Hornblower sticks it to the French. If “A Happy Return” illustrated Hornblower’s lethalness against a single ship “A Ship Of The Line” crazily ups the ante as Horatio inspires his crew of gaolbirds and prisoners to five victories in three days leading the reader to wonder why this guy isn’t Admiral rather than the boozy, complacent dinosaurs he reports to.
Even after just two novels it’s clear Forester relishes putting Hornblower on the back foot and then stacking the deck against him. Robbed of his prize-money and reduced to Captaining “the ugliest and least desirable two decker in the Navy List” Horatio begins his next mission of accompanying an East India convoy with one of the greatest spew-fests this reader has ever come across. Forester really conveys that galley cabin rising and falling 20 feet in waters very different to those of the blue Caribbean and has Hornblower desperate to avoid his men twigging he’s seasick, one of many humanising details. Good news though, the French handily decide to attack the convoy and what follows is just the start of an incredible tour de force for both Hornblower and Forester.
Naughtily press-ganging the best able seaman from other ships in the convoy, Horatio then appears to the modern reader to go completely off his rocker, waging a one-man war on the dastardly French. However, a quick reminder of the politics of the day gives us a free pass to join in the fun without any tedious political reservations with sequences guaranteed to have English readers cheering and getting weepy-eyed at every turn. This really is England’s Greatest Hero in full sail, moral relativism be damned. Horatio captures supply ships, storms coastal batteries and manfully tips French cannons off balustrades – this, THIS, is what happens when you don’t get to first base with Lady Barbara. Throughout all Hornblower shows himself to not only be a whizz at seamanship (and the requisite mathematics) but an ace strategist too, getting his men to synchronise watches when going ashore and work to a strict schedule in the storming of the coastal battery. He has no idea what the French signal “M.V.” means but deduces it must be a friendly signal and uses that to buy time in his next attack. His people-management skills are on the up too: “It was more effective delivered that way, he knew, even while he despised himself for using rhetorical tricks”. None of this gets him any thanks on his return from Admiral Leighton, gorging himself aboard the Pluto, but who then has to find space for some humble pie when Hornblower battles a ferocious storm to rescue the Pluto from shipwreck. “Sutherland to flagship. Am about to give assistance.”
No wonder this won the James Tait Memorial Prize back in the thirties. It all ends, of course, in a superb, shocking, “you have got to be kidding me”, cliff-hanger cementing this as part of one of the great ongoing, serialised English novel sequences. It’s pure A-grade storytelling that was ripped off left right and centre for every boy’s comic strip and adventure fiction for decades and being a newcomer and having no idea what fate lies in store for Hornblower the finale is all the more delicious. “A Ship Of The Line” is, above all, a perfect example of a writer putting obstacles in front of their hero and allowing us to watch him work his way out from under them. Bravo.