Lieutenant Hornblower by C. S. Forester. Recommended.
Lieutenant Hornblower, set in the early 1800s during the Napoleonic Wars, is the second book chronologically in the 11-part Horatio Hornblower series. Forester is a master of combining exciting plots, recognizable characters, realistic naval and period information, and interesting historical detail. As you read Lieutenant Hornblower, you will see how even modern science fiction television and films, from Star Trek to Star Wars, owe a debt to Forester’s story-telling technique.
This time, Hornblower is seen from the perspective of a more senior lieutenant, Bush, as they serve aboard Renown. Bush, himself a decisive, strong, if unimaginative, leader, finds himself redefining and expanding his concepts of leadership and command as he observes Hornblower’s interactions with his junior and senior officers. Hornblower subtly guides them to the actions and decisions that he wants from them without overstepping the top-down chain-of-command structure of the 1800s British navy, in which the captain enjoys the omnipotence granted by the king over crew and officers alike. Hornblower’s approach even anticipates today’s most current thinking about the nature of corporate leadership.
As a character, Hornblower can be too perfect. His suggestions and his actions are always on target and successful, and it is he who saves Renown and her mission time and again. Even when he makes a rare mistake, for example, overheating the shot so that it will no longer fit in the cannons, the error does not affect the outcome of the venture.
Forester tries to humanize Hornblower, whom Bush notices carefully hiding his emotions and frailties-even hunger and poverty-lest anyone perceive his weakness. Interestingly, Hornblower survives the paranoia of a mad captain, the indecisiveness and incompetence of an inept first lieutenant, harrowing sea and land battles with the Spanish, and delicate diplomatic maneuverings with the Spanish and with the highest levels of naval representatives, only to succumb to an unattractive but smitten woman.
Throughout the novel, there is one recurring question that Hornblower avoids answering. Bush asks it, as does Buckland, the lackluster first lieutenant. Depending on how you perceive the underlying situation-and what you believe the real answer to be-you could see it as a positive reflection on Hornblower’s character, or a disturbing aspect of it. Forester deliberately raises this point repeatedly; it adds mystery and a human dimension to a character who could otherwise have become a stock hero, always correct and always victorious (at least in war and politics).
If you’re like me and love sea adventure, Lieutenant Hornblower is a must-read. Forester is able to explain the workings of a sailing vessel and the machines of war without sounding overly technical, mechanical, or tedious. He portrays the harsh discipline of the British navy so well that you will understand why sailors rapidly disappeared when the press gang was spotted; there was little question of patriotism, only one of self-preservation. Forester also plants in the imagination the horrors of war, where even lieutenants can be cut in two by cannonballs or tormented by mad captains, where decks become slippery with the blood and guts and limbs of the fallen.
Lieutenant Hornblower is an exciting, fast-paced read that may convince you to investigate the rest of the series.
30 June 2004
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf