“Mr. Midshipman Hornblower,” by C.S. Forester (299p)
1793, the eve of the Napoleonic Wars, and Midshipman Horatio Hornblower receives his first command …
After the great success of the first five novels about fictitious Napoleonic-era seaman Horatio Hornblower in the 1930s and 1940s, British author the late C.S. Forester (1899-1966) set about going back to the beginning of his heroes life in the Royal Navy as a midshipman. Written as the sixth book in 1950, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower is the first in the series chronologically where the young Hornblower begins his navy career, finding out he actually isn’t too bad at this naval caper.
The novel is essentially ten short stories put together, roughly in a continuous flow, beginning a short time after the last one ended. So, the first story is naturally Hornblower’s first ever assignment on a ship, the HMS Justinian. Hornblower hates life aboard the Justinian and dreads waking up every morning, and his depression becomes so severe he contrives an elaborate way to commit suicide – by challenging a much older tyrannical midshipman to a duel after a game of cards. But when the duel is a draw Hornblower transfers to HMS Indefatigable as Britain declares war on Revolutionary France. On his new ship Hornblower takes part in a capture of a French cargo ship, but when he is given command of it he forgets to make necessary repairs and the ship sinks. But that, an offence that could be a court-martial offence, is forgotten when Hornblower burns down a ship he had been taken prisoner on and rescued by the Indefatigable. Later, he commands the jolly boat in a mission to capture another French ship, but is deeply affected when a man left behind is killed as he loses the jolly boat.
Hornblower then takes part in his first land mission, albeit in the capacity as a translator for the commander of a French Royalist attempting to land an invasion in the Vendée as the locals revolt. It is unsuccessful and the revolutionary force repels them back to the waiting British ships, and Hornblower is deeply troubled by the sight of a guillotine in action. He develops a darkened view of the revolution because of it. The war then takes a turn against Britain as Spain and France sign a peace treaty, making Spain Britain’s enemy as well, and Hornblower leads a dangerous attack on a Spanish galley ship near Gibraltar. This act of bravery leads to him being made acting lieutenant but a surprise attack by the Spanish sees the sudden cancellation of his lieutenancy exam.
Hornblower then later travels to North Africa to purchase a supply of livestock, but more catastrophe befalls him when there is a fear of a plague outbreak (the last time the plague affected Europeans was sometime in the early 18th century) and he is forced to mill about in the Strait of Gibraltar for three weeks. The final short story of Mr. Midshipman Hornblower takes him to Gibraltar where he is told he is to take command of a French prize ship and transport a Duchess back to England. Predictably, the dangerous waters of the Atlantic turn against Hornblower and he is taken prisoner by Spain. He spends two years in captivity in the town of Ferrol but sees an opportunity to do … something, and with the permission of his captors, sets off into choppy sea to rescue stranded Spanish sailors. This act of bravery sees him eventually released by Spain and promoted to lieutenant by the admiralty.
The series is one of the most influential ever written – this is the inspiration of fellow historical fiction giants Sharpe and Aubrey-Maturin, Hemingway lavishes it with praise, Gene Rodenberry based leading characters on Star Trek off Hornblower, not to mention plenty of other British productions that draw inspiration from the series. With that in mind, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower is certainly an interesting read, but different because it has no set plot other than these are some things that happened to Hornblower in his first year or so in the Navy. One of the main things a reader will notice about this is that there really aren’t any supporting characters to take on their personality. They are just names who drop in and out of the novel in each chapter/short story; they do not really have an identity, meaning that it is almost solely about Hornblower. And that is a good thing because it works superbly within the framework of the novel. It makes Hornblower and all of his various problems with himself all the more central to the story, so the reader is immersed in his world and spared being troubled by minor characters dominating the narrative.
Another area where Forester as an author succeeds with these novels is his skill in the narrative. One of the difficult things with Naval fiction is all the technical terms that are used, words the average reader will have no idea of. Forester is very good at explaining the meaning of something in understandable terms without it disrupting the story – he, unlike Patrick O’Brian, assumes the reader does not know how it all works, much like a young Hornblower would not, so it becomes readable and easy to follow once you get used to it.
As far as recommendations go, well, it’s hard. Naval fiction is obviously not for everyone. It can be a mouthful, and at times difficult to comprehend and understand with all the outdated technical terms. But at the same time the Hornblower novels manage to fly in the face of all the technical blustering and keep the reader entertained with a truly magnificent leading character as its star. That is why these novels remain so popular over half a century after their publication, and for that reason, if you have an interest in reading a novel of life at sea in the 18th and 19th century as Europe fought France, these are the best place to start.