December 26, 2005


Hornblower, Still Under Full Sail (JONATHAN YARDLEY, December 26, 2005, Washington Post)

Earlier this month, for its annual holiday issue, Book World asked several literary eminentos "what book they would recommend to a friend craving a little escape from the world's cares." My answer would have been ridiculously easy: any of the 11 "Hornblower" novels by C.S. Forester, most particularly the first in the series, "Beat to Quarters."

For more than five decades I have escaped into the "Hornblower" novels as often as time and occasion have permitted. I was introduced to them as a middle-schooler in the early 1950s by my father, who adored them. The first that I read, "Mr. Midshipman Hornblower" (1950), doubtless was given to me because my father knew I would identify with the mere boy who was its protagonist, but over the years the three novels about Horatio Hornblower when he was in his thirties and held the rank of captain -- "Beat to Quarters," "Ship of the Line" and "Flying Colours," all of them, incredibly, published in 1938 -- have been my favorites, and they remain so to this day.

It seems most unlikely that many readers now need to be introduced to Horatio Hornblower. All the novels chronicling his long career are very much in print and, if sales rankings at are any guide, continue to sell remarkably well. The 1951 film "Captain Horatio Hornblower," directed by Raoul Walsh and starring Gregory Peck in the title role -- my father and I drove across the state of Virginia to see it -- was well received and remained popular for years. More recently, the BBC made a "Hornblower" series with Ioan Gruffudd perfectly cast as Hornblower; eight episodes are available on DVD, and all are terrific, completely faithful to the original and considerably grittier than the 1951 movie.

Forester is now known almost entirely for "Hornblower," but when he began to write "Beat to Quarters" in the mid-1930s at age 38, he was a well-established, successful author of highly literate, carefully researched novels of adventure and suspense, most notably "Payment Deferred" and "The African Queen." He had published two dozen books and had been lured to Hollywood, which he found not to his taste. He fled back to England aboard a Swedish freighter, a leisurely voyage during which he thought through the personality and character of his flawed but heroic protagonist, a British naval officer serving during the Napoleonic Wars. Forester decided to name him Horatio, "not because of Nelson but because of Hamlet," from which "it seemed a natural and easy step to Hornblower."

That is how Forester put it in "The Hornblower Companion," published two years before his death in 1966. This book, with its detailed maps of all of Hornblower's naval engagements and its candid, instructive account of how Forester wrote fiction, is a useful supplement to the novels, but reading it really isn't necessary because Forester's descriptive powers are so keen that every location and battle comes vividly alive in the reader's imagination. Although he wasn't in love with the movie industry, he obviously had a highly cinematic mind and animated scenes with clarity and immediacy.

Couldn't agree more and be sure to check out the recent A&E series

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 26, 2005 12:00 AM

I just finished Flying Colours. I am reading them in order as I can get them from the library, and am really enjoying them. I read the Patrick O'Brian books first and like them a little better, but I do love Horatio. And *love* the DVDs and Ioan.

Posted by: Kay in CA at December 26, 2005 10:22 AM

They're nothing like that dreary Kidnapped! or whatever it was called, are they? I watched it on your advice, and...well, it didn't have a lot going for it.

Posted by: RC at December 26, 2005 1:10 PM

Ion Gruffud alone is worth the watching--he's dreamy.

Posted by: oj at December 26, 2005 1:17 PM