Novel: The Happy Return (UK) or Beat to Quarters (US) [Horatio Hornblower #1]

Author: C. S. Forester, 1937
Genre: Historical Fiction, Marine Adventure
Format: Ebook, 204 pages

Unlike the case of my endless debate regarding the reading order of Narnia books, I knew right away I wanted to read the Horatio Hornblower series in order of publishing. The reason being, they all feature the same central character who is being developed by the author as he progresses in his writing. Even though Forester decides to jump back to Hornblower’s youth half way through the series, the character is already fleshed out much better than the Horatio we know in The Happy Return. No, this is the book where we are just starting to get to know the notorious captain, so it would make more sense to read it first.

In short, the novel revolves around Lydia, a British Royal Navy frigate sailing towards Nicaragua in order to conspire with a local landowner to overthrow Spanish rule in the territory. Once there, Lydia is immediately thrown into battle with a much more powerful Spanish warship Natividad, which is successfully captured thanks to the cunning strategic planning by captain Hornblower. The landowner, El Supremo, demands the ship to be handed over to him, which the captain reluctantly does as to not sever the political ties to the man. No sooner as Natividad sails away from the coast, Hornblower receives a message from England informing him that Spanish are to be their new allies. Now Lydia must try to capture Natividad once again, but a battle in the open sea against a superior ship does not look promising at all.

Let me just say that I absolutely love Horatio Hornblower. Forester manages to create a living and breathing man out of a two-dimensional book character. Horatio is constantly at war with himself, trying to separate his quite emotional personality from the stoic facade he must put on as a military captain. He might be confidently walking into El Supremo’s office as a heroic victor, but at the same time he is dying inside of embarrassment that his white breeches are stained and his gold buttons are tarnished from the seven months journey across the ocean. He radiates strength and confidence when talking to his subordinates, but in his head he is trying to figure out the best words to say that would not sabotage  the respect he enjoys from others. As a solution, he usually just answers in short “Ha-h’m.”

When he had first sailed as captain five years ago he had allowed his natural talkativeness full play, and his first lieutenant of that time had come to presume upon a license allowed him until Hornblower had been unable to give an order without having it discussed. Last commission he had tried to limit discussion with his first lieutenant within the ordinary bounds of politeness, and had found that he had been unable to keep himself within those limits – he was always opening his mouth and letting fall one word too many to his subsequent regret. This voyage he had started with the firm resolve (like a drinker who cannot trust himself to drink only in moderation) to say nothing whatever to his officers except what was necessitated by routine, and his resolution had been hardened by the stress which his orders laid upon the need for extreme secrecy.(p. 7)

Horatio tries his best to be the man he is expected to be, and sometimes these expectations come from inside his own head. The man keeps beating himself up for the littlest things! This control of emotions is especially evident in his relationship with Lady Barbara, who ends up on Lydia after trying to escape yellow fever epidemic and wishing to return back to England. At first Hornblower is put off by her desire to travel among navy men, where the possibility of being killed in a sea battle is more of a certainty. She defies his assumptions of what a true lady is supposed to be with her golden tan and sunburn from living in the tropics, the ability to climb from a boat onto a ship without assistance, and the fact that she travels to Panama without a male escort. Hornblower is confused by her direct address and inability to take no for an answer. “He was unused to a woman who could display practical commonsense like this. It was infuriating that he could find no way of discomposing her – and then he saw her smiling, guessed that she was smiling at the evident struggle on his face, and blushed hotly again. He turned on his heel and led the way below without a word.” (p. 81) Haha, poor guy!

Inevitably, Hornblower becomes attracted to Barbara’s unusually strong character. He starts to respect her upon the fact the she is willing to take care of the horribly disfigured and wounded men after the second battle with Natividad without even a wince in the times when female nurses do not even exist yet. Barbara’s intellect impresses Hornblower, as she seems to be able to converse on various topics as an equal to men. Soon, they begin to enjoy conversations like that in private, and find themselves comfortable to stand in silence next to each other without the need to say anything. Barbara, as obviously the more decisive of the two, makes the first move and Horatio finds himself kissing and professing his love to her. Unfortunately, as they are interrupted, Hornblower begins to overthink the situation again. He is concerned with what this affair might do to his navy career, and is painfully aware of the social status that separates him from the lady of an influential family. Besides everything else, he is bound by a perhaps not ideal, but nevertheless marriage. After being rejected in such way, Lady Barbara decides to avoid the captain as much as possible and their relationship reverts back to strictly formal. As Barbara transfers to a different ship, the two make some awkward good-byes and part ways. Ah, Horatio, you think too much and let the good thing go!

In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed Forester’s characterization and fluid language. The novel is fun and humorous at times, but full of exciting battles and exotic lands. I do not think that the series is targeted only to the male audience; female readers will find it engaging and relatable as well. Ernest Hemingway and Winston Churchill both were great fans of the series, and so should you!

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