Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower

Instead of doing a blog post on Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, I think I’ll just sit here reading it while the computer hibernates. . .

I guess not.

I saw Gregory Peck playing in Captain Horatio Hornblower so many years ago that I forgot just about everything about. I was too young to give this movie any thought. In fact, I don’t think I even liked it. I found it recently on youtube and watched it again, enjoying it more at twenty than I did as a kid, and judicially comparing it to the books it was made after. That is where I first “met” Hornblower, and it made no impression that first time. I now this the movie is interesting for comparisons.

My second “meeting” of Hornblower came when I was in my teens, and he was played by cute Ioann Grufford, and he had cute Jamie Bamber fighting bad guys at his side. This definitely made an impression. This was the TV mini-series that A&E had made out of the first Hornblower book, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower. It was spectacular. –espcially compared to old Gregory Peck’s Hornblower movie. It was not a chick flick, as Peck’s Hornblower was. It was not in “TECNICOLOR” (don’t get me wrong, I think Technicolor is cool, but it just isn’t as good as what we have nowdays), and everything looked like it was real, not on a Hollywood set. The British sounded British, the French sounded French, and the Spaniards sound Spanish. I intensely liked the shows, but winced at the brutality that was portrayed for accuracy. “I love these shows!!! …minus some parts…” (happily the remote has a fast-forward button and a mute button). Presently, though, a part in the opening credits caught my eye: Based on the books by C.S. Forester. Oh, boy! Books!!! I had to see if they were good. Books are usually better than the movies made after them, I’ve found, so this was exciting.

I started out with a copy from the library, but I now have a copy of my own.

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower takes place in 1794, during the Napoleonic Wars, in the British Navy. Horatio Hornblower (who hates his name) is only seventeen when he comes about the HMS Justinian as midshipman, in the first chapter. (The book is a series of short stories chronicling some of his exploits as Midshipman, each story a chapter.) He is shy and reclusive, and also pretty seasick. He grows accustomed to life aboard; however a bully, Simpson, also a midshipman, comes aboard, and begins to torment everybody in his rank or lower, and Hornblower becomes his specific target because of his withdrawn nature. Hornblower endures in misery, but bids his time. One evening at cards, the Simpson accuses Hornblower of cheating.

Now, Hornblower has an incredibly logical mind, and thus is an extraordinary card-player, Simpson, on the other hand, was simply not a good card-player at all, and he’d been drinking. Hornblower takes this chance, and he demands satisfaction, a duel. And with only one of the guns loaded, while the other is empty, and no-one will know which. Either he will die, or Simpson will die; either way, his problem would be solved. Forester does an amazing job of writing out Hornblower’s inner battle, the doubts and fears that assail him, and the cool, logical reasoning he goes through the night before the duel. It’s just amazing.

Obviously, Hornblower lives, but it’s still pretty harrowing until the end of the chapter. And then the next adventure begins, Hornblower is transferred to a frigate, the Indefatigable, and life gets better. “The Cargo of Rice”, where he is taking a captured French ship back to England; “The Man Who Felt Queer”, where Hornblower is part of a boarding party, capturing another French ship; “The Man who Saw God” where he finds some of the sailors making trouble and also has to work with a slightly senile, but harmless sailor, “The Frogs, and the Lobsters”, “The Examination for Lieutenant”, where fireships come and threaten the ships while he’s failing the exam; “Noah’s Ark”, where I grin… ; and “The Duchess, and the Devil” are some of the other stories/chapters in Mr. Midshipman Hornblower.

Forester has an amazing knowledge of what he writes. He actually does a play by play of the card game (not that easy to read, but impressive nonetheless). His descriptions of the weather and the ships, the movement and the men’s actions and reactions are just fantastic; I come out of his books feeling almost as if I’d actually been there. …sort of like the thrilled and overpowered feeling that I get when I go to the movie theater (I only go about once a year, so it’s pretty awesome for me).

Hornblower is a unique and complex character, one who I cannot do justice to in trying to describe. Forester’s portrayal of him is very real and shows a deep study of human character.

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower is certainly the best historical fiction I’ve read, and undoubtedly the best regarding the French Revolution. It’s almost more historical than it is fiction, for how much attention Forester pays to the facts and details of that era.

Note: It has violence and bloodshed, but not too much, as well as a little profanity. I’d say it’s pretty accurate for the time without being grotesque. (Ah, and there aren’t any intimacies, shall I say, for those who mind reading such things.)

And I must say that it taught me far more about the Napoleonic Wars and several historical figures that all my years of school did.

Now…which quote shall I do? Honestly, there are so many awesome parts, it’s hard to choose… Okay, here’s a section from chapter one.

“The rest are mine,” said Hornblower, laying down his cards.

“What do you mean?” said Simpson, with the king of diamonds in his hand.

“Five tricks,” said Chalk, briskly. “Game and rubber.”

“But don’t I take another?” persisted Simpson.

“I trump a lead of diamonds or hearts and make three more clubs,” explained Hornblower. To him the situation was as simple as two and two, a most ordinary finish to a hand; it was hard for him to realize that foggy-mind players like Simpson could find difficulty in keeping tally of fifty two cards. Simpson flung down his hand.

“You know too much about the game,” he said. “You know the backs of the cards as well as the fronts.”


  1. They are excellent books. :) My introduction to Hornblower was reading *Lord Hornblower*, which is one of the last ones in the series. I saw the A&E miniseries a few years later, and I read the first five or six books of the series a year or two ago.

    The movies changed quite a bit of the story, as usual, but I do like Ioan Gruffudd. :)

    ~ A.K. ~

  2. A copy that *I* gave you!!!

    I really can't take much of the Napoleonic wars, and life of ships revolts me, but I do love Forester's writing. Reading you post almost, *almost* made me want to read the book again. But not quite.

    Excellent post, Kae.