Tuesday, 26 January 1999

C.S. Forester: Lord Hornblower (1946)

Edition: Michael Joseph, 1951
Review number: 195

As in the earlier climax of the Hornblower series, Ship of the Line, Lord Hornblower takes Forester's hero back to the French countryside. He is initially dispatched to deal with some mutineers from the British navy who have taken refuge under the protection of the French batteries guarding the mouth of the Seine. In taking possession of the mutineers' ship, Hornblower also manages to be the man who establishes the first bridgehead on the northern French coast, by capturing Le Havre. This is in the twilight of Napoleon's power, as Wellington invades the south of France, and Russian troops menace the Rhine. Hornblower has to reluctantly become the host for the Duc d'Angoulême, one of the uninspiring Bourbons who wish to return to France and power as Napoleon is defeated and exiled to Elba. But when Napoleon escapes, Hornblower once again becomes a fugitive in a hostile France.

This late Hornblower novel has a distinct air of being an anticlimax. I don't know whether Forester was as tired of his most famous hero as Doyle became of Sherlock Holmes, but he was certainly not as able to come up with good ideas as the series of books extended. This is partly because he had to fit Hornblower into a historical context, and partly because he clearly didn't have a plan of Hornblower's whole career mapped out in advance; doing so would have made it possible to spread out the excitement more evenly.

That boredom was involved seems to be indicated, though, by the sketchy attention paid to character development in some of the later books. Hornblower has been established early on in the series, and he does not really change or develop, reaching the point where he is almost a caricature of his earlier self. Forester also repeats incidents, and in Lord Hornblower actually draws attention to it (Hornblower has the men caper at their guns at one point to stop them freezing, and he actually thinks how this will cause a new Hornblower legend to grow up, to set alongside stories of the jig danced on the Lydia during the chase of the Natividad.)

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