Hornblower and the Hotspur

C. S. Forester

Reviewed by D. Andrew McChesney


            As the Peace of Amiens draws to a close, so does Hornblower’s time as an impoverished half-pay lieutenant.  Promoted and confirmed this time as a master and commander, he is given command of the ship-sloop Hotspur.  Leaving England and his new bride in advance of the rapidly rebuilding Channel Fleet, Hornblower is soon on station off Brest.  When his small vessel is pursued by the frigate Loire, a vessel with which the Hotspur has recently exchanged passing honors, Hornblower knows war has resumed.

          Aside from keeping a close eye on the enemy fleet, Hornblower devises and carries out daring raids to deny the enemy communication, supplies, and a route to the open sea.  He is directly responsible for the destruction of a signal tower, a gun battery, and four frigates armed en-flute, trying to leave Brest for Ireland during a winter storm.  Superb navigation and seamanship enable him to prowl the rock and shoal infested approaches to Brest, and during a winter gale to make a run before the wind to shelter at Tor Bay.  Sent as the fifth ship sent to detain the expected Spanish treasure flota, Hornblower and Hotspur miss the capture due to a running battle with the French frigate Félicité, dispatched to aid the Spanish.

          Throughout this adventurous tale Hornblower tried to maintain his composure, dignity, and honor as a Royal Naval Officer.  Yet a more human and tender side emerges, even though he would prefer it not to.  Having married Maria for reasons he cannot adequately fathom, he is nevertheless tender and caring in those few opportunities he has to spend time with her, and later with their newborn son.  His humanity also has the upper hand when he allows his steward, charged with assault, to escape to the American frigate Constitution while anchored at Cadiz.

          Once again, C. S. Forester has written an exciting and very readable book, detailing the adventures of his fictional naval hero.  However, as in many of his naval stories, certain details are questionable if not in error.  In describing the French frigate Loire, mention is made of “her painted ports, twenty of them per side, besides the guns on quarterdeck and forecastle.”  A typical frigate of the time would more than likely have had fourteen, fifteen, or on rather occasion, as many as sixteen ports along the gun deck.

          There is also some confusion regarding Hotspur.  She is said to carry twenty nine-pounders that give her her “rate.”  Twenty guns would normally classify her as a sixth rate post ship, one commanded by a post captain.  If indeed such a vessel was under the command of a master and commander, she would be referred to as a sloop-of-war in spite of carrying more than the usual fourteen, sixteen, or eighteen guns normally allotted to a sloop.  And yet when Hornblower is finally promoted, he realizes he will have to leave Hotspur, as it is too small to be commanded by a post captain?


          Hornblower’s exploits as captain of the Hotspur are covered in the made for TV films Duty and Loyalty.  Yet as is common with many screen adaptations, the basic story does not translate from book to film in an exact manner.  While Sir Edward Pellew does have command of the Inshore Squadron for a time, it is, according to the book, Admiral Cornwallis and not Pellew who toasts the newlywed couple, gives Hornblower permission to sleep ashore on his wedding night, and ultimately upon retirement selects Hornblower as the master and commander to be promoted to post captain.  While William Bush is aboard Hotspur as first lieutenant, Styles and Mathews are not.  According to the written accounts of Hornblower’s career, they have not been with him since his days as a midshipman.

          Côtard was not an army major but a navy lieutenant and Guernseyman serving in HMS Marlborough, who is detached to Hornblower’s command for a single operation.  Hammond is not a part of the Inshore Squadron, but rather in the book and in history, captain of Lively, one of the vessels sent to capture the Spanish treasure fleet, an episode of the book not covered in the films.  Lastly the film version deals extensively with the presence of Napoleon’s brother and American wife aboard Hornblower’s ship.  The book devotes one entire sentence to Bonaparte’s brother and wife attempting to get ashore in France, and that is at a point where the author is attempting to provide the reader with a wider overview of historical events.

          Despite quibbles with technical details, this is a book this reviewer has read and enjoyed several times over the decades.  This latest read of Hornblower and the Hotspur will not be the last, as it is, overall, a very well-written and exciting story.

          Hornblower and the Hotspur was originally published by Little, Brown and Company.  The edition read for this review is a 1998 paperback reissue by Back Bay Books.  ISBN 0-316-29046-7 carried at the time of purchase, a cover price of $13.95