At half-past-one in the morning neighbours on the avenue were partying hard to bring in the New Year and I knew it was going to be a long night. Having in my youth done my share of inflicting noisy parties on the neighbours, I settled down to grin and bear it with some soothing concertos on the CD player to (almost) drown out their yeech! not-to-my-taste music, and an undemanding book. Not Anna Karenina, and not the biography of Beatrix Potter, I chose C.S. Forester’s Mr Midshipman Hornblower which I had picked up at the library because that’s what they’re reading at GoodReads History Book Club…
It was the perfect choice. Easy reading, and the episodic story structure didn’t tax a brain still processing some very fine French champagne. I was somewhat challenged by the nautical terms: what is a ‘jolly boat’? what are ‘futtock shrouds’? Is the yardarm that horizontal pole that holds the sail at the top of a ship?* It didn’t matter: I figured out that it was up high and no place for a 17-year-old boy with vertigo to be but if you are destined to be a British Hero you can overcome your terrors and climb along it. (Especially if it gives you the opportunity to best the French).
Because that’s what this book is about. It’s about young Horatio Hornblower confronting a series of challenges and overcoming both them and his own inadequacies with a combination of courage and problem-solving skills and being very good at maths and classical history (which as everyone knows is essential for strategic military thinking).
It’s No 1 in the Hornblower series that made C.S. Forester a legend in his own literary lifetime, but it wasn’t written until after an older Hornblower had done many a brave thing in a fleet of best-sellers. It’s the prequel that is supposed to introduce Hornblower as a lad at the very beginning of his illustrious nautical-military career. Aficionados of this saga, however, are adamant that this book is not actually the best place to start because it’s not as good as the other books.
Well, of course I didn’t know that because I didn’t read these reviews until after I’d read the book (or written most of this review) and the book doesn’t come with a warning telling you to read the other ones in the series first. Unhampered by high expectations, I read my way through to about four in the morning when the music stopped, and finished it off in an hour or so on New Year’s Day.
As you might expect in a book published in post-war Britain where a long history of hostility towards the French was exacerbated by contempt for their surrender to Hitler, Forester’s French are Not Noble. At sea, they lack strategy and on land they are undisciplined, they panic and they have grubby uniforms. When the Brits offer support (no doubt for their own good reasons) to a rabble of French émigrés trying to overthrow the Revolutionaries, the militia’s use of a portable guillotine on their rivals arouses revulsion in the young Hornblower. Fortunately he is too busy to be priggish…
Spain, as every postwar British schoolboy knew, was not to be trusted either, (and their brandy was ‘rank poison’) but Captain Pellow receives the news that they have switched allegiance to the French as a British Gentleman should. Impervious to Spanish threats (had not Sir Francis Drake routed the Armada in 1588?) Pellow conceals his scorn for the ‘twelve lines of compliments addressed by His Excellency the Duke of Belchite (Grandee of the First Class, with eighteen other titles ending with Captain-General of Andalusia)’, offers the Best of British hospitality to the envoy of this treachery, and dispatches Hornblower to see ‘the fellow’ off his ship.
This coming-of-age novel shows Hornblower sinking into ‘ the black depths of lunacy’ from which he is lucky to survive because of his contempt for the Spanish treatment of their galley slaves. The stench from these galleys reaches the crew of Indefatigable as they are escorted out of the harbour at Cadiz because the galleys are manned by chained slaves who are never released from their benches until they are dropped over the side. Hornblower (aged 18) is quick to perceive that these galleys symbolise a fatal Spanish conservatism. When the treacherous Spanish commence hostilities, Hornblower takes one of the galleys almost single-handedly and with the power of not much more than bravado against the swarthy Spaniards, and is promoted to acting-lieutenant. (But he remains humble).
One after the other Britain’s allies desert her, and (evoking post-war memories of Britain fighting against Hitler alone) soon her ‘resources are stretched to the utmost’. She is forced to cultivate friendships with the ‘savage Barbary states’ and tolerate the ‘insolence of the Deys and the Sultans’ in order to get supplies. As Hornblower faces his examination for lieutenant in Gibraltar Bay, a fire ship is sent in by their enemies to destroy ships at anchor. Our hero bravely volunteers to go aboard with the feared Captain Dreadnought Foster to deflect it from a course which would cost the lives of 2000 Spanish prisoners in the hulk Santa Barbara.
Forester’s casual racism does mar what would otherwise be a grand Boys Own Adventure. The heathen Moors who sell the grain are dishonest; and they have ‘no concern for [the] flesh and blood’ of their slaves. In contrast to our young hero, whose ‘habit of deduction [was] strong in him despite his sick fear’ and whose ‘contrary nature [was] to be sanguine in the face of depression’ the Moors panic when plague strikes.
There’s more. Spaniards ‘jabber in their barbarous Gallego dialect’ and their sentries are too stupid to recognise a British ship pursuing a privateer into their harbour. Instead they rely on Hornblower’s reaction to confirm their suspicions before alerting their command. They are not brave or enterprising enough to rescue their own from certain death on the Devil’s Teeth at Ferrol (on the Galician coast in Spain) and again Hornblower the Hero steps in to save the day. (On the plus side for the Spaniards, they are gentlemanly towards Hornblower’s ‘duchess‘ and they do observe a ‘gentlemanly code’ towards prisoners (if they hold rank).
These misgivings aside, Mr Midshipman Hornblower is a rollicking read and I’m not surprised that the series is very popular. It’s an entertaining book, and well written. Most of us enjoy reading about adventure and courage; and despite my cynicism I found myself warming to Forester’s depiction of heroism. Hornblower has human frailties but he learns to overcome them. He’s honest, respectful and brave and his best actions are when he is motivated by a sense of shared humanity with his country’s enemies. These are qualities which motivated many of Forester’s readers in the 1950s when they themselves were at war, and they are qualities still worth reading about today.
Mr Midshipman Hornblower probably isn’t going to feature on my Top Tens for the 2011 Year but I quite enjoyed it.
* I have pleasant memories of sailing on the family’s yacht Valhalla at Metung on a warm and sunny day featuring prawns and champagne, but it was The Spouse and his brother who did all the Impressive Manly Things with futtock shrouds and yardarms while we girls were merely required to admire them. Until we ran a little bit aground near the mooring at Chinaman’s Creek it was a very jolly boat but not the sort that C.S. Forester means, I think.
Title: Mr Midshipman Hornblower
Publisher: Penguin, 2006
Source: Kingston Library