Ship of the Line

By C. S. Forester

Reviewed by D. Andrew McChesney


          This is early classic Hornblower, the second novel written, and the second part of the larger Captain Horatio Hornblower trilogy.  Having salvaged some success from his recent secret mission to the Pacific, Horatio Hornblower now commands a ship of the line, HMS Sutherland (74).  His wife Maria is expecting, but Hornblower’s heart lies with his recent passenger, Lady Barbara Wellesley.  She in turn has married Rear Admiral Leighton under whose command he will soon sail.  Beyond the complications of his personal life, Hornblower’s career depends upon fully manning his ship.

          Sutherland and the two other ships of Leighton’s squadron sail to the Mediterranean, escorting a convoy of East Indiamen.  As the merchant vessels and their naval escort part ways, Hornblower, with Sutherland still undermanned, brashly raids the convoy for hands, justifying his actions upon a chance comment that all had volunteered.  When two of the three vessels arrive at the rendezvous ahead of Leighton, Hornblower is temporarily authorized to cruise independently.  He and Sutherland play havoc with French shipping and military operations in the Western Mediterranean, often resorting to legitimate ruses of war in order to accomplish his mission.

          After leading an ill-advised land based assault on Rosas, Hornblower finds Sutherland on the point of the spear as four French ships of the line make a break for the open sea.  Resolutely he takes his single vessel into combat with the four while waiting for the remainder of Leighton’s squadron to close in.  Assistance does not arrive, the results are predictable, and Hornblower is forced to surrender.

          While this volume has as much, if not more, combat and at-sea action as any of the books in the Hornblower saga, it once again is the character of Hornblower that is the most intriguing.  It is to C. S. Forester’s credit that the complex tale of a very complicated individual is told with straight forward simplicity.  Hornblower’s fear of failure, lack of belief in himself, and conflicting emotional attachments sometimes grate on the reader’s nerves, and yet make him all that more human.  Nor is the author without a sense of humor regarding Hornblower’s exploits in the Mediterranean.  Having left their clothes ashore in order to swim out and attack a French coaster, he and the entire raiding party are forced to return to and board Sutherland wearing nothing but smiles.  Following destruction of the coaster, its vengeful crew discovered and destroyed their clothing.

          Even as a part of the larger Captain Horatio Hornblower trilogy, this work stands on its own in many ways.  There are relatively few references to other portions of Hornblower’s career, and for once this reviewer cannot find any technical matters worth taking the author to task about.  Unfortunately this portion of the larger story gets short thrift in the 1951 movie starring Gregory Peck.  About two thirds to three quarters of that film cover the first book, Beat to Quarters, while the second two are squeezed into the final third or quarter of the motion picture.

          The recently read copy is one of a set encompassing the original Hornblower stories and currently in the possession of the reviewer.  All three are old, although it cannot be claimed that they are first editions.  Because of the time they were produced, no ISBN or price information is available.