by C.S. Forester
As the title suggests, Horatio Hornblower's exploits in this novel get him elevated to the peerage--which, for the information of us Yanks, means he belongs to the House of Lords, can call himself Lord Hornblower, and possesses the hereditary noble title of "Baron of Smallbridge." This means also that his wife is no longer Lady Barbara Hornblower (owing to her father's title) but Lady Hornblower (owing to her husband's). It is also the book in which the war against Napoleon Bonaparte ends, the empire falls, and peace is restored. Yet somehow I think it is the saddest of the Hornblower novels, marked with a deepening pall of tragedy, and that's saying a lot when you take into account that Ship of the Line
ended with Hornblower striking his colors over the wrecked and decimated HMS Sutherland
It begins with Commodore Sir Horatio Hornblower, K.B. (that's Knight of the Bath), after a year-long convalescence in England following his brush with Russian typhus, sitting in on a function of the noble order of the Bath. A conversation with Lord St. Vincent, the First Lord of the Admiralty, tears him away from his domestic tranquility and offers him a chance to go back to sea, back to striving for glory in the war against Napoleon, which has definitely turned in England's favor by now and may end soon. But his assignment is a difficult one and yet one that seems utterly without any chance of glory: he is to recapture the HMS Flame, whose crew has mutinied against its cruel captain and is threatening to hand themselves, ship and all, over to the French.
At first even this seemingly simple assignment looks quite hopeless, but Hornblower pulls off a truly brilliant trick and, in a trice, with little more than gutsy determination and brass-balled bravado, he goes on to convert the fortified French city of Le Havre into an ally against Bonaparte. Only that results in a long-term responsibility: serving as Le Havre's military governor and repelling the siege Bonaparte is sending against them down the Seine river. His force is soon increased as French royalty and British military resources come to his aid, including a squadron of ships headed by his oldest and dearest friend Bush.
But it is now, even at the very moment when Bonaparte's power is tottering, his empire toppling, as Lady Barbara is on her way to her loving husband's side, during a daring raid on the enemy planned by Hornblower but entrusted to Bush to carry out, that Hornblower suffers possibly his most apalling loss in all his twenty-year career. Considering that this is a man who has buried two beloved children and a loving wife, who has seen killed in battle almost every junior officer he personally cared about, and who is still haunted by the memory of surrendering the Sutherland, that's saying a lot. But the news of Bush's death is not merely hard for Hornblower to accept; I had a hard time accepting it. The last fictional character whose tragic fall had so thoroughly broken my heart was Phineas of A Separate Peace.
No one had been through so much with Hornblower as Bush; there was no more promising and trusted officer; there was no more deeply felt friendship. Bush was more than a friend, he was like an extension of Hornblower's person, his most valued companion, the nearest thing he had to a confidant, and the non-female with whom he had the most complicated and mutually rewarding relationship (most nearly as equals too), the person most likely to be hurt by Hornblower's temperamental outbursts yet the quickest to forgive. Bush was the one person who understood Hornblower, one feels, and as a complete opposite to Hornblower in temperament, was almost a mirror in which the great man could view himself. Ever since reading Lieutenant Hornblower, which is uniquely written from Bush's point of view, even when Hornblower is observing himself one feels at times as if one is observing Hornblower through Bush's eyes. He's everyman; he's "you" in the story. He's become almost an indispensable fixture in Hornblower's universe, a player in most of his adventures until now. And he's pulled through from at least two scrapes with death in which the usually taciturn Hornblower showed how deeply the loss of him would have told.
Only now it finally happens, within weeks of the end of the war, and in a way that doesn't even leave remains to be properly buried... and Hornblower mourns as he's never mourned for anyone before. I perfectly understand his predicament; in fact, so dissatisfied was I with "the world after Bush" that I kept looking for a weird plot twist in which he would come back from the dead...but alas, he was really dead. And I felt exactly what Hornblower might feel about that: amazed, sorrowful, disbelieving.
Bush's death isn't the end of the story's descent into tragedy, which begins (ironically) just when England and her allies are relishing total victory over Bonaparte. Lady Barbara has come to the continent to be with her husband, and somehow--thanks in part to the tricky temperament each has--a coldness develops between the previously happy husband and wife. Something seems irrevocably broken between them when Hornblower passionately objects to her staying with her brother (Arthur the unmarried Duke of Wellington, the new ambassador to the restored French monarchy) and serving as Arthur's hostess during an international congress in Vienna that may go on for any number of months.
But a chance reunion with the Count of Gracay and the Vicountess Marie, respectively the nobleman who hid him, Bush, and Brown during their flight across France and his lover in Flying Colours, prompts Hornblower to change his mind and let Barbara go to Vienna. Then, after a decent interval of knocking around idly at Smallbridge with his servants and his four-year-old son Richard, Hornblower accepts an invitation to go back to Gracay and enjoy the Count's hospitality, and Marie's passionate love, all over again. He brings along Brown, who gets married to a serving girl he fell in love with but left behind on their previous six-month visit, and basically enjoys the happiest time of his life--he is even strongly tempted to leave England behind for good & stay shacked up with Marie in the heart of France.
But in the middle of this idyll, while no one is paying attention, the worst possible thing happens: Napoleon sneaks back into France, declares himself emperor again, and sets out on another round of wars to reconquer Europe. Suddenly Hornblower, Brown, the Count, and Marie are fugitives leading a motley band of peasants in a guerilla war against Napoleon's armies, with a verdict of death on their heads, and are soon outmaneuvered and outgunned in a last hopeless crisis in which, to make matters as grim as possible, he loses the woman he loves AND gets to look forward to a firing squad alongside the man he thinks of as a spiritual father. The last page of the novel finds him waking up on the morning on which he is to be shot at dawn... could the sense of inexorable tragedy get any worse than this?
But at least you know that there's still Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies coming up. In his typical fashion, C.S. Forester brings things to a gripping climax as late as possible in the book, then resolves the tension swiftly and doesn't waste a paragraph returning the hero to business-as-usual. In fact, Lord Hornblower is an extreme example of this, telling you much less than you'd like to know about what is in store for Hornblower in the aftermath... things you'd like to know, but which in Forester's good judgment would have added nothing to the story, and can be left to the next book where you will spend a good deal of time anxiously waiting to find out about them. It's much better that way.
Recommended Age: 14+
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