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Hornblower, Still Under Full Sail

By Jonathan Yardley
Monday, December 26, 2005

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

Earlier this month, for its annual holiday issue, Book World asked several literary eminentos "what book they would recommend to a friend craving a little escape from the world's cares." My answer would have been ridiculously easy: any of the 11 "Hornblower" novels by C.S. Forester, most particularly the first in the series, "Beat to Quarters."

For more than five decades I have escaped into the "Hornblower" novels as often as time and occasion have permitted. I was introduced to them as a middle-schooler in the early 1950s by my father, who adored them. The first that I read, "Mr. Midshipman Hornblower" (1950), doubtless was given to me because my father knew I would identify with the mere boy who was its protagonist, but over the years the three novels about Horatio Hornblower when he was in his thirties and held the rank of captain -- "Beat to Quarters," "Ship of the Line" and "Flying Colours," all of them, incredibly, published in 1938 -- have been my favorites, and they remain so to this day.

It seems most unlikely that many readers now need to be introduced to Horatio Hornblower. All the novels chronicling his long career are very much in print and, if sales rankings at Amazon.com are any guide, continue to sell remarkably well. The 1951 film "Captain Horatio Hornblower," directed by Raoul Walsh and starring Gregory Peck in the title role -- my father and I drove across the state of Virginia to see it -- was well received and remained popular for years. More recently, the BBC made a "Hornblower" series with Ioan Gruffudd perfectly cast as Hornblower; eight episodes are available on DVD, and all are terrific, completely faithful to the original and considerably grittier than the 1951 movie.

Forester is now known almost entirely for "Hornblower," but when he began to write "Beat to Quarters" in the mid-1930s at age 38, he was a well-established, successful author of highly literate, carefully researched novels of adventure and suspense, most notably "Payment Deferred" and "The African Queen." He had published two dozen books and had been lured to Hollywood, which he found not to his taste. He fled back to England aboard a Swedish freighter, a leisurely voyage during which he thought through the personality and character of his flawed but heroic protagonist, a British naval officer serving during the Napoleonic Wars. Forester decided to name him Horatio, "not because of Nelson but because of Hamlet," from which "it seemed a natural and easy step to Hornblower."

That is how Forester put it in "The Hornblower Companion," published two years before his death in 1966. This book, with its detailed maps of all of Hornblower's naval engagements and its candid, instructive account of how Forester wrote fiction, is a useful supplement to the novels, but reading it really isn't necessary because Forester's descriptive powers are so keen that every location and battle comes vividly alive in the reader's imagination. Although he wasn't in love with the movie industry, he obviously had a highly cinematic mind and animated scenes with clarity and immediacy.

In writing the "Hornblower" series, Forester paid no attention to the King's storytelling advice in "Alice in Wonderland": "Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop." Forester began in the middle, moved to the end, then went to the beginning before filling in some miscellaneous blanks. Whether it is best to read the novels in chronological order has been debated endlessly by those who love them, but a good case can be made for doing so. Following Hornblower's steady advance from midshipman to lieutenant to captain to commodore to admiral and to lord is a way to become totally engaged with the life of one of fiction's greatest characters, and I recommend it without reservation.

Still, for those who haven't time to read the entire series, or merely want a taste of it, "Beat to Quarters" is the place to go. Here Forester establishes Hornblower's character once and for all, places him in command of the frigate Lydia in two astonishing engagements off the Pacific Coast of Central America, and introduces him to the woman who will become the most important person in his life. All the pleasures of the series are to be found in this one novel, which is the real core of the "Hornblower" saga.

As "Beat to Quarters" opens, in June 1808, the Lydia is sailing toward its destination, known only to Hornblower and the Admiralty back in London. The ship has been "seven months at sea without once touching land." This has "given an admirable opportunity for training the gang of jailbirds and pressed men into seamen, but it was too long without distraction," and supplies are perilously low. So when the Lydia pulls into the Gulf of Fonseca in Guatemala, Hornblower welcomes the chance to give his men some shore time while replenishing everything from fresh water to fruit to beef and pork.

England is at war with Spain. Hornblower's orders are to ally with Don Julian Alvarado, "a large landowner with estates along the western shore of the bay," and to supply him with munitions for his intended rebellion against Spanish rule. Hornblower is "to do everything which his discretion dictated to ensure the success of the rebellion." Soon enough it becomes clear that "everything" embraces a lot more than Hornblower had bargained for, since Alvarado turns out to be a monomaniac who fancies himself "El Supremo" and since nearby is a Spanish warship, the Natividad, with 50 guns on two decks. Lydia has 36 guns on a single deck, which is to say Hornblower is strictly the underdog in the fight to come.

But Hornblower is no ordinary man and no ordinary captain. As a seaman he is an accomplished navigator and a resourceful strategist, and as a leader of men he is stern and disciplined but also fair and, when the occasion demands it, merciful. But the gruff face he presents to his crew, his enemies and the world disguises a far more complex and far less confident man. He is ceaselessly self-critical, it being his nature "to find no pleasure in achieving things he could do; his ambition was always yearning after the impossible, to appear a strong silent capable man, unmoved by emotion," and for all the suppleness and flexibility of his mind, he can be stubborn: "Risk and danger lured him even while he knew he was a fool to expose himself to them, and he knew that no risk would deter him once he had embarked on a course of action." He is deeply sensitive to real or imagined mockery ("Hornblower dreaded the thought of being a figure of fun"), not least because he "had always been a poor man."

This is of little moment when he is at sea, but he is a class-conscious Englishman and a resentful one as well: "He disliked the aristocracy -- it hurt him nowadays to remember that as the doctor's son he had had to touch his cap to the squire. He felt unhappy and awkward in the presence of the self-confident arrogance of blue blood and wealth." This becomes a matter of some urgency when a highly placed member of the aristocracy -- Lady Barbara Wellesley, sister to two men high in government and the military, one being Arthur Wellesley, duke of Wellington, who eventually trounces Napoleon at Waterloo -- sends a note requesting that she be given passage back to England, since "owing to an outbreak of yellow fever [in Panama] she cannot return home the way she would desire."

Hornblower is angry at what he regards as her arrant presumption, dismayed at the prospect of having a woman aboard under any circumstances but especially when he faces a deadly battle against the Natividad. He has no choice: "At thirty-seven he still was not more than one eighth the way up the captains' list -- and the goodwill of the Wellesleys could easily keep him in employment until he attained flag rank. There was nothing for it but to swallow his resentment and to do all he could to earn that goodwill, diplomatically wringing advantage from his difficulties."

Those who already have read "Beat to Quarters" know that the stage is now set for many delights, including a brutal engagement with the Natividad that takes place over two endless days and a gradual, reluctant thaw in Hornblower's relationship with his unwelcome passenger. Of the first, suffice it to say that Forester's prowess in writing about warfare at sea is unsurpassed, and his knowledge of the workings of the warships of the Napoleonic era is encyclopedic. As to the second, Lady Barbara in time emerges as every bit Hornblower's match, which makes matters doubly difficult since back in England waits his wife, Maria, "short and tubby, with a tendency to spots in her complexion."

The issue this poses is not resolved in "Beat to Quarters," which is yet another reason you will want to continue on to "Ship of the Line" and then "Flying Colours" and then on and on until the full story unfolds. Indeed, I aim to continue on myself, as the pleasures of these books have never dimmed for me. I do not feel the same about the novels of Forester's ostensible and now much-celebrated successor, Patrick O'Brian, which are skillfully written and knowledgeable but tend toward the arch and precious.

The saga of Horatio Hornblower is presented without pretense, yet it is elegantly written, profoundly intelligent, historically and factually accurate, and deeply humane. It is that rare and precious thing, literature that entertains while it enriches.

"Beat to Quarters" is available in a Little, Brown paperback ($13.95).

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address isyardleyj@washpost.com

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