Commodore Hornblower

By C. S. Forester

Reviewed by D. Andrew McChesney



          Several decades ago, a book loving high school freshman searched the shelves of his school library, looking for something to read.  By chance he came across Commodore Hornblower and was intrigued.  In his grade school years, the Weekly Reader which was distributed to students featured a columnist with a cat named Admiral Hornblower.  Noting the connection, and genuinely curious, the student took the book from the shelf, opened it and took the first steps into the exciting world of C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower.

          While the adventure related in the story certainly appealed to this first time reader, it was also the contrary personality of Hornblower that caught his attention.  Here was an often grumpy and mean-spirited individual who for various reasons hid a kinder and more caring nature.  As well, it seemed that Hornblower was aware of the different sides of his personality and struggled to keep them in balance.

          The opening scene of the book, with Hornblower sitting in the tub comparing his thin hairy legs to those of large South American spiders caught the young reader’s fancy.  That was immediately followed by a refusal to admit a mistake in donning trousers before putting his stockings on, necessitating him to growl, “cut the tops off the damned things.”

          Over the intervening years, that student has read this and all of the Horatio Hornblower books several times.  Having recently read Commodore Hornblower again, he offers the following review.

          The quiet domestic life as the new Squire of Smallbridge is soon in the past as Hornblower receives orders from the Admiralty.  He is appointed Commodore, and with a small squadron is to attempt to tip the balance of power in the Baltic.  Assigned the seventy-four gun Nonsuch, two sloops of war, two bomb ketches, and a cutter, Hornblower is soon on his way.

          In his assigned area of operations, Hornblower’s squadron soon makes the British presence felt.  He uses the bomb ketches to destroy a French privateer sheltered behind a spit of land and sends a raiding party of ships’ boats to play havoc amongst coastal shipping.  Most importantly he attempts to persuade the Czar of Russia to declare against Napoleon.  At the same time he foils an attempt to assassinate the Russian ruler and is lured into a brief entanglement with a Russian countess.  Later, he and his squadron come to the aid of the besieged city of Riga.  There Hornblower leads a final counterattack which breaks the enemy lines and sends the attacking French forces fleeing.  He is also instrumental in the defection of Prussian forces from Napoleon’s empire.

          Whether as a result of general fatigue, conditions on the battlefields around Riga, or the flea bites suffered during his tryst with the countess, Hornblower comes down with typhus.  Having recovered at the King of Prussia’s palace in Königsberg, and with his mission accomplished Hornblower sails for England in the cutter Clam.  He arrives at Smallbridge at Christmas time as his wife Lady Barbara entertains a group of carolers.

          Commodore Hornblower, or The Commodore as it is known in the United Kingdom, takes place well into Hornblower’s life and career, with only two books remaining in which to complete the story.  Nonetheless it is a great tale in which to begin a lifelong appreciation of C. S. Forester’s fictional naval hero.  While all the books in the series tell a larger story if read in order of Hornblower’s life, they are all capable of standing alone or of being read in any order the reader might desire.  For the young student mentioned earlier, this book was certainly a successful introduction to the character and the series.

          As in all of Forester’s Hornblower books, and indeed in his other works, the writing is precise and to the point.  Forester writes simply and makes even complex plots easy to understand.  He paints complicated and sometimes confusing and hard to understand characters with a few choice well-placed words.  There is evidence of a keen understanding of naval life in the early nineteenth century, although apparent technical errors seem to crop up now and then.  As in Lieutenant Hornblower and a description of HMS Renown, Forester mentions HMS Nonsuch as having seventeen guns per side on each gun deck.  Again this reviewer believes that number to be excessive.  Fourteen or fifteen guns per side per deck would seem more likely.

          Somewhere in popular legend, it is suggested that Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, was a Horatio Hornblower fan.  It is said that the design of the Enterprise, and particularly the aft end of the nacelles was done in imitation of the sterns of the great ships of Hornblower’s time.  It has even been put forth that Roddenberry based the character of James Kirk on that of Horatio Hornblower.  That may or may not be true, but certainly there are similarities between the two.  Yet in a passage near the end of Commodore Hornblower, where it says, “He had striven all his life to restrain his features from revealing his feelings,” one can see a bit of Spock in Hornblower.  Perhaps Star Trek’s creator did too.

          According to the copy read for this review, Commodore Hornblower was originally copyrighted in 1945 and renewed in 1972.  This volume was reissued as a paperback in 2000 by Back Bay Books, carries an ISBN of 0-316-28938-8 and a cover price of $13.00 (US).