Thursday, May 13, 2010

Beat to Quarters

"'Bless the man!' she said to herself, softly. 'He was almost human for a while.'"

The Napoleonic wars provide some of the most exciting and intriguing stories in European history. Perhaps the most exciting ones are found on the high seas as the naval powers of Britain, France, and Spain spread the war across the face of the globe, affecting even the most distant of colonies. In 1937, British writer C. S. Forester put a face on these stories with the first book in a series devoted to telling the career of his creation, Capt. Horatio Hornblower. These books were not only loved by such great historical figures such as Churchill and Hemingway, but also inspired many other works like the New York Times best-selling Aubrey-Maturin series.

The Plot:

Europe is at war and Horatio Hornblower is captaining the HMS Lydia in the treacherous waters of the Pacific. He has received orders to help start an uprising in the Spanish controlled Nicaragua by aiding the rebellious Don Julian Alvarado and destroying the famous Spanish ship, Natividad. Everything seems to be going to plan, until Hornblower discovers that Don Julian is actually a ruthless lunatic who believes himself to be God incarnate. Then after capturing the Natividad for the rebels, he finds out that Spain is now an ally, not an enemy. Oh, and did I mention that his orders now include giving the intelligent and beautiful Lady Barbara Wellesley passage back to England? Yes, life at sea is very complicated.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

I've been wanting to read these books for a while, especially after I picked up 1939 editions of the first three books. My biggest obstacle was in deciding which order to read them in. As with Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, there is a debate as to whether the books should be read in order of publication, or in chronological order of the story. After some thought and research, I decided to read them in the order of publication. I figured that it would be less confusing to follow Forester's writing as it matured.

Now, to the book itself. I wasn't really sure what to expect, and didn't know if it would fall more into the category of Captain Blood
or of Master and Commander. In the end, it kind of falls in between. It isn't nearly as thrilling as Captain Blood and not quite as complicated as Master and Commander. I wasn't overly enamored with it, but all in all I found it to be an interesting read.

The story focuses mainly on Hornblower himself. It is not necessarily the actual battles and problems he faces that we are concerned with, but rather his inner turmoil and his reaction to them. He is not what you would initially imagine in a sea captain. He is not very confidant in himself even though he is a first-rate leader and seaman. He draws away from his officers in order to create the appearance of a reserved and self-reliable captain. He hates giving any type of punishment and is very interested in literature. Though definitely a likable leading man, he's just not someone you can fully understand.

The other prominent figure in this story in his passenger Lady Barbara Wellesley. She is unlike any woman that Hornblower has ever met. She is rich, witty, intelligent, beautiful, and perfectly at home at sea. All of this disconcerts Hornblower at first, especially her knowledge of life at sea. One of the funniest moments is when Lady Barbara refers to the "floor" of her cabin rather than the "deck". This comforts Hornblower at first because "[I]t showed that she was only a feeble woman after all". Yeah, sure. Their budding relationship is perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of the story.

The politics of the story are interesting as well. In today's ultra-connected world, it seems pretty incredible that there was a time when two enemies could come to terms on one side of the world, but their armies continue to fight for weeks on the other side, simply because they didn't know that the war had stopped. And yet some things never change, like the fine line that military officers must walk to balance the strictness of their orders with the chaotic reality of battle.

So, if you like books about the Napoleonic wars, naval battles, and star-crossed lovers, you'll probably enjoy this one. It's a fine addition to the long tradition of historical fiction.

The Movie:

There are two versions of this story found in the world of film. The first is the 1951 version Captain Horatio Hornblower. This film encompasses the first three Hornblower books (Beat to Quarters, Ship of the Line, and Flying Colors) and stars Gregory Peck as Hornblower and Virginia Mayo as Lady Barbara. Haven't seen this one yet, but it is on my "to watch" list.

Then there is the much acclaimed A & E series that ran from 1998-2003. It encompassed Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, Lieutenant Hornblower, and Hornblower and the Hotspur and starred Ioan Gruffudd as Hornblower. Other notable British actors include Philip Glenister, Julia Sawalha, Samuel West, and Greg Wise. I haven't seen any of these in ages, but I remember them being very good. They are on my "to watch again" list.


Kath said...

I'm watching the 1951 movie right's very good!

bookwormans said...

I got a chance to watch it over last weekend and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Love, love, love Gregory Peck!

Lepidoptera said...

Our family is studying the Little Corporal in school this week, and we have been reading "Carry On, Mr. Bowditch" which makes me think about watching "Horatio Hornblower" again.