The Happy Return was published in 1937 Forester had no idea that it was destined to be one of a series of eleven novels. In that first book Hornblower was a captain with several years’ seniority. The next few books in the cycle chronicled his subsequent adventures but in 1950 Forester conceived the idea of going right back to the beginning of his hero’s naval career.
Mr Midshipman Hornblower can be regarded as an episodic novel, or even a collection of linked short stories.
In 1793 the seventeen-year-old Horatio Hornblower goes to sea for the first time in the ship of the line HMS Justinian. Actually he doesn’t quite go to sea as such. The Justinian is at Spithead and it’s not going anywhere at the moment. An idle ship means idle hands which is never a good situation. Having an elderly and ailing captain and an incompetent first lieutenant makes things worse. The Justinian is neither an efficient nor a happy ship. Life is particularly unhappy for Hornblower. The Justinian’s midshipmen are at the mercy of the senior midshipman, Simpson. Simpson is long past the first flush of eager youth. He is still a midshipman because he has repeatedly failed the lieutenant’s examination and he has failed the lieutenant’s examination because of his own intellectual deficiencies, in particular his incompetence at mathematics which of course makes him incompetent at navigation. He was always an unpleasant personality with a sadistic streak and now he is embittered and filled with self-pity. He takes an especial dislike to Hornblower (which has something to do with Hornblower’s flair for mathematics).
The situation becomes so bad that Hornblower decides on a desperate gamble (the sort of gamble that might appeal to someone who takes a mathematical view of the universe). A duel will either end his troubles or end his life. But this is not to be an ordinary duel.
This opening story immediately tells us some very important things about Hornblower. He is able to analyse a situation coldly and rationally and he is able to accept the consequences of his analysis no matter how unpleasant they might be. It also establishes that Hornblower has physical courage, but it’s a particular type of courage. It’s not a reckless courage. It’s a calculated intellectual kind of courage.
This opening chapter was the basis for the first of the late 90s Hornblower TV movies and it’s interesting that the TV movie pretty much missed the point of the tale.
The other adventures in this volume shed light on other aspects of the character of this unconventional hero. Forester could write exciting tales of adventure but there was always more to his writing than mere action. The Hornblower cycle is an extended examination of the character of an unusual man, a hero who is almost but not quite paralysed by an extraordinarily self-critical personality. Hornblower is always looking for faults and failures in his own conduct and he is always finding them. The second adventure in this volume provides a fine example. He is now serving on the frigate Indefatigable which has successfully attacked a convoy and captured a number of French merchant ships. One of these prizes is the brig Marie Galante. Hornblower and a four-man prize crew have the task of sailing her to the nearest English port.
This is Hornblower’s first taste of command. As you might expect he makes mistakes. He is an inexperienced seventeen-year-old midshipman. In fact some of the mistakes might well have been made even by a more experienced officer, since these mistakes have a lot to do with the unusual qualities of the brig’s cargo. Hornblower makes mistakes but he more than compensates for these errors by displaying outstanding initiative and determination. Characteristically however Hornblower chooses to focus on his failures rather than his successes. The TV adaptation also managed to miss the point of this adventure.
There will be more failures. Hornblower is a very competent young officer but he is not the kind of hero who never makes mistakes. What makes Hornblower notable is that he learns from his mistakes. His obsessive self-criticism isn’t entirely a character flaw - it goes along with ruthless self-analysis. Forester has said of Hornblower that he is the sort of man who will still be learning things on his deathbed. Hornblower makes mistakes but he does not make the same mistake twice. And it’s not necessarily a disadvantage for a hero to be perpetually dissatisfied with his own achievements. It makes him try harder. Hornblower also has a definite knack for looking at a disaster and seeing an opportunity, prime examples being the extremely good use to which he puts an enforced quarantine after he and the party under his command are exposed to plague. If he is captured by the Spanish then he will spend his time learning to speak Spanish. And the wreck of a privateer provides an opportunity of escape.
It’s interesting to read Forester’s account of his own creative processes (in the Hornblower Companion which is very very highly recommended). Forester seems to have been as self-critical of his books as Hornblower is of his talents as an officer. For Forester no novel was ever quite satisfactory but the next one was always going to be better, which is pretty much Hornblower’s attitude.
The very episodic nature of this book may perhaps have been the result of a serious illness from which its author had been suffering (an illness that inspired him with the idea of duel in which the chances of life or death should be perfectly even). I think the structure works quite well. It certainly packs plenty of plot into the package and Hornblower’s youthful adventures are remarkably varied and unfailingly entertaining.
In fact there’s so much plot here that when adapted for television this relatively slim volume provided material for no less than four TV movies! The TV version by the way is not anywhere near as bad as I’d expected it to be. In fact it’s reasonably good, but it doesn’t quite capture the essentials of Hornblower’s personality. It’s worth mentioning that the 1951 Hollywood Hornblower movie Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. similarly fails to capture the subtleties of a man who is one of the more psychologically complex of all adventure heroes.
Mr Midshipman Hornblower is highly recommended.