After finishing Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (audiobook version), there was no way that I was going to be able to stop myself from listening to the entire series. In fact, the instant the first book was over, I pulled into the nearest gas station and downloaded the second one. Not one moment of my heretofore miserable car journeys would be wasted by not listening to Hornblower.
I am happy to report that Lieutenant Hornblower, the second book in the series, does not disappoint. Although all the thrill and joy and excitement of first meeting Horatio Hornblower can never be replicated, Lieutenant Hornblower is in some ways a better book than its predecessor. This is mainly due to the fact that Mr. Midshipman Hornblower is more or less episodic, meaning that it just kind of bumps around from event to event without ever achieving the buildup or suspense of a more focussed, sequential narrative. Lieutenant Hornblower, on the other hand, mostly limits itself to detailing one event: the voyage of the HMS Reknown as she makes her way to the West Indies under the command of the pathological Captain Sawyer. Despite its smaller scope, we are still given ample opportunity to see all the ways in which Hornblower exceeds the capacities of his superiors as he subtlely steers them towards a more courageous, calculated plan of action — and, of course, to VICTORY!
The main weakness of this installment in the Hornblower saga is the unfortunate narrative choice which led C.S. Forester to write the book entirely from another character’s point of view.
What on earth was he thinking?
The story is told through the eyes of Lieutenant Bush, Hornblower’s senior officer on the HMS Reknown. He’s a good sort of fellow, if a bit obtuse, and his presence in the novel means that we have the opportunity to see Hornblower through the eyes of his superiors (which is with the sort of begrudging admiration one might expect a senior officer to feel for a man who is his inferior in rank, but clearly his superior in every other aspect, including courage, bravery, sharpwittedness, tact, subtlety, insight, mathematical ability, knowledge of the Spanish language, miltary strategy, using a sextant, and outwitting the Dons). Unfortunately, it also means that we are no longer privy to HH’s innermost thoughts and are instead entirely dependent on the not-so-acute observational skills of Mr. Bush. Luckily, C.S. Forester is a master of dramatic irony, so we are still able to see and understand much that completely flies over Bush’s head. NEVERTHELESS, we will still never know exactly how Captain Sawyer came to fall down the hatch.
(Yes, that was a spoiler — sorry. But, from the first chapter of the book onward, you really do know that the Captain’s going to get it eventually. So, unless you’re as thick as the above-mentioned Mr. Bush, I shouldn’t be ruining any surprises.)
That being said, there is little else to complain of in Lieutenant Hornblower. It is a great book, just like Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, and everyone with a heart and soul and brain should read it.
In fact, no less a literary authority than Ernest Hemingway claimed to “recommend Hornblower to everyone literate I know.” While I certainly can’t fault E. Hemingway for being a fan of C.S. Forester, I’m still trying to figure out why. I think it must be all of the MANLY COURAGE, as the two writers surely don’t share an attitude towards verbal economy. C.S. Forester is a fan of precision, which is a valuable quality in a naval seaman, but, in a writer, it means that the reader is going to have to sit through several very long, minutely detailed descriptions of various games of whist and the operation of a nine pounder cannon. This is generally more pleasureable for readers who know something about playing whist or understand what a truncheon is — which sadly no longer describes all that many people, least of all myself. But, who knows? Hemingway probably knew all about truncheons and certainly could have been a great lover of whist — although it’s hard to imagine he, Gertrude, and F. Scott sitting down to a “rubber” and begging Zelda to make a fourth.
Satisfying displays of Hornblower’s intellectual superiority over his commanding officers: one million stars
Tactical moves of unparalleled brilliance (orchestrated by Hornblower, of course): one million stars
Defeat of craven and conspiratorial enemies unworthy of an alliance with HRM George III: one million stars
Access to Hornblower’s innermost dreams and desires: ZERO STARS
Overall rating: 999,999 stars
Beware! Rant and spoiler below!
Let me take this opportunity to express my extreme displeasure at the book’s disappointing finale. I seriously doubt that the snivelling and overly-sentimental Maria Mason is the right partner for Mr. Hornblower, who is destined for great things and too young to settle down anyway. There is no guaranteeing that his future service to the King will not throw him in the path of an heiress or widowed countess or two, and I really think he should be reserving himself for that possibility, rather than tossing it all away on the tear-stained daughter of an evil hag landlady. His only genuine sign of interest in her is a certain disquiet at realizing that she has secretly slipped money in his pocket, which he honestly doesn’t have to spend at all, much less blow entirely on cheese and port wine. A vague preoccupation with one’s indebtedness to a woman is no sign of love! And all for a debt of half a crown, no less! She guilted him into committing himself, which is a clever and effective tactic, but certainly not in the best interest of anyone, particularly Mr. Hornblower. There’s always hope, however; tuberculosis, smallpox, the measles — all kinds of diseases were running rampant at the time, and there’s a good chance she’ll fall prey to one of them. Maria Mason, of all people! Madness!