Rip-roaring. My first Hornblower (to my shame) and I’m kicking myself I didn’t dive into these as my English teacher advised at secondary school back in the 1980s. It was all computers and space battles in those days and I was unaware that in watching ‘Star Trek’ I was actually witnessing the adventures of a Hornblower proxy. The original stands up, though, and then some.
Captain Horatio Hornblower (I’m reading these in publication rather than chronological order) has secret orders to support a Spanish revolutionary (who has to first restock Hornblower’s ship with supplies which appears to mean ransacking his entire country), create some sort of sea passage and capture or destroy the fifty-gun two decker frigate Natividad. All of this Captain Hornblower achieves with ease and sets sail back home, job done. Except the man is hellishly tested throughout. Forester throws everything and the kitchen sink at Horatio, introducing us to a prickly, awkward fellow with rubbish people-skills and haunted by the sense that England is marking him out of ten from afar. The Spanish revolutionary turns out to be a basket-case, the political situation changes with the weather, the Natividad is unleashed in a battle scene of pulse-quickening vividness, the weather turns and to cap it all there’s a footlin’ woman on board distracting Hornblower by being brilliant. It’s all wonderfully controlled and deployed and piped straight into your imagination via beautiful English prose.
Hornblower is a hero who “as he turned on his heel he hit his head a shattering crash on a deck beam”. He is a hero not because of his brilliant seamanship but because he is *this* close to cracking under the pressure of command. Practically penniless back on land, his naval dress laddered and fraying, he repeatedly brings himself to heel and forces himself to act casual, or play cards, or control his cracking voice in the face of maniacs and enemy ships firing on him. He is chippy, moody, literate, fond of card-playing, sex-starved and grief-stricken (two children lost to Smallpox and in childbirth). He’s also married but that doesn’t stop the Lady Barbara from proposing late night conversations on the quarterdeck. Centuries away from the England of 2018 Hornblower remains a deeply relatable figure. He may be Captain but he is us. Required to act because “England Expects” his thoughts and reactions would be our thoughts and reactions (I believe after the big battle Hornblower displays all the symptoms of PTSD after seeing headless corpses on deck). Also, Forester keeps making stuff happen. No sooner have we opened secret orders but we’re going ashore and finding men tied to stakes by a madman Hornblower has to keep sweet. Fast forward to a change in the local politics and suddenly Hornblower has to go after the Natividad which is now under the command of one of El Supremo’s stooges, Crespo, and he isn't going down without a fight. Forester really puts you in the middle of the battles, the decision-making, the stormy seas and he does not stint on the shocking violence. No wonder there are reviews on Amazon of Hornblower being bought for husbands who then proceed to devour the lot. I certainly intend to.
Whither reading Hornblower in 2018 England? What are the optics of that? As an arch leftie, novels featuring British Naval heroes enabling the British Empire aren’t the first thing I reach for on my commute and I don’t want anything in my life that might be given the thumbs up by any right of centre political figure or gormless St George flag-waving, Brexiteering, moron. However, this is C.S. Forester we’re talking about (recently praised by Clive James in his latest collection of essays) and on the basis of “The Happy Return” (a nicely ambivalent title) this is at the very least wonderful craftsmanship but also, arguably, art. On offer is the sort of direct telepathising into the heart and head of a brilliant character and period of history that Rockstar Games could only dream of.
So fiddlesticks to optics. “They love him not for anything he does or says, but for what he is.”