C.S. Forester, Hornblower & the Hotspur
(Little, Brown & Co., 1962; Back Bay, 1998)

Historical fiction set in the 19th-century Age of Sail seems to be regaining its former popularity. How timely, then, that one of the classic Horatio Hornblower novels should arrive for review. My familiarity with the 11-book series was scanty; Star Trek novelists have made Captain Kirk a fan of the swashbuckling series (a nod to the fact that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry based Kirk's character on Hornblower). So it was with a good deal of anticipation I settled in with Hornblower & the Hotspur, which falls midpoint in the Hornblower chronology.

Hotspur, set in 1803, gives us a 27-year-old Hornblower who has just received his first command; he's taking the three-masted sloop Hotspur to the edge of France, near Brest, to watch troop and ship movements from afar in preparation for the coming war with Napoleon. War is, of course, inevitable, and Cmdr. Hornblower soon finds himself engaged in several battles on sea and shore in His Majesty's service. While his service is always admirable and his actions never fail (even against ships of greater size and firepower), Hotspur is never privvy to any prize-taking ventures, so Hornblower's purse remains empty and conditions aboard his ship remain poor.

Although he shows a public face that is both brave and brilliant, Hornblower at this stage of his career is privately self-deprecating and convinced of his own cowardice. His self-confidence often wavers, he suffers extreme bouts of seasickness and he is often needlessly harsh with the men in his command.

The book begins with Hornblower's passive wedding to a woman he doesn't love. While the reasons for his engagement were no doubt explained in an earlier book, it casts an immediate shadow on Hornblower's character; he goes through with the wedding only because he can't think of a "proper" way to get out of it. Throughout the book, letters and brief visits with his wife Maria prove her utter devotion to him, to which he responds with a mixture of doting affection and pity. (Still, it takes him only two days of married life to get her pregnant!)

In the wake of the recent Jack Aubrey film Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World, a comparison to Patrick O'Brian's British navy captain is hard to avoid. Aubrey, it must be said, inspires more confidence.

Also of note, while O'Brian (whose books were published several years after Forester's) writes in a style reminiscent of the early 19th century, Forester's books are written in a much more modern-sounding narrative style. (Thus, contemporary readers will probably have an easier time with the Hornblower series.) O'Brian seems to have a greater mastery of the minutiae of 19th-century life, both at sea and on land, although both authors write about the particulars of seamanship in ways likely to go over the heads of non-sailors.

The series straddles the breadth of Hornblower's career, and I've no doubt later novels will show his development into a mature, confident and able leader. As for Hotspur, I very much enjoyed the novel although I never developed much fondness for Hornblower himself. Action fans will love his gift for strategy, but his character -- as demonstrated towards both his wife and his men -- makes him hard to like.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 31 July 2004

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