Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Thoughts on Hornblower

with 2 comments

Recently, I have re-read most of the Hornblower books by C. S. Forester, for the first time since I was a teenager (and likely a fairly young teenager). This has been a very positive surprise, be it as a reading experience or as a means to improve my own writings. While the main target group likely remains young men and older boys who wish to be entertained, there is a lot of brilliance that make these books well worth the effort even for older readers—and I would not classify them as “young adult” books (quite contrary to my expectation). The too young reader is even likely to miss a lot of the benefits in terms of e.g. psychological insight or speculation—I certainly did.* Similarly, a pre-employment reader might miss the possible use of Hornblower as a model of professionalism and dedication, or the value of many discussions on interacting with superiors and subordinates.**

*Quite a few of my early readings, including e.g. the works of James Herriot, were pure entertainment when I was young, but have turned out to contain a lot of potential insight and items worthy of thought when I have re-encountered them as an adult.

**There are similarities between the Royal Navy and school, e.g. relating to press-ganging (mandatory schooling) and enforced rules; however, Hornblower’s (officer) career starts in a position that would not map well to a school student, which limits the applicability of the books for students and their ability to compare and contrast own experiences. A mapping of his career to a school might go from beginning teacher to principal.

A great positive is how exciting the books are: I am quite blasé when it comes to the excitement part of fiction and, nowadays, hardly ever have that “on the edge of my seat” feeling, even when it comes to e.g. thrillers and horror movies. Indeed, it is so rare that the repeated occurrence during these re-readings caught me off-guard, the feeling itself lost from active memory. Forester’s success in this at least partially lies in keeping his hero in a dire situation, where even a single mistake can lead to disaster, for pages, where someone else might have jotted down a few paragraphs. (Of course, this requires the skill to keep these pages “alive”, which not everyone might be able to do. I will certainly revisit his writings again to gain a better understanding.) Forester does not even shy away from killing off important or sympathetic characters, even when the reverse would be expected. (For instance, modern narrative approaches almost demand that Bush would have popped up alive, miraculously saved, at the end of “Lord Hornblower”—but when everyone survives all the time, who cares about apparent danger?) Similarly, bad things do happen to Hornblower, e.g. in that this or that “acting” promotion is not confirmed. The result is an occasional level of suspense that is almost Hitchcockian, if of a different character.

This is also a book series that sees the hero outwit the villains, having Hornblower repeatedly defeat nominally superior enemies or escape seemingly inescapable situations by using his head. (Of course, this is another factor that contributes to excitement, because the odds tend to be stacked against him.) Intelligence can also play in more indirectly, e.g. in that he values a well trained crew and ensures that training takes place, so that his ship is able to navigate better, his guns able to fire more often, etc., when a conflict is at hand. Then again, he sometimes shows an odd stupidity, as with e.g. the short-story “Hornblower and the Widow McCool”—to me, it bordered on the obvious that McCool was engaging in trickery, and I spotted the “bee” and the “eye” almost immediately, while Hornblower might have taken weeks or months (the exact chronology is not obvious). Similarly, it puzzles me how he could have missed a potential connection between the escaped prisoner and the two hundred pounds* that his wife wanted in “Hornblower in the West Indies”. (Both might be explained by a limited insight into the psychology of others on a “good with numbers; bad with people” basis. Also note that I have the benefit of knowing that Hornblower moves in a work of fiction, which can alter my expectations compared to real-life situations.)

*An amount that he felt was extremely large and unexpected in the circumstances, and for which he could see no plausible reason.

On the downside, the unfortunate order of writing* has lead to a number of continuity issues, including a five-year difference in Hornblower’s birth year. The books written earlier might also have placed unfortunate limits on the events of the books that play earlier in Hornblower’s life but were written later, as with e.g. the situation around (first wife) Maria and their children. A particular annoyance is the jump from the end of “Hornblower and the Atropos”, where he comes home to find his children suffering from smallpox, to the beginning of “The Happy Return” several years** later. This is highly frustrating for the reader who follows the internal chronology, and might have expected the next book to continue from that very point, to follow the care of the children and to discuss their fate. For the reader who follows the order of publication, including those who once read the books as they were published, the situation is toothless, because the deaths of the children of smallpox had been established years earlier.

*The book first written (“The Happy Return”) starts about half-way through the roughly three decades ultimately covered by the books. The next few books continue this chronology, after which a jump back to his career beginnings is made, after which the years tick upwards again for a few books. Forester then starts to jump back-and-forth in the timeline.

**There are a number of similarly sized gaps, which might or might not have been filled over time, had not Forester died prematurely. (Indeed, with one book, “Hornblower and the Crisis”, incomplete.)

A negative or neutral, depending on the point of view, is that events later in the chronology might, in some sense, be too large or too hard to reconcile with the historical record. Consider e.g. his attending a dinner with the Russian czar and the Swedish king simultaneously present; or his key role in a rebellion* of Le Havre against Napoleon, a city of which he then became the governor. Similarly, it might have been better to not have the short-story “The Last Encounter”, set years after the novels, turn him into admiral of the fleet—a position very visible in historical record and far less anonymous than that of rear admiral (as last seen in the novels). Here, if not earlier, we move from historical fiction to alternate reality.**

*I am uncertain whether this has any historical background, but if a real-life rebellion did take place, it was without his assistance and without a governor Hornblower.

**Historical fiction necessarily has some element of alternate reality, because otherwise it would be plain history. However, there is a difference between the type of historical fiction that might have taken place approximately as described without being incompatible with today’s world and the type that cannot. For instance, having Hornblower on one of many ships participating in the naval blockade of France is historically unproblematic; having him, hypothetically, switch sides, rouse ten thousand soldiers, and help Napoleon to a victory at Waterloo, well, that is a different story.

Some other observations:

  1. I have often complained about characters* who keep their plans and ideas too close to the chest, even at the risk of associates making mistakes or not cooperating out of ignorance, or being put in unnecessary insecurity and fear. (“Doctor Who” contains many examples.) To date, I have mostly considered this a way to keep an unexpected twist secret to the reader/viewer for as long as possible, in order to increase the surprise or the suspense leading up to it. Hornblower provides an alternate set of explanations around the need to keep discipline on board, appearing infallible to his subordinates, and similar: if his intended plan fails, he loses little or no face if no-one knows about the plan; if it succeeds, he seems the more far-sighted. (Note the special situation of the then British navy.)

    *Mostly in fiction, but some real-life people have been similar.

  2. The books are quite explicit about differences in intellectual abilities between different persons, including noting a great many very stupid or otherwise incompetent (non-officer) seamen and quite a few somewhat stupid or otherwise incompetent officers. While this is realistic with an eye on my own observations of the world, I have some doubts whether books making such claims would fare well in today’s political climate, where this attitude might be labeled as “elitist” and, therefore, unacceptable.*

    *I strongly contend that we need more elitism and that today’s attitudes are highly damaging. I have a follow-up text in planning with some ideas of how to go about this. Also see e.g. [1], [2].

    As a special case, naive, emotional loyalty to a superior officer is depicted as to some degree relating to stupidity. This also matches my real-life observations.

  3. Hornblower is paradoxical through simultaneously being almost superhuman, notably intellectually, and having unexpected weaknesses, e.g. in that he, as a navy officer, has bouts of sea-sickness. This is quite different from many characters in less well made works, who are superhuman—period. It is also clear that he has had his share of luck and that brilliance alone would not have been enough to get him where he is. (Regular luck, not “Gladstone Gander” luck.)
  4. Somewhat overlapping, Hornblower appears to suffer from what today would likely be considered “impostor syndrome”, in books written decades before the “discovery” of the impostor syndrome—and, notably, with a man as the self-perceived impostor. (Whereas the impostor syndrome was originally naively considered more of a female thing.) This is a good example of the limited intellectual depth of certain “scientists”.

    As an aside, the impostor syndrome, or at least something resembling it, is quite easy to predict by the fact that the “impostor” often (a) has a good knowledge of his own strengths and weaknesses, (b) will tend to view the things that “come easy” to him as easy. If he lacks enough insight into the weakness of others or if others show that they do not understand the reason of his success (e.g. through underestimating hard work put in or attributing success to divine inspiration) then self-perception and perception by others is highly likely to be incompatible.

    In particular, there is no reason to be puzzled by why more recognition, e.g. an award, could increase the feeling of being an impostor, instead of reducing it: On the one hand, the recognition is unlikely to do anything to alter the self-estimate of abilities of someone with a strong self-knowledge—a ship captain does not become better at using the sextant by receiving an award, for instance. On the other hand, the recognition will demonstrate the perception of others and risk an inflation of the difference. When the difference is inflated the feeling of being an impostor is increased.

  5. Similarly, the books provide yet another example of how the Feminist or “gender studies” claim that the male role would be unexplored is unfounded. Here we have books (probably) mostly read by non-adult boys, written before “gender studies” appeared on the chart, which run through many issues helpful as “food for thought” for a boy or a man to find himself and his place in the world, including issues of duty to various entities, how to handle a marriage in unfavorable circumstances, ethical dilemmas, the contrast between rules/laws and ethics, coping with adversity and injustice, self-sacrifice, … (But none of that might matter to the Feminists, because not one word is spent on whether Hornblower should have stayed home with the children while Maria fought the French.)
  6. The strength of the books often come from the restrictions placed on Hornblower, not the abilities at his disposal. For instance, it is not the ability to fire a broadside that makes a naval battle work—it is the need to navigate into a position to fire it without being shot up by the other ship, the need to reload and adjust aim, etc. For instance, if Hornblower could have gone on the radio and talked directly with any ship in the Royal Navy or with the admiralty in London, many things would have been too easy to be interesting, many complications could simply not have taken place, etc.
  7. The books are historically very interesting, including insights into sailing, naval warfare, etc. (And, obviously, portions of the Napoleonic wars as historical events.) A particular point is the extreme discipline on board, the hard and dangerous work (even battles aside), the poor diet, and the large scale press-ganging. I have not investigated how historically accurate Forester’s depictions are, but by-and-large they match my impression from other readings. To re-iterate a point that I have made in the past: when we look at e.g. the U.S. slavery era, it is important to use the world as it was as a bench-mark—not the world as it is. This both when comparing conditions and when looking at what behaviors were or were not acceptable in society.
  8. A strength of the series as a whole is the varying stations and situations that occur as Hornblower reaches different positions in the navy, which creates an automatic variety. A particular issue is the gradual move from predominantly following orders and keeping superiors content to predominantly giving orders and keeping subordinates content.

This text is not the one mentioned in [3]. I am still developing my ideas, Hornblower is merely the impetus, and it could be a while before I get around to writing something. Also cf. “more elitism” above.

Note on names of books:
Some of the works mentioned might be known to the reader by a different name, because of changes over time or differences between countries.


Written by michaeleriksson

November 24, 2019 at 10:21 am

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. […] I have read super-hero comics, so often looked down upon by women, with more “higher values”. Hornblower is certainly far more likely to keep boys […]

  2. […] a very positive re-reading of the Hornblower books a few years ago, I am currently having a first go at Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin series. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: