After last month’s series of Revolutionary/Napoleonic-era biographies, it was back to historical fiction for me as April opened. It’s been a long time since I read the Hornblower books – I think it must have been something like 2005 originally – and I took a notion this week that I wanted to go through both the novels and TV series again.
Although Mr Midshipman Hornblower was not the first book C.S. Forester wrote chronologically to feature the character, it is the book wherein Horatio Hornblower’s career in the navy first begins.
The book is divided into a series of short stories; and if you’re a fan of the TV series, you will recognise them as plotlines for the first four TV movies. In The Even Chance Hornblower finds himself engaged in a duel after standing up to a bullying senior Midshipman, Noah’s Ark sees him stuck on a ship quarantined for plague, The Frogs and the Lobsters takes him to the shores of France as part of an ill-fated counter revolutionary force and The Duchess and the Devil features Hornblower playing host to a very unusual dignitary.
Hornblower, contrary to some of the other great fictional protagonists of this era, is very much an introvert’s hero. Unlike the cheerful, garrulous Jack Aubrey and cocky, sardonic Richard Sharpe, Horatio Hornblower is not a man with much confidence in his abilities. He’s awkward and shy, and frequently berates himself for what he perceives as his unforgiveable failings in courage and conduct (though he usually behaves with great bravery). If he was alive today, I’m fairly sure he’d be diagnosed with anxiety at the very least.
Captain Edward Pellew (very much a real life naval figure of the time) of HMS Indefatigable is the only true recurring character of any depth in this book. Archie Kennedy, Matthews, Styles and the other supporting cast members of the TV show were all created around characters who appear in one or more of the stories but who have little more than a couple of sentences to say. It’s very much all about establishing Hornblower’s personality in this volume; everyone else is just background.
Mr Midshipman Hornblower was a really quick read thanks to the episodic format and it functions as a nice introduction to Hornblower’s character and C.S. Forester’s naval world. It’s a little more gentle on the nautical terminology than Patrick O’Brian’s works so could be a good starting point if you feel like foraying into the world of nautical historical fiction for the time.
My rating: 4/5.