RogerBW's Blog

A Ship of the Line, C. S. Forester 07 May 2022

1938 Napoleonic naval fiction, second written but seventh by internal chronology. After his triumphs in the Lydia, Hornblower gets command of a ship of the line, if an ugly and unseaworthy one, not to mention short of crew.

Of course, before any of that can be solved, Hornblower has to get away from the unsuitable wife whom he has come to despise, and deal with the woman he fancied but turned down (he, after all, being married) having married someone else. He thinks, of course, largely of the effects these things have on him rather than considering at all that other people might have their own reasons for acting the way they do; on the other hand his thoughts of himself are unremittingly negative. One feels he gets little joy from anything.

That's the deliberate contrast to his peerless captaincy, and in a way this is a collection of stories more than it's a coherent narrative: within the overall frame of the western Mediterranean and the east coast of Spain at this point in the Napoleonic Wars, there's a series of incidents that while fascinating in themselves have very little connection to each other. Yes, all right, he always prevails, until the end – but as always the tension is in how he'll do that, and how he'll manage the limited resources of his own ship and his commander's tolerance.

At times I fancied I felt Forester scrabbling for ideas: how many ways can you recount a battle between sailing-ships of this era, after all? Especially having done it already in The Happy Return. So Hornblower is also involved in taking a coastal fort, and firing on a column of troops on the shore road, and even getting guns ashore for use in a land battle, rather than too much repetition of the effects that we've already seen.

It can be a bit of a slog in places, and of course the ending hardly leaves our hero in a good position, but there's certainly plenty of enjoyment to be found here.

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Previous in series: The Happy Return | Series: Hornblower
Previous in series: The Happy Return | Series: Hornblower (chronological)

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