Lieutenant Hornblower

By C. S. Forester

Reviewed by D. Andrew McChesney


          A Royal Navy ship-of-the-line bound for the West Indies, captained by a man believing his lieutenants conspire against him, provides the setting for the second tale of Horatio Hornblower.  While the junior most commissioned officer aboard, fifth lieutenant to be precise, Hornblower’s exemplary performance saves the day for HMS Renown and her crew.

          Insisting mutiny is afoot; Captain Sawyer searches for his lieutenants, hoping to catch them in an incriminating situation.  In fact, they are meeting to deal with the captain’s increasing paranoia.  Warned, they scatter, and in his haste to arrest them, Sawyer falls down an open hatchway.  How he fell is never fully addressed, and Hornblower will only say that “he fell.”

          With the captain injured, incapacitated, and now completely insane, Buckland the first lieutenant takes command.  Urged by Hornblower and the other lieutenants, he reads the captain’s secret orders and sets about completing the seventy-four gun warship’s mission.  When a first attempt results in failure, Hornblower suggests immediate follow-up action, surmising the enemy would not be expecting it.  In fact, throughout the book, it is Hornblower’s tactful suggestions to his superiors that enable them and Renown to have any measure of success.

          This book is unique amongst the eleven Hornblower novels, with Lieutenant William Bush being the focal character of the story, and we witness Hornblower’s feats through his eyes.  We also see Bush’s opinion of Hornblower grow until he holds his junior in highest esteem.        As great a story teller as he is, Forester sometimes misses the mark regarding technical issues.  In describing the lower gun deck of HMS Renown, he mentions seventeen thirty-two pound guns per side.  A British third rate of the time would have had fourteen or perhaps fifteen guns per side on that deck.  There is also some confusion as to which cabin was the captain’s, and subsequently the location of the wardroom.

          Today it is natural to compare the book with Mutiny and Retribution, the two made-for-TV movies based on this novel.  The films remarkably convey the tale to the screen in spite of many changes.  Most noticeable is the appearance of characters from the earlier Hornblower movies, and in particular, the presence of Lieutenant Archie Kennedy.  Neither he, Sir Edward Pellew, nor any of the hands from Mr. Midshipman Hornblower are present in the written version.  The movies also dwell more on Sawyer’s medical condition, potential recovery, and desire for vengeance after his injury.

          Unlike the book in which a simple court of inquiry investigates the Captain Sawyer’s death, the films present a full-fledged courts martial, complete with confession as to who apparently pushed  the captain into the hold.  The film ends with this admission, Hornblower’s loss of a close friend, and his promotion to Master and Commander, captaining Retribution.  The book, however, continues with Bush’s and Hornblower’s eventual reunion in England during the Peace of Amiens.  Still seen through Bush’s eyes, the reader becomes aware of Hornblower’s poverty, lack of influence, and bad luck in not having his promotion confirmed.  Bush also becomes privy to Hornblower’s beginning domestic life.

          In Lieutenant Hornblower, C. S. Forester has once again told a complex story in a compelling, simple, and straight forward manor, making it a tale very much worth reading.

          Lieutenant Hornblower was originally published in the early 1950s.  The copy reviewed, [ISBN 0-316-29063-7 (PB)] was a paperback reissue from Back Bay Books in 1998, priced at $13.00 US.