Beat to Quarters (1937), also known as The Happy Return, is C. S. Forester’s original Horatio Hornblower novel. It fits sixth in the chronology. In 1808, Hornblower, captain of the frigate Lydia, sails to Nicaragua to aid a mad warlord in his revolution against the French. Complications ensue, as usual, including the married Hornblower falling in love with another woman (which is rather unexpected).
Beat to Quarters has a fair mix of action and drama, although things drag along at times. The climax of the book is a fifty-page sea battle, during which Forester immerses the reader in naval warfare and at the same time overloads him with nautical details.
Beat to Quarters was written over ten years before any of the chronologically-previous novels, and there is a noticeable difference in style and tone. For one, the narrative here does not flow as well as it does in Forester’s later writing – he gets bogged down in details and he has a tendency to repeat himself. Hornblower is still fundamentally Hornblower – he is self-loathing, insecure, posturing and hypocritical, although his manner is not quite the same and he has manifested a bizarre habit of saying, “Ha – h’m,” all the time.
It will become clear to anyone who has read the Hornblower books that Forester did quite a bit of retconning when he went back to write the novels of Hornblower’s early career. Notable examples include Hornblower’s age and his relationship with Lieutenant Bush, and there are quite a few other small things.
On the whole, Beat to Quarters is a decent novel not with out its problems, although its flaws are easier to forgive knowing that Forester was still finding his way with Hornblower. New Hornblower readers would do better to start with Mr. Midshipman Hornblower.