The Captain from Connecticut
by C.S. Forester
This is a different C.S. Forester adventure. It's a naval adventure of course, but in this one and only this one, Forester depicts the exploits of an American naval captain. The time is about 1814, the climax of the war between England and America that we call the "War of 1812," which happened at roughly the same time as some of the Hornblower stories
. Yes, at the same time England was fighting a war against France (under Napoleon), they were also fighting a war against the USA (under James Madison), which resulted from the British navy's desperate measures which are somewhat understandable when you realize that practically the whole world was against them. Merrie Olde Englande was attacking Atlantic shipping, including trading vessels coming and going from the USA (which was neutral in the wars going on in Europe at the time). Moreover, they were "pressing" into service American sailors, that is, forcing them into the crews of the seriously undermanned British navy and its harsh conditions and cruel discipline. The result was another front of war in which England was really kicking the US's butt, invading from Canada and blockading the whole Atlantic coast and burning Washington and bombarding Baltimore (that's where "The Star Spangled Banner" came into being) and getting but a few setbacks, like Andrew Jackson's great battle of New Orleans.
Another of the US's assets in this war, though in this case a fictional one, was Captain Josiah Peabody of the USS Delaware, one of the few ships to successfully break the British blockade and which mostly spent its time after that, disrupting British trade in the West Indies. As a hero, Peabody has a lot in common with Hornblower, though there are differences too--on the whole, he is a more easy-going and cheerfuller guy, with less of an inclination to torture himself and more inclination to enjoy what happiness he can find. But he is haunted by the religious rigors of his Puritan upbringing under a monstrously cruel father and a shamefully drunken mother, and at times his conscience is persecuted by an ever-present feeling of sin.
He is also disgusted with his youngest brother, Jonathan, whom he brings on board as his personal clerk and whose service on the Delaware turns out as badly as you can imagine. And for the greater part of the book, he is locked in a frustrating stalemate with the commodore of a British squadron, Capt. Hubert Davenant, with whom he matches wits and honor while both men's ships are virtually held prisoner by the laws of neutrality in the French port at Martinique (this is after the French monarchy is restored and France is neutral again). He questions his own valor after a battle with a Haitian pirate named Larouge who almost kills him in hand-to-hand battle, and he questions whether he owes "Providence" or his own weakness for the sudden happiness of his whirlwind marriage with a beautiful, brave, sweet French girl named Anne.
Surprisingly, though, there aren't a lot of real naval adventures in this story. It's more as if the novel is about the character of a promising young American officer, and his prospects for finding happiness with honor in a war in which he seems condemned to harry trade shipping and avoid big battles. There are a few battles, mostly early on--first with a two-decker ship of war that pursues them out of Long Island Sound, then with three British sail Peabody draws away from escorting a trade convoy so some privateers can snap up the defenseless vessels, and the duel with the pirate ship too. Then there are a few chases and sailing escapades, and a duel, and a couple of really clever plans that don't quite come to fruition, but other than that, the majority of the book has Peabody locked up in the harbor of Fort-de-France trying to figure out a way to get back out to sea, with three British sail waiting to kill him and the French determined not to let them do so in their waters, or to leave their waters on any terms the British and Americans will agree to.
So as I said, the majority of the novel develops the tense and complex relationships between the British, French, and American characters juxtaposed by this problem, and particularly of Peabody, his interior battles, his problematic brother, his romance with Anne, his determination to go out and meet death face to face, his underlings and rivals and how all these things effect him. The contrast between the American and British navies is also interesting to explore.
My quibble with this method of telling the story is that the author has to fall back on the Deus ex machina device on too many occasions. You probably know what that is, but I'll tell you my understanding of it anyway. A "God from the machine" was a stock plot device in old dramas and operas, in which right at the climax of tensions when it looks like the only possible resolution will be fatal to somebody or everybody, one of the gods came down and magically made everything okay. Most of Hornblower's exploits he was blessed with good luck and, even when not, his strength of character and ingenuity paid off. Peabody has the same strengths and ingenuity, but too often in The Captain from Connecticut, when that crisis comes he's not given the opportunity to prove his worth, the tension isn't brought to a resolution that really pays off.
I mean, you wait for two-thirds of the book for a battle that never comes, and it's all just one tease after another, resolved in each case by a convenient surprise that comes out of the clear blue, rather than by any actual show of strength or cleverness or good seamanship, etc. So plot wise, I think The Captain from Connecticut is a let-down compared to the Hornblower stories. But the characters are good, the depiction of an interesting and not-much-looked-at slice of naval history is interesting, what adventures there are are effective, and even though the tense bits prove to be a let down, the tension they build up is very real. It's a "guy novel," of course, but if you Yanks ever get interested in naval fiction this might be a little more accessible than the Hornblower novels, because it starts from a frame of experience closer to your own and deals with history you're more likely to know already. But on the other hand, having read the Hornblower books prepared me to understand a lot of what's in this story.
The reasons Forester didn't write a whole series of Peabody novels is obvious, though Peabody does make a very creditable hero. Reason One is that his naval novels, particularly the Hornblower ones, focus on a period of history that I think Forester considered the golden age of naval warfare. It was just advanced enough, but not too advanced, to be really cool, sort of at the pinnacle of the art. But whereas Britain had 20 or more years of uninterrupted warfare during that period, and boasted the mightiest navy in the world, America had hardly any navy to speak of and it was only at war for a couple years here and there. There simply wouldn't have been material for a long saga like the Hornblower novels. Still, I wish the ending had been a bit more triumphant in this case. I would even have settled for tragedy, or an uncertain ending (like, last line: "Mr. Murray, the guns, if you please!"), before choosing the one C.S. Forester went with. Oh, well...
Recommended Age: 16+
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