The year is 1793, the eve of the Napoleonic Wars, and Horatio Hornblower, a seventeen-year-old boy unschooled in seafaring and the ways of seamen, is ordered to board a French merchant ship and take command of crew and cargo for the glory of England. Though not an unqualified success, this first naval adventure teaches the young midshipman enough to launch him on a series of increasingly glorious exploits. This novel-in which young Horatio gets his sea legs, proves his mettle, and shows the makings of the legend he will become-is the first of the eleven swashbuckling Hornblower tales that are today regarded as classic adventure stories of the sea. (from Amazon)Buy on Amazon | Goodreads
Hornblower is an interesting hero to have in an adventure book. He’s depressed and melancholy and though he’s very intelligent and capable of achieving great things, all that great stuff is balanced by the fact that he’s a broody mofo who should probably not even be in the navy in the first place.1 And that’s not JUST because it’s extremely frustrating reading about someone who wants to kill themselves all the time (though to be fair he mostly gets over that later on).
This first book (chronologically; it wasn’t published first) reads more like a collection of short stories than a proper complete narrative, and you can see that especially in the timeline. Usually with short stories set in the same universe, you can skip around through a character’s life pretty easily, because you don’t have to worry all that much about having a cohesive timeline. So, like, one story could be set when the character’s 19 and the next one skips forward two years and he’s 21. See?
That’s the sort of thing that happens in this book. Mr. Midshipman Hornblower covers about five years of Hornblower’s life (I think) and for two of them he’s a prisoner of war, but it’s such a short book that those two years between being captured and being released are compressed down into ONE PAGE. Very confusing, and kind of disappointing. Maybe not a lot of interesting stuff happened when Hornblower was a prisoner, but surely the psychological changes at least are worth going over. And there’s lots of interesting historical things that could have been put in that were left out. There’s not a lot of description of ANYTHING in these books, at least not of physical stuff. Life on a ship is only talked about in relation to how Hornblower interacts with the other midshipman, which made me want to read a proper history of seafaring just so I can understand how people actually lived on a ship for years at a time.
Hornblower’s inner life is discussed quite a lot, but it still only feels surface-y. Like, if Hornblower was feeling depressed, C.S. would write something like “He was depressed and wanted to kill himself but then he got over it.” So while it DID help me connect to Hornblower as a person/character/whatever, it still felt like I was watching his life from far away. I suppose that’s just how C.S. Forester wrote, though! Plus, in the case of Hornblower especially, being far away means you don’t get sucked into the mires of Hornblower’s melancholic existence.
An interesting thing about this series is that the narrator always calls Hornblower “Hornblower.” I always want to call him “Horatio” because nowadays I think most authors would do that– unless it’s some weird military/navy thing, and since I don’t read modern military-related books I really have no idea what I’m talking about. I guess. idk, don’t you think it’s weird? Why WOULDN’T you call your protagonist by their first name, especially when the entire book is in their POV? Hm.
Anyway! Overall, I actually very much enjoyed (re)reading Mr Midshipman Hornblower. Sure, sometimes I wanted to give the title character a smack and tell him to cheer up, and sometimes I was annoyed by the lack of detail, but there’s plenty of action and adventure and fun seafaring stuff to distract me from the things I didn’t like and all-in-all it was a good read.
Read: July 16, 2012 (reread)
Oh! I just remembered that the TV show version of this book DOES go into more detail about Hornblower’s time as a Spanish prisoner-of-war. Yay, TV show version! I really should rewatch it soon.
- he should be
wandering around on the moorsdoing something that doesn’t require him to tamp down every positive emotion he might have. Like…candle-making? idk. ↩