Posted by: Lizzie Ross | June 24, 2011

Hornblower Ahoy!

G. Chambers, 1850

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (1948, 1949, 1950), CS Forester, 310 pp.

Call me slow, or reluctant, or perhaps just stubborn, but a few weeks ago I read my first Hornblower book. Ever.

Of course I’ve known about him since my youth. With a father who served in the navy and is an avid reader, it’s no surprise that Capt. Horatio Hornblower was a familiar name in our house. I can still remember seeing a couple of volumes splayed open by Papa’s reading chair. But I easily ignored the books.

Much later, in my adulthood, my neighbors bragged about reading aloud to each other during bath time. Weird, eh? Still, I wasn’t tempted.

But now I understand. I had a few days on my hands, and the series was at my fingertips. Why not? I thought. Let’s see what all the fuss is about.

First of all, I have to warn you that there’s a lot of ship-jargon. An awful lot. Here’s a relatively easy passage:

The old Indefatigable was spinning round on her heel, the yards groaning as the braces swung them round. The French ship had made a bold attempt to rake her enemy as she clawed up to her, but Pellew’s prompt handling defeated the plan. Now the ships were broadside to broadside, running free before the wind at long cannon shot.

It isn’t always easy to follow the action, but you get a definite idea that something important is happening. When I start the next volume, I’ll be sure to have labeled illustrations nearby for reference. I know fore and aft, port and starboard, but that’s about my limit. So when Forester writes about mizzen masts and shot holesshrouds, swivels, and halliards, I need a glossary. But it’s worth the struggle. These are great stories, with conflict and clever solutions to implacable problems.

Gregory Peck as H Hornblower

In this volume, a prequel written some time after the first Hornblower novel, Forester gives us the hero’s beginnings as a lowly midshipman (the lowest ranked officer) in the British navy, at the start of the Napoleonic Wars. It’s essentially a collection of short stories, taking us through Hornblower’s first years. He survives a duel, a shipwreck (due to a leak and a shipment of rice), land and sea battles, and a Spanish prison, with honor and self-respect intact. You can almost see him learning with each mistake he makes. He starts out proud and rash, even priggish, but eventually earns the respect of shipmates, captains, and reader. He also earns his lieutenantship, but in the most unlikely way.

The story I found most interesting, “Hornblower, the Dutchess and the Devil” shows him risking his own life (and 5 others) to save the lives of some Spanish sailors whose ship has foundered in heavy seas and storm, near Ferrol Harbor. He manages to rescue only two men. Yet it was a chance he had to take, for it was impossible for him to stand on the coast and watch the men struggle to their end.

Pretty thrilling stuff.


  1. I read the whole series as a youngster. They are great books and well worth the time.

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