C. S. Forester’s Captain Horatio Hornblower, composed of three short novels—Beat to Quarters (1937), Ship of the Line (1938), and Flying Colours(1938)—falls in the middle of a series that begins with the intrepid officer’s sea apprenticeship and concludes with Commodore Hornblower (1945), Lord Hornblower (1946), and Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies (1958). For its broad scope and sustained vigor, the whole series has appropriately been described as a modern saga. While Forester’s Hornblower stories lack the philosophical and moral dimension of the sea fiction of Joseph Conrad, Richard Henry Dana, and Herman Melville, they certainly are the equal of sea-adventure novels by Captain Frederick Marryat or James Fenimore Cooper. Forester’s novels combine meticulous historical reconstruction with a flair for storytelling. In 1932, he began writing screenplays for Hollywood. Unlike many other distinguished novelists who either failed or were only moderately successful in adapting their skills to this medium, Forester excelled as a scriptwriter and thereby learned how to use certain cinematic techniques in his fiction. Lively and fast-paced, the Hornblower stories, in which each scene builds to a climax, are easy to visualize. They are also based on historical information. The celebrated battle scenes bristle with sharp, concrete details that capture the excitement of the moment, and in Forester’s descriptions of English manners, customs, and topical interests during the early nineteenth century, the robust age comes alive.
A realist, Forester does not gloss over the unpleasant truths about warfare at sea or the rigors of nautical life. Early in Captain Horatio Hornblower, readers learn that Hankey, the previous surgeon attached to HMS Lydia, died of the complications of drink and syphilis....
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