Hornblower and the "Hotspur"
by C.S. Forester
This book picks up right where Lieutenant Hornblower
leaves off, though two other Hornblower books were written between them. Spotters of continuity errors may note that this is really
Hornblower's first regular command, though Hornblower and the Atropos
(written before this book) makes the same claim.
Hornblower has been given that promotion to Commander after all, as well as the command of a sloop of war called the Hotspur and a delicate mission to spy on the French navy during the final moments of peace between England and France. The year is 1803 and Napoleon is about to begin his long campaign to conquer the world, and England is about to begin its long fight to stop him. Hornblower has just married a girl who loves him like crazy, though he (typical of Hornblower) doesn't believe he deserves her love. Of course, he doesn't know himself very well--no one does, since by now you've grown accustomed to his main personality characteristic, which is concealing his true feelings. As surprised as he is that Maria loves him, he is even more surprised when he offers the second-in-command position on the Hotspur to Bush--who was, you will remember, his senior as a Lieutenant--surprised, I say, when Bush is evidently overjoyed by the offer, rather than insulted as many in his position might be.
The story moves from Hornblower's whirlwind wedding to a girl named Maria Mason, to a long exhausting and dangerous mission on the front line of a blockade of the French port of Brest. His command is a tiny sloop, no match for a ship of any size (you would think), called of course the Hotspur; Bush is his first lieutenant; and he enjoys the patronage of higher ranking officers who recognize his quality--such as Admiral Cornwallis and Capt. Pellew. He also suffers under the incompetent leadership of other captains, extreme poverty, qualms of conscience, and the loss of not one but two manservants by tragic means. He also becomes a father and acquits himself nobly in several armed adventures, including a battle with a big French frigate, an attack on a land-based battery and signal station, encounters with various boats and ships trying to run the blockade, a daring rescue operation in which a live mortar shell lands on the deck at his feet, and (not least of all) a close race with thirst as a series of hurricanes prevents the ship from replenishing its water supply.
But Hornblower's biggest challenge is himself, battling what he at one point calls his "accursed unhappy temperament." Everyone around him is in awe of the man--his integrity, his bravery, his brilliance--though he cultivates a rather forbidding manner and holds everyone at arm's length. In his private thoughts, he is constantly reproaching himself and condemning himself for what he views as cowardice, lack of integrity, or other personal failures that mostly exist only in his imagination, and he punishes himself mercilessly for them. The case of the live shell is a good example. It lands on the deck in front of him and without hesitation he picks it up and snuffs out the burning fuse with his fingers--no more than an eighth of an inch of it left--then loses his temper because everyone is staring at him and he can't imagine why. Later, Bush sees that Hornblower's written report of the incident has gotten published in a maritime trade magazine and comes to his captain, almost speechless with frustration because Hornblower described the event as though the shell landed on the deck but "fortunately did not explode." It's not fair, Bush says, to Hornblower or the ship--but Hornblower bluntly tells Bush never to speak of it again. His reason: if he sought public admiration for himself (by giving credit to himself in writing) he wouldn't be able to accept it without losing either his self-respect or his respect for the public.
Perhaps you see, just a little bit, what a complex and difficult and contrary character Hornblower is. Sometimes he is rather unattractive, even brutal, when duty calls for it, and often he is very cold and harsh in his speech toward people who admire him. But underneath it all he is desperately concealing his own vulnerabilities to the point where he doesn't even realize that he loves his wife. It might be almost funny, though it isn't really, how he thinks of his feelings toward Maria as pity and compassion for the poor soul whose adoration toward him is so sadly misplaced, yet he thinks about her constantly and at times considers that preoccupation a potential weakness that must be strenuously avoided. When he experiences fear he brands himself a coward, though he never shows fear and certainly acts with courage in spite of it. Probably his most noble and ennobling characteristic is that he cannot abide by the corrupt values and standards of behavior of his time, yet he believes in them and tortures himself with guilt because he considers himself a rotten person for doing what is, in fact, the right thing.
Finally, in spite of the fact that he makes no attempt to ingratiate himself to his superiors and does absolutely nothing to advance his own fortunes or career--other than serving with spirit and resourcefulness--the novel ends with Hornblower receiving a promotion to "post Captain," i.e., no longer is he a mere Commander by rank, called Captain only according to the courtesy due the skipper of a ship of war. And it appears he will be a father a second time...
Recommended Age: 14+
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