by C.S. Forester
The third part of the original Hornblower trilogy was everything promised by the lead-in and more. It was also unusual in that most of it takes place on land. It picks up about two weeks after Hornblower's surrender of the wrecked Sutherland
at the end of Ship of the Line
. Mind you, with British naval supremacy at its height and the Articles of War that impose a penalty of death on anyone who does less than his utmost in battle, it has been years since a British ship of war has struck its colors in surrender. There is no way around it; Hornblower will face a court-martial if he gets back to England, and if convicted he could face a firing squad (or, on a lesser charge, being dismissed from service or reprimanded, which would essentially ruin his career).
Of course there are mitigating circumstances. It was Admiral Leighton's clear orders that compelled him to risk his ship alone against four French ships of the line plus two gunboats rowed from the shore and the everpresent threat of the land batteries which can shoot red-hot shot at very combustible warships. And he surrendered only after taking unheard-of casualties (a third of his crew killed, a third wounded) and after crippling all four ships that came against him, making possible a British raid (which he watches from the ramparts of the Spanish fort where the Italians, on behalf of the French, are holding him prisoner) which puts the four French ships and the Spanish port completely out of commission.
And there is also the chance that Hornblower will not face a British court-martial at all, since Napoleon has decided to use one of Hornblower's escapades in Ship of the Line as an excuse to make an example of him. Yes, Hornblower is about to be tried and put before a French firing squad for a trumped-up charge of violating the laws of war.
So it is with great uncertainty that he goes, under arrest by a vicious and arrogant French official, by carriage to Paris for his trial and presumed execution. Add to that the fact that they are taking his dear first lieutenant, Bush, along as an additional defendant, even though Bush had no choice but to follow his captain's orders, and even though Bush is extremely ill from fever and in horrible pain following the amputation of his foot. During the long trip he has to worry about Bush's condition while also facing their impending death, worrying about his pregnant wife Maria, and obsessing over Lady Barbara whose husband, Admiral Leighton, was badly
wounded at Hornblower's last knowledge. Then they get a freak opportunity to escape and, with the crippled Bush and the burly coxswain Brown, Hornblower makes a run for it--through the heart of France.
The majority of the book, it seems to me, concerns their flight down the Loire river, halted by accident and weather for a winter as the guest of a French nobleman whose widowed daughter-in-law provides Hornblower with a memorable love affair, while Bush recovers and learns to walk on a wooden leg, and Brown builds a boat for them to continue their escape. Continue it they do, eventually effecting the daring recapture of an English cutter the French had taken as a prize and returning from the dead to an England that has been informed of their demise and is astonished by their daring adventures.
Amid the whirlwind of sudden fame and fortune (Hornblower is dubbed a Knight of the Bath and appointed a Colonel of the Marines the same day he is acquitted at his court-martial) he is made aware of three astonishing pieces of news: Admiral Leighton is dead (so Lady Barbara is a widow); Maria died in childbirth (so Hornblower is free to woo Lady Barbara, if she will have him); and his healthy infant son Richard, whom he has not yet seen, is the foster child of none other than Lady Barbara herself. Suddenly he has prize-money, a title, an honorary stipend, a great name for himself, and the satisfaction of seeing Lt. Bush posted as a captain, and it's even suggested to him that he should go into politics. For the first time he has wealth, fame, true love, royal patronage (not to mention the fact that the Duke of Wellington will soon be his brother-in-law)... but will he have happiness?
The conclusion of this third book of the trilogy leaves you hanging in astonishment without even beginning to resolve this question. And the fact that the next book in order of Hornblower's career came out seven years after Flying Colours must have caused early fans of these stories no end of frustration. It seems like an even chance, at least, the Hornblower will find a way to be unhappy in spite of everything, considering his "cross-grained character" (as Forester words it more than once), his habit of underestimating himself and the weight upon him of the parting prophecy of the French widow who fell in love with him--she said that he was the sort of man women would love easily, but she doubted that he would ever love anyone or ever be happy himself. Could she be correct? Tune in to find out (perhaps) in the next book, Commodore Hornblower.
Recommended Age: 14+
If you would like to contact Robbie, you may do so here.