The Origin and Life of Horatio Hornblower

Jack Goblin By Jack Goblin, 6th Dec 2014 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Reviews>Books>Dramatic Fiction

A look at C.S. Forester's famed fictional character Horatio Hornblower: How he came about, and why he was and is so popular.

In the Beginning...

The year 1935 was one of mixed fortune for British writer Cecil Smith, better known by his pen name of C.S. Forester. His book The African Queen was published that year to great acclaim. This added to the already considerable fame he had gained with his historical novels and sea stories.

Indeed, he was so popular he was hired by a major Hollywood studio and brought to California to work on the screenplay to a swashbuckling movie from the days of iron men and wooden ships. All this, of course, was to the good.

Through the Canal... and back to the past.

Then, several months into the project, a rival studio staged a surprise coup by coming out with their OWN swashbuckler, Captain Blood, a movie set during the same time and using many of the same events as Forester's script. The heads of Forester's studio cancelled their movie and he was left unemployed in Hollywood with a partially finished script no one was interested in, and no job offers.

As if that weren't unpleasant enough, at the same time he was being threatened with a paternity suit because he'd been doing more in the previous months more than just writing. All this was to the bad. Forester reacted, and left his problems behind, by going home; boarding a freighter making a slow trip to England via the Panama Canal.

With nothing to do and a lot of time in which to do it, and stimulated by the trip down the Central American coast, Forester began work on a new novel. A sea story, like his stillborn script; but set during the Napoleonic wars, focused on a British naval officer, and based on an idea he had had many years before.

Enter Hornblower.

While reading historical documents and naval reports from the 1800's, Forester had noticed that the slowness of communication, and the speed of change, often meant that orders given captains of Britain's ships would wind up becoming irrelevant or even dangerous if carried out. What if something like that happened, Forester thought, in a situation where the stakes were really high?

The work began on that trip came to fruition in 1937 with the publication of The Happy Return, better known in the U.S. as Beat To Quarters, the first book featuring the euphoniously named Horatio Hornblower. The story begins in 1808. Hornblower, captain of the British war frigate HMS Lydia, has spent months sailing his ship around the Horn of Africa and across the Pacific to make landfall on the west coast of Central America. He had done so while being careful to avoid being seen by any other ship or nation, because he was under orders to start a war.

Back then Central and South America were the treasured territorial possessions of Spain and the source of that nation's wealth. At the time of his sailing Spain was an enemy of Britain, allied with the French and Napoleon Bonaparte in his efforts to subjugate Europe and England.

Fostering a Revolution.

Hornblower's orders were clear: He was to make contact with a Central American rebel calling himself El Supremo and give him all possible aid and assistance in starting a revolution. Then use his ship to attack Spanish operations up and down the west coast of the lower Americas, to reduce the flow of gold, silver, and materials that kept Spain afloat.

Hornblower found El Supremo; and also found that the man was a megalomaniac who considered himself a god, lead an army of fanatics, and engaged in horrific atrocities and tortures. A humanitarian, a rationalist, Hornblower was appalled. But he was also a creature of duty, and under orders.

So he gave El Supremo tremendous help, arms, and supplies. In addition, through a brilliant trick Hornblower was able to capture intact the main Spanish warship in the area, the Natividad, a vessel larger and more heavily armed than the Lydia. This he turned over to El Supremo's cut-throat navy, making it the strongest naval force around.

A Sea Change

Having set up a situation that could keep Central America in flames for months, Hornblower thankfully separated from the nightmare that was El Supremo. He set out to sea and was going to begin attacking Spanish installations directly when a desperately searching Spanish scout ship found him and approached under a white flag.

They had known he was about, despite his care in maintaining secrecy, because the British themselves had sent them to find him. The ship brought Hornblower new orders from the British Admiralty, sent as fast as possible over the Atlantic and by boat and courier across Central America. New and startling orders.

All previous directions were rescinded, completely and totally. In the months since he had left England and was out of communication, Spain had broken with France and rebelled against Bonaparte. The Spanish were now England's valued allies in a war to the death with the French Empire, and Hornblower was to do NOTHING to damage their resources in the New World, which had become just as vital to Britain as to them. Instead, he was to return to England as soon as possible.

Needless to say, Hornblower was stunned by these orders, which had arrived too late. Especially as he realized, to his horror, that with the Natividad to support him El Supremo would not only be very hard to defeat, he might even succeed in overthrowing the Spanish in Central America and beyond.

Which might bring down England as well. A Britain pressed to the limit against Bonaparte, in battle in which the wealth Spain could provide might make all the difference. Local Spanish officials would not be able to raise a naval force capable of dealing with this weapon he had given El Supremo before serious damage was done: So there was no choice. He would have to take the Lydia, hunt down the Natividad, and try to destroy the larger, more powerful vessel himself, even at the risk of his ship, his crew, and his life.

Enter the Lady Barbara

As if that weren't bad enough, he also wound up having to give passage on his ship to Lady Barbara Wellesley, a young noblewoman, and member of the Wellesley clan which wielded considerable power in British politics at the time. Lady Barbara had been traveling in the area when she was captured by the Spanish before their change in allegiance; now freed, rebellion, plague, and the unpredictable tides of international politics made it safer for her immediately to be on a British ship, even one about to head into a life and death struggle, than to remain with the Spanish.

To Hornblower this was an intolerable nuisance. He had little use for the aristocracy. A poor man, a commoner, he had risen to his current rank through his own efforts and merits, not because of the political influence of the rich and powerful, as so many less competent men in the Service had.

Still, he could not refuse to allow her on board, when a word from the Wellesleys could end his career. And to be fair, she probably WOULD be safer on the Lydia than elsewhere. Especially since, if they survived, he would be returning to England with all possible speed.

And so the Lady came on board; and slowly, her charm, intelligence, beauty, and courage began to affect Hornblower. Even as his nobility and strength of character - traits he would have dismissed out of hand as being his - attracted her. Through the days of the hunt for the Natividad, the horrific battle - won only through Hornblower's amazing seamanship, ability to outthink his enemy, and the effectiveness and discipline he had drilled into his crew - and then the grim aftermath which left Hornblower reeling, they were together often. And in her, he came to find respite.

An Officer AND a Gentleman.

Hornblower felt a ship's captain should be an ideal: Supremely confidant and stolidly imperturbable, always in command, brave and bold, undefeatable. He also contemptuously believed he was FAR from ideal. So he forced himself to act the part, and felt further contempt for his play acting.

All this put a great deal of strain on him, and isolated him from his men, even his loyal first lieutenant William Bush, because he did not want them to see what he considered his true, inferior character. That was not as large a problem with Lady Barbara; with her he could be more himself and discuss the sights of the sea, the state of the world, and things other than the horrors they had just been through. On the long trip back to England they grew close; and eventually Lady Barbara indicated she wished to be even closer.

Hornblower was powerfully tempted. He was married; but his wife was far away, and Lady Barbara was much that his wife was not. Also, despite his less than warm feelings towards the upper class, Hornblower had to admit to himself he envied and was attracted to those who society considered his betters. And here was one of the most stunning and best of them offering herself to him.

But she was his passenger, under his protection... and he WAS married... so Hornblower, again a creature of duty, turned away. They parted estranged, and Hornblower feared that she as a noblewoman spurned might yet wreck vengeance on his career.

Public Acclaim

The British public loved the book. In part because, at a time when modern Britain was besieged with troubles on all sides, it recalled a period when England stood strong, immovable, and almost alone against a tyrant who sought to rule all of Europe; history some saw at the time as repeating itself. In part because of Forester's skill in depicting rousing naval battles and the small, private world that is the life of a ship at sea. But mainly because of the character of Horatio Hornblower, himself.

Cross-grained, riven by traits and drives that made him an unhappy man but a dangerous combatant and an effective leader of men, a King's Officer who would do anything to defend his country no matter what it cost him personally, a hero who considered himself more of a failure, Hornblower attracted the admiration, approval, and sympathy of the public, and the clamor for more of him was loud.

Forest quickly followed up with two more books, which were actually a two part story. In Ship of the Line, published early in 1938, Hornblower's fears of Barbara's retaliation prove groundless as soon after the events in The Happy Return he is promoted the prestigious position of captain of one of the huge battleships that were the backbone of Britain's navy, and assigned to a small squadron tasked with directly fighting against the French in the Mediterranean.

Hornblower versus the French.

His pleasure at this sign of approval from his superiors was muted by his lack of funds to adequately outfit his ship, the dearth of available seamen after more than a decade of war to sufficiently man her, and that he would be serving under Rear Admiral Leighton: Lady Barbara's new husband.

It was an apparently loveless political marriage, but still, this was uncomfortable to Hornblower, to say the least. It became all the more so, and a matter of tight lipped disapproval as well, when Leighton proved an inept and inadequate commander, the kind of officer who had reached his rank by political influence rather than ability.
Even so, Hornblower was able over the course of the book to strike against the French repeatedly in a variety of attacks, raids, and captures of enemy ships, his competence and abilities inflicting severe damage.

Such effectiveness brought retaliation, though, and the book ended with an isolated Hornblower having to throw his ship into unequal combat with four French battleships equal in size to his own. With no chance of victory beyond damaging them so much that they would pose no further threat to the rest of the British fleet. He succeeded in this, but only at the cost of his beloved ship, many of his crew, and his freedom as the eventually triumphant French took them all captive.

The second part of this saga, Flying Colors, came out later in 1938 and began soon after the first part ended. Hornblower and Lt. Bush, the latter having been crippled during the previous battle, were prisoners of the French and were soon on their way under heavy guard via road to Paris for a show trial and public execution for crimes against France.

To escape this fate, Hornblower first had to overcome his despondency at the loss of his ship and his imprisonment. Then he had to plan, act, and take desperate chance after desperate chance to get them free, find sanctuary in the heart of France itself, and finally plot a way back to England. Even though what was awaiting him there, he knew, was court-martial for his actions in Ship of the Line, and possible disgrace and ruin.

Hornblower's Popularity

With these three books Forester created the same kind of larger than life, immensely popular character that Arthur Conan Doyle had earlier with Sherlock Holmes. The British public - and readers in general - embraced this complex, unhappy man and wanted even more.

Forester obliged. He continued to write Hornblower books, among other works of fiction and non-fiction, even though - as had happened with Doyle - the one creation overshadowed everything else, and the rest of his books were almost ignored. Doyle had responded to this by eventually killing off Holmes in The Final Solution, only have to bring him back later.

Forester took a different tack (so to speak) with his sea captain, exploiting the public demand for him to the full. He wrote nine more books (for a total of twelve - one unfinished at the time of his death) and several short stories exploring and detailing Hornblower's life and career.

Hornblower's History

From his first days as a midshipman on a minor ship - where, to his shame, he became sea-sick while at relatively calm anchor - to a graceful retirement in his old age, widely esteemed, lauded and honored, rich and - FAR more importantly - with the inner and outer conflicts that had so long plagued him resolved and muted to the point he could find peace.

A life of adventure and adversity, of duty and desire, romance and war and cost, that have made Hornblower one of the greatest fictional naval heroes of all time. Provided hours of pleasure and excitement to readers for decades. And made Forester even more famous and wealthy.

All due to a movie that was never made.

Media Source: Wikimedia Commons


Britain, Cecil Smith, Cs Forester, Fiction, Horatio Hornblower, Napoleon, Napoleonic Wars, Naval

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author avatar Jack Goblin
Was born. Haven't died yet. Don't intend to anytime soon.

Thank you much for reading my articles. I hope they brought you pleasure and enlightenment. :)

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author avatar Fern Mc Costigan
7th Dec 2014 (#)

Interesting post!

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author avatar tafmona
7th Dec 2014 (#)

a nice post

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author avatar GV Rama Rao
7th Dec 2014 (#)

Wonderful review of the books and a fine account of Capt. Hornblower and his voyages. As a mariner I enjoyed every word of it. Perhaps the expression," A gentleman with principles is a bloody nuisance to the society," gained popularity after him.

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