Friday, May 8, 2009


Lieutenant Hornblower (1952) is C. S. Forester’s second Hornblower novel chronologically, seventh by publication. Horatio Hornblower, now a lieutenant, is serving on HMS Renown under the mad Captain Sawyer, who sees mutiny all around him. At the same time, Renown is sent to the West Indies on a mission to take a Spanish base. Following the resolution of these dramas, Hornblower’s career is threatened by the Peace of Amiens.

This novel introduces William Bush, Hornblower’s fellow officer, who becomes Hornblower’s good friend and who appears in most of the chronologically succeeding novels. Bush is a phlegmatic character, and a thoroughly competent, if unimaginative, officer. Lieutenant Hornblower is told from his perspective rather than Hornblower’s. This spares the reader all of Hornblower’s inner drama, self-criticism and inadequacies, and Hornblower comes off (through Bush’s eyes) as slightly eccentric but purely heroic.

Forester does a fantastic job of character development here (much better than in the previous Mr. Midshipman Hornblower). Lieutenants Bush, Buckland and Hornblower are all well done and well fleshed out – each man has distinctly unique strengths, weaknesses, desires, concerns, and personality. Forester gives the reader some particular insight into Hornblower’s character at the end of the novel, when, because of the cessation of hostilities, Hornblower must earn his living as a gambler. The man always does the charitable thing, the caring thing, and yet he does it not because he necessarily cares genuinely, but because he is bent on mastering himself, and, as far as possible, overcoming the weakness of his humanity.

Lieutenant Hornblower has an excellent mix of action, drama and suspense. It seems like the use of archaic naval jargon is less here than it was in Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, but perhaps I’ve gotten used to it, or, perhaps, the superior storytelling has marginalized its distractive impact. Lieutenant Hornblower also has several of those great little moments, those quirky, memorable instances that define both a character and a book.

In all, Lieutenant Hornblower is an entertaining, well-written book, and as good a work in this genre as you’re likely to find.