Wednesday, May 27, 2009

FLYING COLOURS by C. S. Forester

Flying Colours (1938) is C. S. Forester’s eighth Hornblower novel by chronology, third by publication; it completes Forester’s original story arc. Having been forced to surrender to a French squadron at the end of Ship of the Line, Horatio Hornblower is imprisoned and sent with Lieutenant Bush and his coxswain to Paris to have an example made of him. Most of the novel deals with their attempts to escape France.

Most of Flying Colours takes place on land, making it a refreshing change from the innumerable sea battles that fill every other Hornblower novel. And Forester moves things a long at a fairly good pace. There are a few noticeable conveniences in the plot, but they are not sufficiently egregious as to ruin the story.

The problems Forester had in Ship of the Line with Hornblower being overly loathsome have been alleviated for the most part. Hornblower has escalated his philandering ways, however, but since it should be abundantly clear by now that he is a man of no principle beyond his duty to the Royal Navy, this should hardly come as a great shock to the reader. This fundamental lack of integrity most assuredly has quite a bit to do with his complete inability to be contented with his life, even with things wrapping up in a very tidy manner for him as they do here.

There is a great deal of drama here with Hornblower and his wife Maria, or there should be; Forester leaves it largely untapped. For those who read the Hornblower novels in the order Forester wrote them, Maria has never appeared “on camera,” as it were, to this point, and so this is not a big deal. But those who have read them in chronological order are considerably more invested in the character of Maria, and rightly hoped for more. Obviously Forester could not have gone back and changed things in his earlier works, but the end result is that the resolution here is hardly satisfactory. This is the price one pays when one writes out of chronology: the merit of the original works is diminished by later works, which reveal and even create flaws in them.

Flying Colours is a step up from Ship of the Line, and is a mostly satisfactory conclusion to the original Hornblower story arc, which is, on the whole, decent, and which would give way to subsequent superior novels.