Tuesday, 7 July 1998

C.S. Forester: A Ship of the Line (1938)

Edition: Penguin, 1969
Review number: 81

Re-reading A Ship of the Line is like encountering an old friend; it must be getting on for twenty years since I last read any of the Hornblower series. I was prepared for the book not to appeal, or not to match up to the other Napoleonic navy novels I've read in the meantime.

I was more impressed than ever, and it has become clear why Forester set the standard that every historical naval writer has had to live up to since. He does not ignore the more unpleasant aspects of the English navy of the 1800s, as more trivial writers have done. Hornblower's world is one of poverty, deprivation, violence, ignorance, severe cruelty, seasickness and sudden death. There may be heroism and compassion, but these are not the true reality of life at sea. Hornblower is not the all-perfect action hero of writers like Jeffrey Farnol and Dudley Pope; he has distinct flaws which are made clear to the reader throughout the novel. And the novel itself does not end with a triumph, but with the capture of Hornblower and his ship by the French.

All this raises Forester from the pack in this small genre, and means that he will continue to be read when many of the other authors are gone and forgotten.

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