RogerBW's Blog

The Happy Return, C. S. Forester 25 March 2021

1937 Napoleonic naval fiction, first written but sixth by internal chronology. Hornblower, commanding the frigate Lydia, is sent to the Pacific coast of Nicaragua to aid a local insurgency against the Spanish.

It's true: I have never previously read these books. They have of course been hugely influential, not only on their direct followers such as O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series, Reeman's Bolitho and Pope's Ramage, but on the SF they inspired; most blatant are the early Honor Harrington books that go out of their way to have starships firing broadsides at each other, but elements are readily discernable in a vast range of post-war SF.

So it's perhaps unsurprising that one of the things which struck me most was something not readily imitated in a high-tech setting, the way in which a ship of this era can "live off the land", can be repaired from a state of heavy battle damage and limited provisions to being fully fit for making a multi-month non-stop voyage given only a reasonably safe anchorage and no interference with her crew's scavenging. The reader knows that to patch up a damaged modern ship, never mind a spaceship, takes precision machines not readily carried aboard, and (pace the Spacehounds of IPC) this isn't something you get to do on a random uninhabited planet, even if the science is soft enough that the planet doesn't just kill you.

And of course while everyone talks about the loneliness of command, most writers want their protagonists to have a good time. I imagine Forester did foresee this as the start of a series, but it's also a story complete in itself, and nobody gets a particularly happy ending; Hornblower in particular is so convinced that he is worthless that even when he wins a battle over a vastly superior enemy his main thoughts are for the butcher's bill and the likelihood that he will be excoriated for his own casualties. He takes no particular pleasure in his skills; they're just what a commander ought to be able to do. (It reminds me of the sort of Christian humility that says that anything you do well is God working through you, and anything you do badly is your own fault.)

I do rather like one central point, that a treaty can easily be made without a lone ship's captain being informed of it: so no sooner has Hornblower captured a Spanish ship and turned her over to aid the insurgency than he learns that the Spanish have changed sides and are now England's allies. (Not that they'll let him use their ports or anything like that, because England is still regarded as an intruder in the Spanish colonial possessions.)

Rather less nuanced is the portrayal of the insurgents' leader, "El Supremo", who claims descent from Pedro de Alvarado and Moctezuma and is a parody of the absolute leader who thrives primarily by causing others to believe his own egotistical view of himself (though the slow execution of anyone who appears to be disloyal surely doesn't hurt). Given the date, one can't help seeing a certain amount of the posturing of senior Fascists here.

But the central battle is solid, and loses nothing even if one spots the imitations in later works. Yes, all right, it's all about how the small ship can still beat the bigger one given a better commander, but it's about how that happens, how all the little effects of the better commander add up to advantage, rather than simply assuming it's the natural way of things.

I don't love the writing – I listened to this as an audio book, which with a good reader can often glide over infelicities of style – but past that there's plenty of technical detail (better-researched than in some of the later books) and a protagonist who at least gives some slight impression of complexity even if he's not particularly likable.

I doubt I'll become a rabid Hornblower fan; had I read them as an adolescent that might have happened, but I don't froth over many things these days. But I enjoyed this rather better than I did Master and Commander or whichever Ramage it was that someone lent me.

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Series: Hornblower | Next in series: A Ship of the Line
Series: Hornblower (chronological) | Next in series: A Ship of the Line

  1. Posted by Chris Suslowicz at 09:48am on 27 March 2021

    I haven't read any Hornblower books (nor Patrick o'Brian or Ramage, come to think of it). I have, for my sins, read Weber and the David Feintuch "Hope" series (the latter being memorably described by MikeA in asr as "like Hornblower on downers"), plus the obvious parodies: Harry Harrison's "Captain Honario Harpplayer RN" short and Charlie Stross's "Singularity Sky", but that's about it.

    I still regret Charlie's decision that the Eschaton universe was irretrievably broken and he couldn't write any more in it - I got firmly attached to some of those characters.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 10:18am on 27 March 2021

    I read the first Feintuch and that was enough for me. The Harrison story seemed kind of simplistic: here's my one joke, and I'll keep telling it until I've got enough word count. But sometimes that's the right thing to so.

  3. Posted by John Dallman at 09:40am on 28 March 2021

    This was, by happenstance, the first Hornblower I read. Hornblower isn't terribly likeable, but the key to his narrative is that he does the /right thing/, even when he's afraid of failing.

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