Beat to Quarters
by C.S. Forester
This is the real "first Hornblower novel," even though the present edition lists it as 6th of 11. It is not only a masterpiece of naval adventure but also a kind of tragic love story, but most of all, a magnificent feat of characterization--Horatio Hornblower is, in complexity and depth and contrariness, in inner conflict and appealing self-deprecation, one of the most awesome creations in all the fiction I have read. I would spoil it to say what became of the temptation of Lady Barbara in this volume, perhaps even by saying that my worst fears were unfounded and yet, in his typical complex fashion, Hornblower does not get off with a clean conscience. One of the most telling things about him, as I've said all along, is his ambivalent friendship with Lt. Bush--there's nothing ambivalent about it from Bush's side.
Bush is a strong, brave man of war and a capable seaman, but he has none of the penetrating intelligence, creativity, or imagination that Hornblower has--Hornblower the brilliant strategist, who is himself a good seaman and navigator, but who lacks physical prowess and is constantly tormented by inner conflict, the side effects of his intellect I suppose. Hornblower holds Bush at arm's length, partly envying him and taking a certain mean delight in Bush's rare signs of human vulnerability, but depending on him as his own right hand as far as the ship is concerned. He snaps at Bush when he feels his dignity has been threatened, though he inwardly repents of it afterward; he finds it next to impossible to show any human feeling toward Bush, and even harder to tolerate the affection and admiration Bush shows towards him. The interplay of their characters is always fascinating, and in this book Bush, who has already shown himself a keen observer especially of his Captain, gets a chance to talk about it and bring it out in the open (thanks to a compelling third character, Lady Barbara Wellesley). My favorite passage is the one in which Bush and Lady Barbara are "sitting talking in the warm moonlight night beside the taffrail." Let me quote in part...
"The men worship him, ma'am. They would do anything for him. Look how much he has done this commission, and the lash not in use once a week, ma'am. That is why he is like Nelson. They love him not for anything he does or says, but for what he is."
"He's handsome, in a way," said Lady Barbara--she was woman enough to give that matter consideration.
"I suppose he is, ma'am, now you come to mention it. But it wouldn't matter if he were as ugly as sin as far as he was concerned."
"Of course not."
"But he's shy, ma'am. He never can guess how clever he is. It's that which always surprises me about him. You'd hardly believe it, ma'am, but he has no more faith in himself than--than I have in myself, ma'am, to put it that way. Less, ma'am, if anything."
"How strange!" said Lady Barbara....
"Look, ma'am," said Bush, suddenly, dropping his voice.
Hornblower had come up on deck. They could see his face, white in the moonlight, as he looked round to assure himself that all was well with his ship, and they could read in it the torment which was obsessing him. He looked like a lost soul during the few seconds he was on deck.
That inner torment was partly a result of what had gone on in the previous chapter, of course, but you get the idea. And in this story there is plenty of fodder for Hornblower's self-torment machine. For one thing, he gets virtually impossible orders from the British Admiralty, to carry out on pains of court martial, and in spite of all odds being against him he carries them off with miraculous skill and flair. Then he finds out that, while he was out of touch with the authorities, England and Spain became allies and his miraculous capture of a Spanish ship of war has become, in fact, a dreadful embarrassment--and even worse, he has to go back and risk his life and his ship to recapture or destroy the same ship AGAIN in order to repair the damage he has done; only this time, no matter how brilliantly he distinguishes himself, he knows that he will get no glory for what is essentially an unnecessary battle (or would have been, if he hadn't followed orders so well).
I can't even begin to explain the knots and conflicts in this tale without telling you the whole darn story, so you might as well just read it and see if you agree that poor Hornblower gets pulled through the ringer, and no matter how heroically and magnificently he performs, he continually lives under an interior cloud of failure and shame. PLUS through it all he has to deal with a woman with whom he has the most complicated conceivable relationship, owing to both of them being equally complicated people. It's simply DELICIOUS. And the miracle of it is that, in addition the towering creation of his main characters, C.S. Forester manages to deliver a page-turner of an adventure full of stomach-turning violence, exquisite dread, and the smell of salt spray.
Recommended Age: XXXXX
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