Here’s a “Sea Fever” entry dealing with an early favorite of mine, C.S. Forester.
Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (1950); Lieutenant Hornblower (1952); Hornblower and the “Hotspur” (1962); Hornblower and the Crisis (Hornblower during the Crisis) (1967); Hornblower and the “Atropos” (1953); The Happy Return (Beat to Quarters) (1937); A Ship of the Line (Ship of the Line) (1938); Flying Colours (1938); The Commodore (Commodore Hornblower) (1945); Lord Hornblower (1946); Hornblower in the West Indies (Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies) (1958)
The writer we know as C.S. Forester entered the world in Cairo, Egypt, on August 27, 1899, as Cecil Louis Troughton Smith. He did his best to enlist during World War I, only to discover that he had a serious heart condition and was unfit for service. And although he studied medicine for a time in London, he discovered that he really didn’t care enough about the subject to bother studying. Instead, he turned to writing humorous sketches—a modest beginning to a career that eventually made him one of the most popular novelists of his time.
The young man’s first attempts at writing fiction were abject failures, but eventually a historical novel about Napoleon was accepted and published under the name C.S. Forester in 1924. Other novels, as well as historical studies and travel books, followed, along with The African Queen (1934), the writer’s first real claim to fame.
It was three years later that Forester wrote about the experiences of a young captain of the Royal Navy, Horatio Hornblower, during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). Published as The Happy Return in the U.K. and Beat to Quarters in the U.S., the novel was my first taste of Hornblower, but far from the last. Forester followed with further Hornblower adventures, beginning with A Ship of the Line in 1938 and concluding with the unfinished Hornblower and the Crisis in 1967. There were 11 novels in all, five short stories, and an outline for another story.
Ideally, the Hornblower novels should be read in order of their internal chronology. In that case, you meet the man as a lowly midshipman and conclude your acquaintance with him after he becomes a rear admiral. (You’ll see the titles arranged that way at the top of the post.)
I’ve described Kenneth Dodson’s Away All Boats (see my post of 10/11/18) as a naval epic, and I was tempted to do the same with Herman Wouk’s Caine Mutiny (5/26/19). But my choice of terms was imprecise. Harmon and Holman’s Handbook to Literature speaks of an epic as “a long narrative poem in elevated style presenting characters of high position in adventures forming an organic whole through their relation to a central heroic figure, and through their development of episodes important to the history of a nation or race.”
I think we can put aside the requirement that an epic be a poem, although poetry does seem better suited than prose to the presentation of “characters of high position.” But whatever else they might be, Dodson and Wouk’s novels are about characters who are distinctly ordinary, not “high” or particularly heroic. To a great extent, that’s their authors’ point. The same is true of Hornblower himself, who is humble of birth, prone to seasickness (of all things), introverted and troubled by self-doubt, and makes mistakes. He’s no epic hero; instead, he succeeds thanks to his skill, his sense of duty, and his good luck.
But in its wide-ranging depiction of the momentous struggle at sea against Napoleon, the Hornblower cycle certainly deals with episodes dramatically important to the history of England, the English people, and the English people’s self-image. In the hands of a skillful, hard-working, lucky novelist, that’s been enough to satisfy generations of intelligent readers. Ernest Hemingway’s recommendation of Forester to “everyone literate” he knew remains as apt as ever.
If you’d like to know more about Forester, see his Long before Forty (Michael Joseph, 1967); and Sanford Sternlicht, C.S. Forester and the Hornblower Saga (rev. ed. Syracuse UP, 1999). For information about his most famous creation, see his own Hornblower Companion (Michael Joseph, 1964); and C. Northcote Parkinson, The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower (Michael Joseph, 1971), whose cover is reproduced just above.