Mr. Midshipman Hornblower

By C. S. Forester

Reviewed by D. Andrew McChesney


            While not the first book C. S. Forester wrote about Horatio Hornblower, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower details the beginnings of this famous fictional character’s career in the Royal Navy.  Beginning with his seasick arrival aboard HMS Justinian and a duel with an overbearing senior midshipman, it ends with his commission as a lieutenant and subsequent release by Spanish captors.  Along the way he transfers to HMS Indefatigable, a prize vessel sinks beneath him; he overcomes a fear of heights on a cutting out expedition, is involved in a disastrous attempt to invade France, and in a fog sails his vessel into the midst of the Spanish fleet.  He progresses from an inexperienced and melancholy lad to a young man capable of meeting any challenge and overcoming all obstacles placed in his path.  Yet Hornblower constantly exhibits that most basic of human frailties, a lack of confidence in his own abilities.  Throughout the book he struggles to overcome his perceived failings and do what he sees as his duty.  Along the way he develops and hones his abilities as a leader of men, gains an understanding of naval tactics and strategy, and furthers his analytical skills.

            The tale of Hornblower’s time as a midshipman is told in ten distinct, nearly stand-alone short story like chapters.  While a continuous story line progresses through the book, each tale is complete within itself.  It is possible to read them in nearly any order and not be extraordinarily confused.  References from one story to another are minimal and self-explanatory.

            As he usually does, C. S. Forester writes with a clarity that allows the reader to grasp the situation and follow the plot without difficulty.  However, students of naval history might catch a few technical errors.  In An Even Chance (The Duel), a Lieutenant Chalk is said to sport the single epaulette of a lieutenant, although this tale supposedly takes place when no officer in the Royal Navy was authorized such accouterments.  Later, when Hornblower goes before the examining board, someone remarks about midshipmen desiring a lieutenant’s commission and an epaulette.  By this time it is possible that Master and Commanders and above have been authorized wear of these devices, but it will be another decade or more before they are authorized for lieutenants.

            This book is the basis for the first four A & E made for television Horatio Hornblower movies, although several details are changed in making the films.  Some of the tales are combined, one or two are not related, and at other times the order in which they occur differs.  The Wrong War (the Frogs and the Lobsters) is the final story of the four movies, and Hornblower is finally a lieutenant.  In written form this action occurs near the beginning of his career, while he is still very much a junior midshipman.  The book ends with the story entitled The Duchess and the Devil, and Hornblower’s time is captivity is much longer than indicated on screen.

            In addition, many of the characters that repeatedly show up in the movies appear only briefly upon the written page, nor are they as prominent in the overall story as would be indicated on screen.  Nonetheless, many bits of dialogue are recognizable from one format to the other, even if at times they are spoken by different characters.  Having watched the films it is possible to picture the screen characters carrying out the action described in the book.  After reading the book, it is easy to recognize many of the scenes as presented in the movies.  This pleasant correlation might be attributed to the writing ability of C. S. Forester as well as the skill of those who developed his stories for the screen.

            No collection of the Horatio Hornblower series by C. S. Forester is complete without a copy of this book.  It is elementary in understanding the complexities of this unique individual as brought to life by Mr. Forester.

            Mr. Midshipman Hornblower was originally written in the late 1940s and published by Little, Brown and Company.  Back Bay books reissued it in paperback form in 1998, and at that time ISBN 0-316-28912-4 had a cover price of $13.00 (US).