydia vanquished the renegade Spanish ship Natividad, Capt. Hornblower found himself propositioned by his beautiful female passenger, Lady Barbara of the all-important Wellesley family. Somehow or other they had managed to fall in love with each other. Not because of moral qualms (such as faithfulness to his dumpy wife Maria) but out of cowardice (fear of public humiliation mainly) he turned down the proposition and deeply hurt Lady Barbara.

Well, as Ship of the Line begins, Hornblower and his surviving crew and officers have been transferred to a big 74-gun ship of the line, the HMS Sutherland. This is obviously a promotion and Hornblower deserves it, but his feelings about it are complicated by various factors. Among them: the admiral in command of his squadron is Leighton, a rather unimaginative and arrogant bastard whose whirlwind marriage to the very same Lady Barbara Wellesley is a source of pain and confusion to the lovestruck Hornblower.

Another problem: by hook or by crook he has to find enough sailors (or landsmen pressed into service) to man his new ship, but he's 250 hands short and there are no more hands to be found. And his mission, to escort a convoy along with the admiral's flagship and another ship of the line as far as the Mediterranean, and then to blockade the French-occupied Catalan coast of Spain, gets off to a shaky start when the convoy is immediately separated thanks to Adm. Leighton's incompetence. After successfully defending six English merchant ships from two French privateers, Hornblower risks career suicide by forcibly taking 120 seamen off the merchant ships and pressing them into his crew.

Even so he arrives at the rendezvous point ahead of the other two ships in the squadron, and when the second ship arrives the higher-ranking captain allows the restless Hornblower three days to seek adventure along the Spanish and French coast before returning to the rendezvous. In those three days Hornblower proves that he has turned a ship full of landlubbers and merchant marines into an A-1 fighting ship, leading five (5) glorious raids against the enemy, including the capture of several prize ships, the burning of an inland coaster (an escapade that humorously results in Hornblower and his landing party returning to the ship naked), and shooting artillery at a column of Italian soldiers marching along a coastal road. After all this brilliant success Hornblower has the undivided loyalty and worship of his entire crew, but unfortunately Admiral Leighton is annoyed simply because he was kept waiting at the rendezvous point.

This signals the beginning of a tragic episode in Hornblower's career. First Leighton orders Hornblower to command a land expedition that relies heavily on very unreliable Spanish forces. When asked if he has any comments, Hornblower tries to point out the likelihood that their Spanish allies will let them down, but Leighton accuses him of being disloyal, so Hornblower shuts his mouth and resolves to make the best of it. Unfortunately everything happens exactly as he feared and he ends up having to beat an ignominious retreat, at a great loss of life and dignity, and being blamed for the whole mess.

By the time Leighton sends him off on detached service he is very relieved to get away, having made up his mind that Leighton is an incompetent windbag and serving under him is a misery. But then Hornblower finds himself facing a squadron of French ships of the line, four ships to his one, and Leighton (infuriatingly unable to get to him on time) sends orders for Hornblower to stop the French before they get away. This means, yes indeed, a suicide mission for the HMS Sutherland and its marvelous crew (basically, the orders mean "Get yourself wiped out and take as many of the enemy as you can with you"). This jeopardizes not only Hornblower himself and Lt. Bush (Hornblower's oldest friend) but also a number of officers who were with him on the Lydia and are very capable and dear to him... Crystal the sailing master, Gerard the dashing handsome second-lieutenant who is a genius with the guns, brave Lts. Hooker and Rayner, his special favorite Midshipman Gray, and the captain's man Polwheal -- as well as several other promising young pups who have worked their way into Hornblower's heart and yours just within this book, including Gerard's nephew Longley whose quick thinking saved Hornblower's tuckus in that botched land operation.

So you can only have the smallest idea how heartrending the Sutherland's last battle is. There is no chance at all of the majority of these fine people getting through it alive and whole, and indeed you see a number of them maimed or killed horribly. And you know, Hornblower knows, everyone knows (including Leighton when he gives his fatal order) that the Sutherland doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell, but that if Hornblower survives (heck, you know there are 4 more books after this, so why even ask?)--even if Hornblower lives through the battle, he will have to surrender, he will be taken prisoner, he will spend the rest of the war as a prisoner of war (unless the French decide to execute him), he will be blamed for this failure, his career will be over for all intents and purposes even if he isn't court-martialed outright. And the most infuriating thing about it is that you know the state's chief witness against him will be the arse Leighton whose blundering is the real cause of the whole disaster.

Hornblower's career has not been without its share of failures. Back in Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, remember, his first prize command (the cargo of rice) sank out from under him and after being picked up by a French privateer he only just managed by the skin of his teeth not to go into captivity for the duration. Then in the last chapter he got captured by the Spanish and ended up spending two years as a prisoner of war, though in that case he ended up the better for it. Since then he has had one rousing success after another, close calls some of them, against the odds most of them, brilliant feats of leadership and seamanship and strategy all of them. And as dark as things have looked at odd moments, each volume of his exploits so far has ended with vindication and triumph. Until now.

Ship of the Line reveals itself to be, most definitely, the middle part of a trilogy when it ends with the inevitable surrender of the Sutherland and what must be the lowest point in Hornblower's career. It is a shattering, gut-wrenching conclusion to a gripping tale, and it leaves you with a tremendous sense of loss, but you feel another act coming on... will it be brighter or darker still? I guess the answer to that is a foregone conclusion, since the title of the next book is Flying Colours.

Flying Colours
by C.S. Forester

The third part of the original Hornblower trilogy was everything promised by the lead-in and more. It was also unusual in that most of it takes place on land. It picks up about two weeks after Hornblower's surrender of the wrecked Sutherland at the end of Ship of the Line. Mind you, with British naval supremacy at its height and the Articles of War that impose a penalty of death on anyone who does less than his utmost in battle, it has been years since a British ship of war has struck its colors in surrender. There is no way around it; Hornblower will face a court-martial if he gets back to England, and if convicted he could face a firing squad (or, on a lesser charge, being dismissed from service or reprimanded, which would essentially ruin his career).

Of course there are mitigating circumstances. It was Admiral Leighton's clear orders that compelled him to risk his ship alone against four French ships of the line plus two gunboats rowed from the shore and the everpresent threat of the land batteries which can shoot red-hot shot at very combustible warships. And he surrendered only after taking unheard-of casualties (a third of his crew killed, a third wounded) and after crippling all four ships that came against him, making possible a British raid (which he watches from the ramparts of the Spanish fort where the Italians, on behalf of the French, are holding him prisoner) which puts the four French ships and the Spanish port completely out of commission.

And there is also the chance that Hornblower will not face a British court-martial at all, since Napoleon has decided to use one of Hornblower's escapades in Ship of the Line as an excuse to make an example of him. Yes, Hornblower is about to be tried and put before a French firing squad for a trumped-up charge of violating the laws of war.

So it is with great uncertainty that he goes, under arrest by a vicious and arrogant French official, by carriage to Paris for his trial and presumed execution. Add to that the fact that they are taking his dear first lieutenant, Bush, along as an additional defendant, even though Bush had no choice but to follow his captain's orders, and even though Bush is extremely ill from fever and in horrible pain following the amputation of his foot. During the long trip he has to worry about Bush's condition while also facing their impending death, worrying about his pregnant wife Maria, and obsessing over Lady Barbara whose husband, Admiral Leighton, was badly wounded at Hornblower's last knowledge. Then they get a freak opportunity to escape and, with the crippled Bush and the burly coxswain Brown, Hornblower makes a run for it--through the heart of France.

The majority of the book, it seems to me, concerns their flight down the Loire river, halted by accident and weather for a winter as the guest of a French nobleman whose widowed daughter-in-law provides Hornblower with a memorable love affair, while Bush recovers and learns to walk on a wooden leg, and Brown builds a boat for them to continue their escape. Continue it they do, eventually effecting the daring recapture of an English cutter the French had taken as a prize and returning from the dead to an England that has been informed of their demise and is astonished by their daring adventures.

Amid the whirlwind of sudden fame and fortune (Hornblower is dubbed a Knight of the Bath and appointed a Colonel of the Marines the same day he is acquitted at his court-martial) he is made aware of three astonishing pieces of news: Admiral Leighton is dead (so Lady Barbara is a widow); Maria died in childbirth (so Hornblower is free to woo Lady Barbara, if she will have him); and his healthy infant son Richard, whom he has not yet seen, is the foster child of none other than Lady Barbara herself. Suddenly he has prize-money, a title, an honorary stipend, a great name for himself, and the satisfaction of seeing Lt. Bush posted as a captain, and it's even suggested to him that he should go into politics. For the first time he has wealth, fame, true love, royal patronage (not to mention the fact that the Duke of Wellington will soon be his brother-in-law)... but will he have happiness?

The conclusion of this third book of the trilogy leaves you hanging in astonishment without even beginning to resolve this question. And the fact that the next book in order of Hornblower's career came out seven years after Flying Colours must have caused early fans of these stories no end of frustration. It seems like an even chance, at least, that Hornblower will find a way to be unhappy in spite of everything, considering his "cross-grained character" (as Forester words it more than once), his habit of underestimating himself and the weight upon him of the parting prophecy of the French widow who fell in love with him--she said that he was the sort of man women would love easily, but she doubted that he would ever love anyone or ever be happy himself. Could she be correct? Tune in to find out (perhaps) in the next book, Commodore Hornblower.

Commodore Hornblower
by C.S. Forester

Surprise! In this book Horatio Hornblower is made a commodore (a Captain, by rank, placed by orders in command over another captain and/or a squadron of ships). Now in his mid-thirties, the great strategist is starting to go bald and gray, getting a slight paunch, not as strong or agile or sharp-eyed as he used to be, in fact rather delicate physically for how hard he pushes himself, and the history of the western world depends to a certain degree on how he carries out his orders. He is put in a position where, if he fails, literally the entire continent of Europe will be allied with Napoleon against solitary England. Or, if he succeeds, he could turn back the tide of the war and send Napoleon into retreat from the north and east, even while Hornblower's brother-in-law Wellington harasses the French from the south and west.

His orders come just as he's beginning to get restless in his new life as a landed aristocrat, married to Lady Barbara and raising his cherubic son Richard (who is the issue of his first marriage to the late Maria), served by his faithful coxswain Brown, and admired by everybody. After six months of very happy marriage, he nevertheless welcomes orders making him commodore over a squadron of six ships--one ship of the line, two sloops, two bomb-ketches, and a cutter, respectively, the Nonsuch, the Lotus and Raven, the Harvey and Moth, and the Clam, commanded by a captain, two commanders, and three lieutenants who all get the honor of being called "Captain" while they're in command of a ship (just as he gets to be called "Commodore" even though he doesn't technically outrank Bush, whom he hand-picks to be captain of the Nonsuch).

During the course of the mission, perhaps because of marriage or advancing years or the success of his career, Hornblower starts to lose some of his edge of snappish indifference toward others and develops a warm fondness for the young officers under him, particularly Vickery of Lotus and Mound of Harvey. Their mission: to sail up into the Baltic, that northern sea between Scandinavia and the shoulder of Eastern Europe, and blockade enemy ports while trying to enlist the doubtfully neutral Sweden and Russia into being allies of England against Bonaparte. His exploits begin when his squadron meets an English merchant vessel behaving oddly, and that leads him to attack a French privateer in Swedish waters, which has remarkable effects in his diplomacy with the Swedes. Then he has the embarrassing honor to be treated as a very distinguished guest at a banquet given by the Czar of Russia, Alexander, whom he eloquently persuades to fight against Bonaparte (and he still finds time to thwart an assassination attempt and have an affair with a sultry Countess--either he has a weakness for Countesses or they have a weakness for him!).

He wreaks havoc on shipping in the Prussian port of Koenigsberg, then in a series of daring exploits (some of which don't turn out exactly as planned, and one of which results in the tragic death of someone he cares about) he helps the city of Riga repel the advance of French and Prussian soldiers marching on St. Petersburg. Basically his daring inventiveness and quick thinking turn a hopeless siege defense into a brilliant rout and not only gives Napoleon's army almost their first taste of defeat, but also manages to snatch some of Napoleon's allies away from him during the retreat.

The strain of all this takes a massive toll on Hornblower, physically; as the tide is turning towards triumph largely on account of him, he undergoes a physical collapse due to typhus fever made worse by fatigue. But unlike tens of thousands of others, he survives--perhaps due to the faithful ministrations of Brown--and after a period of convalescence in Koenigsberg and on the cutter Clam he finally makes it home to the wife and son he hasn't seen for eight months.

Obviously this is fictionalized history. Since there was no Horatio Hornblower in real life, you must read this understanding that he obviously didn't play such a huge role in the war against Napoleon. But it's an improvement on history, I'd say. If Hornblower had been on the scene at that time, this is what he might have done and the part he might have played. One of the soldiers he works with in this book is Von Clausewitz, a Prussian military theorist who bolted from Napoleon's side (risking hanging for desertion or treason) to fight on the side of freedom. I seem to recall in the naval film Crimson Tide the skipper and executive officer of an American nuclear sub carried on a running conversation on the military theories of Von Clausewitz. Of course I'm sure the admirals and some of the captains and a lot of the political figures Hornblower meets really existed historically, not least of all Czar Alexander, who is depicted as a bright and rather sensitive young man who is forced into the position of being an all-powerful despot in a line of emperors who were all, sooner or later, assassinated. Fortunately Alexander never finds out how close he came to being assassinated by a treacherous member of Hornblower's staff!

Besides treachery in his own staff, he also has to deal with the incompetence of one of the captains under him, the heavy personal blow of the death of another, and the necessity of trying new and unfamiliar tactics, such as firing mortars from the deck of a bomb-ketch, rigging "camels" to the side of a ship (a device that allows it to sail in extremely shallow water), enduring an evening at the ballet in spite of his tone deafness and the flirtation of the countess he has already slept with, only now with her husband right next to her. He even leads a charge on horseback, leading Russian soldiers who can't understand a word he says, and has the horse shot out from under him. And Hornblower isn't known for his riding skills, you know.

But the big difference is that now, instead of being ordered into risky action, Hornblower is the one ordering others into action and waiting anxiously until (if) they return. He continues to show imagination and brilliance in strategy and tactics, and he does have a few chances to demonstrate his physical courage, but now in his unaccustomed role of larger command he develops a sort of father-son relationship with the officers under him who must now execute his plans for him, while he is being sought out for honor and respect and entertainment and advice by the high and mighty of the Russian Empire. It's a neat thing to see.

The only thing to quibble about is Hornblower's sexual morals; for all his sense of honor and rigid self-control, he doesn't hesitate to sleep with a married woman even though he himself is married to the woman he truly, madly, deeply loves. He was more faithful to his first wife, whom he never loved really, and who was actually dead by the time he saw fit to cheat on her (with that Viscountess, Marie, in France), and he had some degree of conscience trouble about that, though not necessarily on account of his unfaithfulness. In this affair, though, his only regrets afterward are the flea bites that result and the embarrassing night at the ballet in the presence of the countess' husband. Apparently this man, who is so reluctant to indulge in the intimacy of friendship even with Bush whom he admits to himself to be his best friend, has no problem with enjoying the fact once pointed out to him that women find him easy to love.

Lord Hornblower
by C.S. Forester

As the title suggests, Horatio Hornblower's exploits in this novel get him elevated to the peerage--which, for the information of us Yanks, means he belongs to the House of Lords, can call himself Lord Hornblower, and possesses the hereditary noble title of "Baron of Smallbridge." This means also that his wife is no longer Lady Barbara Hornblower (owing to her father's title) but Lady Hornblower (owing to her husband's). It is also the book in which the war against Napoleon Bonaparte ends, the empire falls, and peace is restored. Yet somehow I think it is the saddest of the Hornblower novels, marked with a deepening pall of tragedy, and that's saying a lot when you take into account that Ship of the Line ended with Hornblower striking his colors over the wrecked and decimated HMS Sutherland.

It begins with Commodore Sir Horatio Hornblower, K.B. (that's Knight of the Bath), after a year-long convalescence in England following his brush with Russian typhus, sitting in on a function of the noble order of the Bath. A conversation with Lord St. Vincent, the First Lord of the Admiralty, tears him away from his domestic tranquility and offers him a chance to go back to sea, back to striving for glory in the war against Napoleon, which has definitely turned in England's favor by now and may end soon. But his assignment is a difficult one and yet one that seems utterly without any chance of glory: he is to recapture the HMS Flame, whose crew has mutinied against its cruel captain and is threatening to hand themselves, ship and all, over to the French.

At first even this seemingly simple assignment looks quite hopeless, but Hornblower pulls off a truly brilliant trick and, in a trice, with little more than gutsy determination and brass-balled bravado, he goes on to convert the fortified French city of Le Havre into an ally against Bonaparte. Only that results in a long-term responsibility: serving as Le Havre's military governor and repelling the siege Bonaparte is sending against them down the Seine river. His force is soon increased as French royalty and British military resources come to his aid, including a squadron of ships headed by his oldest and dearest friend Bush.

But it is now, even at the very moment when Bonaparte's power is tottering, his empire toppling, as Lady Barbara is on her way to her loving husband's side, during a daring raid on the enemy planned by Hornblower but entrusted to Bush to carry out, that Hornblower suffers possibly his most apalling loss in all his twenty-year career. Considering that this is a man who has buried two beloved children and a loving wife, who has seen killed in battle almost every junior officer he personally cared about, and who is still haunted by the memory of surrendering the Sutherland, that's saying a lot. But the news of Bush's death is not merely hard for Hornblower to accept; I had a hard time accepting it. The last fictional character whose tragic fall had so thoroughly broken my heart was Phineas of A Separate Peace. No one had been through so much with Hornblower as Bush; there was no more promising and trusted officer; there was no more deeply felt friendship. Bush was more than a friend, he was like an extension of Hornblower's person, his most valued companion, the nearest thing he had to a confidant, and the non-female with whom he had the most complicated and mutually rewarding relationship (most nearly as equals too), the person most likely to be hurt by Hornblower's temperamental outbursts yet the quickest to forgive. Bush was the one person who understood Hornblower, one feels, and as a complete opposite to Hornblower in temperament, was almost a mirror in which the great man could view himself. Ever since reading Lieutenant Hornblower, which is uniquely written from Bush's point of view, even when Hornblower is observing himself one feels at times as if one is observing Hornblower through Bush's eyes. He's everyman; he's "you" in the story. He's become almost an indispensable fixture in Hornblower's universe, a player in most of his adventures until now. And he's pulled through from at least two scrapes with death in which the usually taciturn Hornblower showed how deeply the loss of him would have told.

Only now it finally happens, within weeks of the end of the war, and in a way that doesn't even leave remains to be properly buried... and Hornblower mourns as he's never mourned for anyone before. I perfectly understand his predicament; in fact, so dissatisfied was I with "the world after Bush" that I kept looking for a weird plot twist in which he would come back from the dead...but alas, he was really dead. And I felt exactly what Hornblower might feel about that: amazed, sorrowful, disbelieving.

Bush's death isn't the end of the story's descent into tragedy, which begins (ironically) just when England and her allies are relishing total victory over Bonaparte. Lady Barbara has come to the continent to be with her husband, and somehow--thanks in part to the tricky temperament each has--a coldness develops between the previously happy husband and wife. Something seems irrevocably broken between them when Hornblower passionately objects to her staying with her brother (Arthur the unmarried Duke of Wellington, the new ambassador to the restored French monarchy) and serving as Arthur's hostess during an international congress in Vienna that may go on for any number of months.

But a chance reunion with the Count of Gracay and the Vicountess Marie, respectively the nobleman who hid him, Bush, and Brown during their flight across France and his lover in Flying Colours, prompts Hornblower to change his mind and let Barbara go to Vienna. Then, after a decent interval of knocking around idly at Smallbridge with his servants and his four-year-old son Richard, Hornblower accepts an invitation to go back to Gracay and enjoy the Count's hospitality, and Marie's passionate love, all over again. He brings along Brown, who gets married to a serving girl he fell in love with but left behind on their previous six-month visit, and basically enjoys the happiest time of his life--he is even strongly tempted to leave England behind for good & stay shacked up with Marie in the heart of France.

But in the middle of this idyll, while no one is paying attention, the worst possible thing happens: Napoleon sneaks back into France, declares himself emperor again, and sets out on another round of wars to reconquer Europe. Suddenly Hornblower, Brown, the Count, and Marie are fugitives leading a motley band of peasants in a guerilla war against Napoleon's armies, with a verdict of death on their heads, and are soon outmaneuvered and outgunned in a last hopeless crisis in which, to make matters as grim as possible, he loses the woman he loves AND gets to look forward to a firing squad alongside the man he thinks of as a spiritual father. The last page of the novel finds him waking up on the morning on which he is to be shot at dawn... could the sense of inexorable tragedy get any worse than this?

But at least you know that there's still Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies coming up. In his typical fashion, C.S. Forester brings things to a gripping climax as late as possible in the book, then resolves the tension swiftly and doesn't waste a paragraph returning the hero to business-as-usual. In fact, Lord Hornblower is an extreme example of this, telling you much less than you'd like to know about what is in store for Hornblower in the aftermath... things you'd like to know, but which in Forester's good judgment would have added nothing to the story, and can be left to the next book where you will spend a good deal of time anxiously waiting to find out about them. It's much better that way.

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower
by C.S. Forester

Hornblower, to make his dates really memorable, was supposedly born on July 4, 1776. In the first volume in the present edition (which numbers the books in order of Hornblower's career), Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, he arrives at the harbor of Portsmouth on the south of England in the spring of 1794, when King George's England is at war with the revolutionary republic of France. We first see him as a gangly 17-year old with no experience at sea and a weak stomach (seasickness is his great weakness), freshly commissioned as a warrant officer or whatever the lowest commissioned rank is, but basically a junior Midshipman.

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower is an episodic novel, really more a series of ten interconnected short stories that could practically stand on their own. Each of these little incidents relates a step in Hornblower's early development, and reveals a facet of his remarkable character. And he is both a perplexing and a lovable character: voraciously curious, a habitual and avid learner; reserved, self-possessed, even rather shy; tactful yet very proud; full of honor and integrity and moral courage; self-motivating, self-reliant, and intensely self-critical; and finally, very imaginative and resourceful, and as time goes by, increasingly heroic and brilliant.

You know there's going to be something terribly special about this guy from the very first, when he crawls miserably aboard the HMS Justinian to serve under the sickly Captain Keene. In the first story, "Hornblower and the Even Chance," the nearly suicidal youth picks a duel with an obnoxious shipmate and thereby proves both his courage under fire and his pride. Then in "Hornblower and the Cargo of Rice" the young midshipman fails in his first command--a captured "prize ship"--near the beginning of his long service on board the frigate Indefatigable under the brilliant Captain Pellew. In the sequel to this story, "Hornblower and the Penalty of Failure," Hornblower turns the tables on a French privateer that captures him and his prize crew. This story ends with the one of the first big surprises about Hornblower's character: the penalty he imposes on himself when no one else blames him for his failure.

In "Hornblower and the Man Who Felt Queer" he behaves with fierce courage during a nighttime raid on a French corvette that has taken refuge in a well-fortified river. In "Hornblower and the Man Who Saw God," he has an encounter with a holy idiot, unholy below-decks entertainments, and a gripping ship-to-ship battle. In "Hornblower the Frogs, and the Lobsters," his ability to speak French earns Hornblower an important role in an attempt by British infantry and French emigres to invade France, an interesting first experience of battle on land. In "Hornblower and the Spanish Galleys," England's new enemy (Spain) attacks the Indefatigable and its convoy with a force of galleys rowed by slaves--an advantage when the sailing ships are stranded in calm waters. And of course Hornblower acquits himself remarkably.

In "Hornblower and the Examination for Lieutenant," his first attempt to earn a promotion by examination is interrupted when Spanish fire ships attack the harbor. In "Hornblower and Noah's Ark," you see the remarkable things that result when Hornblower is put in command of a cattle ship under quarantine for the plague. And finally, in "Hornblower, the Duchess and the Devil," our hero again fails in the command of a prize ship, this time experiencing the aid of a remarkable woman as well as a long stay in a Spanish prison where his courage and integrity are put to the test one more, extraordinary time.

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower is a varied and fascinating collection of incidents from early in the career of a character who, if one reads the books in the order they were published, would already be familiar and beloved, but who for those like me reading them in chronological order makes a dashing and compelling first appearance. I had only bought this one volume to see what I would think about the series, and based on how much fun it was to read and how well I liked the Hornblower character, I immediately went out and started buying the other volumes as well. This is a procedure that I have repeated many times...

Lieutenant Hornblower
by C.S. Forester

Unlike Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, this is really a novel. At the end of the previous book, Hornblower received his Lieutenant's commission while rotting in a Spanish jail, then was released after risking his own life to save others and after turning his back on a real chance at freedom in order to keep his word that he wouldn't try to escape. In contrast, Lieutenant Hornblower is told from the point of view of a certain Lieutenant William Bush, who comes aboard the HMS Renown where Hornblower is already serving.

There are five Lieutenants on board, and though Bush is the latest to arrive, Hornblower has the least seniority (based on the date of his commission). Bush is third, and number one is a rather weak and indecisive fellow named Buckland. The Captain, unfortunately, is a paranoid madman named Sawyer who is so convinced that his officers are conspiring to mutiny against him that he actually forces them to do so, at dire risk of being court-martialed and hung. Ironically, the captain's fear of his officers dangerously undermines the discipline of the rank-and-file sailors, who cannot be expected to obey the Lieutenants when the captain so clearly despises them. That is, the officers consider mutiny because they fear that the captain's fear of mutiny will lead the rank-and-file sailors to mutiny. Get it?

Well, put it this way: the captain is a desperately sick man, in the head, and this creates an atmosphere of fear and tension that you can cut with a knife. For the first several chapters of the book, in fact, I could truthfully say that Captain Sawyer is one of the most ominous and frightening characters I have ever met in fiction. Eventually things become so dangerous that, one night, the Lieutenants actually do begin to talk about relieving the captain of command. But then something dreadful happens, and the adventure is underway... an adventure where young Bush, our "point of view" character, develops at first a gruding respect, then a devoted affection toward the even younger Hornblower on account of the latter's clear-headedness, energy, resourcefulness, bravery, and over-all competence.

Their adventures center around an important strategic mission against a Spanish fort in what is now the Dominican Republic, and involves battles with artillery, feats of seamanship and landsmanship, and a developing friendship. In the end, Bush is badly wounded, Sawyer is killed, Buckland is discredited, and Hornblower--having distinguished himself with flying colors--is given a field promotion to Commander and a command of his own, to sail back to England...where, in a stroke of bad luck, he finds out that the war with France is over (peace of Amiens, 1801), his promotion is not confirmed, the fleet is mothballed, most officers are left out of work and on half-pay, and worst of all, because his promotion didn't go through, Hornblower's half-pay is stopped until the overage from his temporary promotion is deducted back...

So in the end, Bush finds him living in debt, nearly starving, unable to afford even a coat in the harsh Portsmouth winter, and forced to make a living by playing whist at a gambling parlor (where he loses almost as much as he wins). And that's TWO YEARS after the Peace of Amiens, when Bush finds him in this pitiful state, this great hero of the King's navy who can barely keep soul and body together. But at the very end of Lieutenant Hornblower the spectre of Napoleon rises over Europe, and there are rumblings of war... a return to glory and service on the seas... and marriage for the proud, contrary young man you have come to admire very much.

Hornblower and the Atropos
by C.S. Forester

There is a little adventure at the beginning and end of this book, but the main body has to do with an attempt to recover sunken treasure off the coast of Turkey. All this involves not only vivid accounts of naval techniques but also hairraising adventure and the internal drama of the character one critic (according to my book jacket) called "Hamlet in command of a warship." This character is simply so wonderfully drawn, I'm sure it raises the reader's stakes in the suspense and danger that surrounds him.

From exultation to despair you follow him, opening on a boat ride with his wife and son across merry England, then through his stay in London where he is called upon, virtually simultaneously, to organize and lead the floating funeral procession for Admiral Lord Nelson (the hero who was killed at Trafalgar), to prepare his new ship (the 22-gun sloop Atropos) for sea, to comfort his wife as she gives birth to their second child (a daughter), and to prepare to be presented to King George. Meanwhile he catches a severe cold and finds himself in command of His Britannic Majesty's great-nephew, a German-speaking boy-prince in exile, who is followed everywhere by a very belligerent doctor-cum-Secretary of State. Once at sea he has to break them into the ways of British seamen.

His mission, and he has no choice but to accept it, is tricky enough: with the aid of a Scottish expert and three Ceylonese pearl divers (from what is now called Sri Lanka), he is to violate the shaky neutrality of Turkey and recover a sunken cargo of silver and gold that went down in a sheltered bay there, without causing an embarrassing international incident OR being ripped off by the Turk. This would prove to be hard in any case, but in this case the German doctor shoots the Scottish expert in a duel, and partly by means of the man's massive strength, partly by the daring surgical techniques of the very doctor who shot him, and partly by sheer miracle, the Scot doesn't die of his wounds but (what is very important to Hornblower's mission) recovers enough to lead the salvage operation.

Then of course there are problems with the Turk of the sort no one could be expected to recover from, requiring some daring and precision sailing; and later there is an exciting chase with a much larger and better armed Spanish frigate in which the Atropos alternates between being the hunter and being the hunted, occasioning both a harsh lesson for the Prince and an eye-popping battle, none of which prepares Hornblower for the final fate of his command of the Atropos or what he finds when he gets home...

This is one of the few books in the series that does not have Bush in it. I missed him. Instead of Bush, Hornblower has a rather nervous and incompetent fellow named John Jones as his first lieutenant - actually, the 9th of 12 Lt. John Joneses on the British navy's list, in order of seniority. As usual Hornblower's melancholy, self-analytical personality combines with the loneliness of command to keep him at arm's length from everyone, plus some of his early (bluffing) tactics convince his crew that he's a bloodthirsty monster. It's always kind of sad, seeing him to grow to like and respect some of his men, but being unable to be familiar with them because of the need for discipline and his own very reserved nature.

Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies
by C.S. Forester

This is not so much a novel as a series of five almost novelette-length short stories. They're interconnected, of course, but they could practically stand alone. Rear Admiral Hornblower spends three years, in the 1820s, as the commander-in-chief of the West Indies squadron, based at Kingston, Jamaica. He interacts with a variety of people, but the main ones are his flag lieutenant (personal aide), Gerard, son of his second lieutenant on the old Lydia and Sutherland, and his private secretary, Erasmus Spendlove. These two rather young men (mid-twenties I would think) are best friends and very devoted to their admiral, over whom they are very protective as one must be for a very great man who can't be trusted to eat and sleep for days at a time unless someone urges him to do so. There's also a certain Capt. Sir Thomas Fell under Hornblower, whom the admiral doesn't like, and a very hot-tempered Governor who, as an army general, outranks Hornblower and doesn't hesitate to pull rank.

In the first story, Hornblower is called upon to head off an apparent attempt by Bonapartists to rescue Napoleon from his exile on the isle of St. Helena and restore the empire again. The complicating factor is that the ship they're on is vastly larger and better armed than his own, and it sails under an American flag. As a result the only way to save the peace of the world is to risk his honor in a desperate and unforgettable ploy.

In the second story, the concept of "head money" spurs the impoverished Capt. Fell to pursue a much faster and more "weatherly" ship transporting hundreds of African slaves to the Havana slave market. It's a glimpse into the twilight days of the Atlantic slave trade, when only Spain and its territories still allowed it, and when other navies (the British, for example) offered cash prizes to the captain and crew (and admiral) of a ship that captured a slaver and freed the slaves. Something like five pounds a head, which would really help out Captain Fell. Success will help him pay some debts; failure will hurt his naval career. And yet to manage the capture, Fell needs the help of a bright idea from Hornblower (does he ever have any other kind?) which puts Hornblower in an awkward position: first, he must make his suggestion in such a way that Fell believes it was his idea in the first place, and second, for the sake of Fell's pride he must not let on that he's doing this out of compassion for Fell's financial and professional plight...even though he personally dislikes the man!

In the third story, Hornblower and Spendlove are kidnapped by pirates from a high-society dinner party and are taken to a remote hideout, where the hunted pirates (whose ship Hornblower shot out from under them) demand that Hornblower go to the governor and arrange an official pardon for them. They propose to keep Spendlove as their hostage while Hornblower goes on what he knows to be a futile mission, for the governor won't even seriously listen to a request like that. This puts Hornblower in a painful position, since he feels bound by honor (not to mention affection for Spendlove) to return to save his secretary (i.e. voluntarily go back to being their prisoner), but his duty and the chain of command require him to help the governor plan an all-out attack on the pirates' lair. Fortunately Spendlove turns out to be not merely an efficient secretary but a remarkably spirited and brave young man on his own account....

In the fourth story, Hornblower meets a kindred spirit in a very young, charming millionaire with a name even more unfortunate than his own: Ramsbottom. This fellow inherited a fortune in industry and through immense energy, competence, and charm made quite a splash in polite society. Now he's cruising around in the tropics in an overhauled brig of war, which he has turned into a yacht maintained to exact naval standards and manned mostly by former British sailors and officers. Ramsbottom displays a firm grasp of upper-crust etiquette, proves an exemplary host, plays a good game of whist, talks intelligently about naval matters, basically shows himself to be a man after Hornblower's own heart... then, while Hornblower's back is turned doing exercises with his squadron, Ramsbottom starts blockading a Venezuelan port on behalf of the Spanish-American rebels fighting for freedom from Spain (his mother was a Venezuelan lady, by the way) and most atrociously of all, he does it while flying British colors on his ship and publishing a notice of blockade over Hornblower's forged signature. This impostor threatens to embarrass England and is in danger of being hanged as a pirate, when Hornblower catches up to him at a fateful moment in South America's fight for independence.

The fifth story really touched my heart, I guess because I'm a musician. Hornblower doesn't care much for music, being tone-deaf after all. But at the very end of his term as commander-in-chief, he finds himself having to deal with the unusual case of a courtmartial of a marine bandsman, a brilliant, sensitive, 19-year-old cornet player, whose crime officially is refusal to follow a direct order (punishable by either hanging or being flogged to death) but the circumstances are that (because of his own sense of musical rightness) he insisted on playing a B-natural when his commanding officer ordered him to play a B-flat. With the evidence stacked against him and the fleet's discipline on the line, and other factors too numerous to mention, Hornblower realizes that, sadly, the boy has to die and there's no way around it.

The pain is made even more acute by the arrival of his wife Barbara, who has sailed from England in order to accompany him home once he's turned over the station to his successor--a very starchy Admiral Ransome with whom the cornet-player has even less chance of getting away with his life. Barbara takes pity on the boy and simply does not understand the point of law or military discipline at issue, and gives Hornblower a hard time about it. Things get worse when the boy breaks out of jail and escapes, evidently, into the interior of the island, where there is seemingly no chance that he will survive without being captured and now without any hope whatsoever of his life being spared (now that he's a deserter on top of everything else).

At the same time this fifth and last story concerns a crisis in Hornblower's marriage, which has to do with his insane jealousy whenever he's reminded that Barbara was married to another man before him (though he was already in love with her at the time), and a huge hurricane that strikes them at sea and all but destroys the ship they're on. The storm, the cornet player, and the marital crisis all come together in a remarkable and satisfying conclusion, but as always you're left with the feeling that you want more... I guess that's in C.S. Forester's favor!

Hornblower and the "Hotspur"
by C.S. Forester

This book picks up right where Lieutenant Hornblower leaves off, though two other Hornblower books were written between them. Spotters of continuity errors may note that this is really Hornblower's first regular command, though Hornblower and the Atropos (written before this book) makes the same claim.

Hornblower has been given that promotion to Commander after all, as well as the command of a sloop of war called the Hotspur and a delicate mission to spy on the French navy during the final moments of peace between England and France. The year is 1803 and Napoleon is about to begin his long campaign to conquer the world, and England is about to begin its long fight to stop him. Hornblower has just married a girl who loves him like crazy, though he (typical of Hornblower) doesn't believe he deserves her love. Of course, he doesn't know himself very well--no one does, since by now you've grown accustomed to his main personality characteristic, which is concealing his true feelings. As surprised as he is that Maria loves him, he is even more surprised when he offers the second-in-command position on the Hotspur to Bush--who was, you will remember, his senior as a Lieutenant--surprised, I say, when Bush is evidently overjoyed by the offer, rather than insulted as many in his position might be.

The story moves from Hornblower's whirlwind wedding to a girl named Maria Mason, to a long exhausting and dangerous mission on the front line of a blockade of the French port of Brest. His command is a tiny sloop, no match for a ship of any size (you would think), called of course the Hotspur; Bush is his first lieutenant; and he enjoys the patronage of higher ranking officers who recognize his quality--such as Admiral Cornwallis and Capt. Pellew. He also suffers under the incompetent leadership of other captains, extreme poverty, qualms of conscience, and the loss of not one but two manservants by tragic means. He also becomes a father and acquits himself nobly in several armed adventures, including a battle with a big French frigate, an attack on a land-based battery and signal station, encounters with various boats and ships trying to run the blockade, a daring rescue operation in which a live mortar shell lands on the deck at his feet, and (not least of all) a close race with thirst as a series of hurricanes prevents the ship from replenishing its water supply.

But Hornblower's biggest challenge is himself, battling what he at one point calls his "accursed unhappy temperament." Everyone around him is in awe of the man--his integrity, his bravery, his brilliance--though he cultivates a rather forbidding manner and holds everyone at arm's length. In his private thoughts, he is constantly reproaching himself and condemning himself for what he views as cowardice, lack of integrity, or other personal failures that mostly exist only in his imagination, and he punishes himself mercilessly for them. The case of the live shell is a good example. It lands on the deck in front of him and without hesitation he picks it up and snuffs out the burning fuse with his fingers--no more than an eighth of an inch of it left--then loses his temper because everyone is staring at him and he can't imagine why. Later, Bush sees that Hornblower's written report of the incident has gotten published in a maritime trade magazine and comes to his captain, almost speechless with frustration because Hornblower described the event as though the shell landed on the deck but "fortunately did not explode." It's not fair, Bush says, to Hornblower or the ship--but Hornblower bluntly tells Bush never to speak of it again. His reason: if he sought public admiration for himself (by giving credit to himself in writing) he wouldn't be able to accept it without losing either his self-respect or his respect for the public.

Perhaps you see, just a little bit, what a complex and difficult and contrary character Hornblower is. Sometimes he is rather unattractive, even brutal, when duty calls for it, and often he is very cold and harsh in his speech toward people who admire him. But underneath it all he is desperately concealing his own vulnerabilities to the point where he doesn't even realize that he loves his wife. It might be almost funny, though it isn't really, how he thinks of his feelings toward Maria as pity and compassion for the poor soul whose adoration toward him is so sadly misplaced, yet he thinks about her constantly and at times considers that preoccupation a potential weakness that must be strenuously avoided. When he experiences fear he brands himself a coward, though he never shows fear and certainly acts with courage in spite of it. Probably his most noble and ennobling characteristic is that he cannot abide by the corrupt values and standards of behavior of his time, yet he believes in them and tortures himself with guilt because he considers himself a rotten person for doing what is, in fact, the right thing.

Finally, in spite of the fact that he makes no attempt to ingratiate himself to his superiors and does absolutely nothing to advance his own fortunes or career--other than serving with spirit and resourcefulness--the novel ends with Hornblower receiving a promotion to "post Captain," i.e., no longer is he a mere Commander by rank, called Captain only according to the courtesy due the skipper of a ship of war. And it appears he will be a father a second time...

Hornblower During the Crisis
by C.S. Forester

Reading this last Horatio Hornblower novel was short work. In one respect I almost wish it hadn't been published. As a bit of a writer myself, it makes me shudder to think that scraps and fragments, left unfinished either on purpose or by accident at my death, should see the light of day. As a reader, it's frustrating to read a torso--no, not even that, a tantalizing First Act--of what might have been a terrific novel, and then having to content myself with a one-page summary of how the story would have ended. It's really a pity the novel was never finished, though, because what there is of it is so good!

First, there's a glimpse into a melancholy moment in Hornblower's career. A retiring admiral has recommended him for promotion to full Captain, and he's been relieved of command of the Hotspur, somewhat ignored by his former crew (including his best friend, Lt. Bush) as they make preparations to receive their new captain. It's one of those wistful, lonely between-times, though not as harsh as his two years in a Spanish prison. He has time to reflect on how naval friendships are as quickly parted as they are fiercely intimate (i.e., he will probably never see Bush again). He feels instantly forgotten when he hands over command to the blustery Commander Meadows (who still has seniority over him, since Hornblower's promotion won't be confirmed at least until he gets to London). And he faces the prospect of a long, uncomfortable voyage back to England (from the continuing blockade of Brest) aboard a civilian-owned water hauler that is very clumsy & slow at sea.

Then events take an adventurous turn. Scarcely a day after taking command of the ship Hornblower had used so skillfully for 2 years, Meadows runs it aground and sinks it. No lives are lost, but the officers in charge of navigation--including Bush--are court martialed and Hornblower is brought back to testify against them. There isn't much time to dwell on the awkwardness of that, before Hornblower finds himself sharing the water hoy with Meadows, Bush, and some forty others (the officers of the late Hotspur, and other people being sent back to England for one reason or another), and tensions run high between Hornblower, Meadows, and the water hoy's captain Baddlestone.

The one thing that can bring them together turns out to be the water hoy's capture by a French brig... and though he is the lowest ranking of the three, the captains follow Hornblower's suggestion & turn the tables on the French. It's a risky and daring maneuver, with the indirect result that Hornblower finds himself before the secretary of the navy and volunteering to command an infinitely more risky and daring maneuver: an espionage caper in which he must pose as a Spaniard carrying a forged letter from Napoleon that, if it has its intended effect, will lead to the greatest naval battle in history.

Of course, just when this scheme has been outlined and Hornblower has volunteered to carry it out (just after also receiving his long-awaited posting as Captain), the unfinished novel trails off with four paragraphs of notes from the author's working outline. It's a tantalizing glimpse, basically, into a novel that will never be. Alas! But the chapters that do exist, are very good and indeed add valuably to the history of Hornblower.

There followed two separate stories. One was from the time between Mr. Midshipman Hornblower and Lieutenant Hornblower, i.e. between when the newly-commissioned lieutenant won his release from the Spanish prison and when Bush came aboard the Renown. Hornblower is already the Renown's junior lieutenant, and he finds himself put in charge of a captured deserter and Irish rebel named Barry McCool. (The name sounds a little ridiculous to the present-day ear, but there it is). This means that he has to attend to McCool until he is hanged, and then he must carry out the hanging itself and dispose of the dead man's body and his effects. It's the effects that turn out rather interesting--combining a shrewd bargain the Irishman makes with Hornblower, a tender letter to McCool's widow, and a wooden chest that has been thoroughly searched to make sure nothing is in it of interest to the enemy. With these things left in his care, Hornblower finds himself carrying a burden of conscience as well as a puzzle which may have his country's future at stake.

Finally, there is The Last Encounter, taking place in 1848 when the 72-year-old Hornblower is as comfortable as can be--considering his habit of unhappiness and self-reproach--soon after being made Admiral of the Fleet of England. It's a charming little "O. Henry" story (you know, with a macabre little twist at the end) in which, on a dark and stormy night, an apparent lunatic shows up at Hornblower's door claiming to be Napoleon Bonaparte (who, mind you, was long dead by then) and demanding the use of a horse and carriage. In a way I wished I hadn't read this story in this place, though, because it jumped ahead past other parts of the Hornblower career that I hadn't read yet, and revealed facts about (for instance) his family life that hadn't come up in the sequence in which I read the books.

These two short stories, however appealing they may be from the standpoint of giving you an insight into points in Hornblower's career that aren't touched on elsewhere (e.g. the 2 years between the first two novels, and the fact that he is destined to become the Fleet Admiral and to end his affairs in relative quiet, prosperity, and comfort), nevertheless lack the complexity, ingenuity, seamanship, and swashbuckling action of even one chapter of a Hornblower novel, including the torso of Hornblower During the Crisis. Both stories felt kind of slack, drained of their accustomed energy. The first has mostly to do with the conniving of a condemned man and the combination of Hornblower's crisis of conscience and petty sleuthing that follows from it; it's a low-tension short story more in the genre of mystery than adventure. And the second takes place in the ponderous setting of a wealthy Lord's manor and is more like a witty anecdote than even a mystery story. Again, maybe the idea of knowing everything that ever happened to Hornblower isn't worth the disappointment one is bound to feel at these lightweight little stories. But oh, do I wish Hornblower During the Crisis had been finished! I would have enjoyed reading that!

[EDIT: For the record, I have not yet seen a single episode of the recent TV series based on the Hornblower books, starring Ioan Gruffudd; nor have I watched the film Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N., starring Gregory Peck. I am often tempted to buy the videos, though!]

No comments: