C. S. Forester Forester, C(ecil) S(cott) - Essay

Cecil Lewis Troughton Smith


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

C(ecil) S(cott) Forester 1899-1966

English novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, and scriptwriter.

Forester was a prolific writer of thrillers, action novels, short stories, and travel books. He is best known for his popular series of novels about the fictional nineteenth-century British naval officer, Horatio Hornblower.

Biographical Information

Forester was born Cecil Lewis Troughton Smith on August 27, 1899 in Cairo, Egypt, where his father was an official in the Egyptian Ministry of Education. At a very young age he was sent back to England to begin his education. His mother encouraged a somewhat scholarly isolation in young Forester, who read voraciously. He attended secondary schools of excellent reputation, becoming a member of the Officers' Training Corps at Dulwich College. He was rejected for military service because of a heart condition, however, and thus did not participate in World War I. Forester then entered medical school at Guy's Hospital in London but found it did not suit his talents. In 1921 he left medical school, adopted the pen name Cecil Scott Forester, and embarked on a writing career. His first novel met with several rejections, but by the mid-1920s he was becoming a successful novelist and biographer. In 1926 he married Kathleen Belcher, with whom he would have two sons. After the success of the film adaptation of his novel Payment Deferred (1926), Forester moved his family to California, where he began screenwriting in Hollywood. The best known of his efforts in this period was the 1951 film, The African Queen. The Foresters disliked the ambiance of the movie industry and eventually settled in the San Francisco area. In the late 1930s Forester began writing the Horatio Hornblower series of novels which would later solidify his popularity. During the 1930s Forester was also a European correspondent, witnessing the Spanish Civil War and the German annexation of Czechoslovakia. During World War II he worked for the British Ministry of Information and traveled on British warships. In the mid-1940s Forester began to suffer from arteriosclerosis of the legs, a crippling disease, but continued to write adventure fiction and screenplays. His first marriage ended in 1944. In 1947 he married Dorothy Ellen Foster and the following year suffered a heart attack. He continued to produce numerous novels and screenplays during this period and even after a second heart attack in 1962. Suffering from the effects of a debilitating stroke, Forester died on April 2, 1966.

Major Works

Forester's first popular novel was the thriller Payment Deferred, later made into a successful film. Plain Murder (1930) was another well-received thriller. After cruising extensively with his first wife on the coastal and inland waterways of France and Germany, Forester published The Voyage of the Annie Marble (1929) and The Annie Marble in Germany (1930). Two novels, Death to the French (1932; titled Rifleman Dodd in the United States) and The Gun (1933), were set in the Peninsular war, an incident in the Napoleonic campaigns. Perhaps Forester's most famous novel, The African Queen, published in 1935, is a tale of an English spinster and a rough-hewn boat captain and their adventures in German-controlled central Africa during World War I. The award-winning film version of this story starring Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart brought this story to an even wider audience. The character of Lord Admiral Horatio Hornblower first came to light in 1937 in The Happy Return (entitled Beat to Quarters in the United States), which first appeared as a serial in the Saturday Evening Post. Hornblower, a class-conscious, disciplined, introspective young man, appeared in ten more novels. Some of the other novels in the Hornblower series, also first serialized but not published in chronological sequence, included A Ship of the Line (1938), The Commodore (1945), Lord Hornblower (1946), Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (1950), Hornblower in the West Indies (1958), and Hornblower and the Hotspur (1962). In 1951 a film, Captain Horatio Hornblower, starring Gregory Peck and Virginia Mayo, combined the first three Hornblower novels. An “Horatio Hornblower” miniseries on the Arts and Entertainment (A & E) television network in 1999 and a sequel in 2001 brought new popularity to this well-known character. Forester produced a number of other works in the decades between the 1930s and his death, among them The Earthly Paradise (1940; United States title, To the Indies), a story about Columbus's third voyage to the New World; The Ship (1943), which follows a British warship and its crew to the war-torn island of Malta; and The Barbary Pirates (1953), a story for older children.

Critical Reception

Forester is generally regarded as a popular novelist and has not elicited much criticism from literary scholars. Reviewers, however, have often commented on the phenomenon of Hornblower, the quintessential literary adventure hero who has assumed a life of his own. Forester's ability to tell a good story, to invoke the ambiance of the Napoleonic era, and to bring a pseudo-historical character to life has appealed to generations of readers. Film incarnations of Forester's works have proved equally popular. The only full-length study of Forester, by Stanford Sternlicht in 1981, was revived in 1999 to coincide with the first part of the A & E Network miniseries based on a Hornblower novel. The sequel to that series in 2001 also brought renewed interest in Forester's writings.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Payment Deferred (novel) 1926

Brown on Resolution [Single-Handed] (novel) 1929

The Voyage of the Annie Marble (nonfiction) 1929

The Annie Marble in Germany (nonfiction) 1930

Plain Murder (novel) 1930

Death to the French [Rifleman Dodd] (novel) 1932

The Gun (novel) 1933

The African Queen (novel) 1935

The General (novel) 1936

The Happy Return [Beat to Quarters] (novel) 1937

Flying Colours (novel) 1938

A Ship of the Line [Ship of the Line] (novel) 1938

*Captain Hornblower, R.N. [†Captain Horatio Hornblower] (novels) 1939

The Earthly Paradise [To the Indies] (novel) 1940

The Captain from Connecticut (novel) 1941

Poo-Poo and the Dragons (juvenilia) 1942

The Ship (novel) 1943

The Commodore [Commodore Hornblower] (novel) 1945

Lord Hornblower (novel) 1946

The Sky and the Forest (novel) 1948

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (novel) 1950

Randall and the River of Time (novel) 1950

Lieutenant Hornblower (novel) 1952

The Barbary Pirates (juvenilia) 1953

Hornblower and the Atropos (novel) 1953

The Nightmare (novel) 1954

Hornblower in the West Indies [Captain Hornblower in the West Indies] (novel) 1958

Hornblower and the Hotspur (novel) 1962

The Hornblower Companion (criticism) 1964

Hornblower and the Crisis: An Unfinished Novel [Hornblower during the Crisis, and Two Stories: “Hornblower's Temptation” and “The Last Encounter”] (novel, short stories) 1967

Long before Forty (autobiography) 1967

Hornblower (videorecording) 1999

Hornblower: The Saga Continues (videorecording) 2001

*Comprises The Happy Return, A Ship of the Line, and Flying Colours.

†Comprises Beat to Quarters, Ship of the Line, and Flying Colours.

‡Videorecordings of the 1999 and 2001 A & E Network miniseries based on the Hornblower novels (New York: Meridian Broadcasting Ltd.)

Sanford V. Sternlicht (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sternlicht, Sanford V. “Hornblower: The Man Alone.” In C. S. Forester and the Hornblower Saga, pp. 89-115. Syracuse, N. Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay from the only full-length study of Forester, a revised reprint of a 1981 edition, Sternlicht presents a full description of all of the Hornblower novels, along with background sources and an assessment of the importance of the series in popular literature.]

C. S. Forester created Horatio Hornblower in 1937. Their association continued until Forester's death in 1966. It began as Forester watched a freighter captain, the skipper of the S. S. Margaret Johnson, make decisions for that little world he commanded, his ship.1 It developed into a parable for English indomitability in the face of tyranny perpetrated by Napoleonic France or Hitlerian Germany. It ended as a fictional epic of a successful British naval officer, cast in the Nelsonian mold, who was born in obscurity on July 4, 1776, and who survived shot and shoal to live into an honored old age. In the process, Horatio Hornblower became one of those few characters in art who step out of the covers of a book or the arch of a proscenium stage seemingly to usurp an actual place in history. Sometimes those characters survive because they are true to life; Hornblower is true to history.

For Forester, the series were “psychological novels. They started with my interest in the problems of the independent command, they presented themselves to me in the first place as studies in psychology.”2 For his audience, the Hornblower saga represented the historical novel at its most exciting, an opportunity to identify with a Romantic hero and to learn a bit of history at the same time.

Perhaps the Hornblower Saga really began ten years before the first novel, The Happy Return (1937; American title: Beat to Quarters), was published. In 1927, in a secondhand book shop, Forester purchased three bound volumes of an old professional magazine, The Naval Chronicle, published from 1790 to 1820. The issues were written by naval officers for naval officers of the period and they served as a professional roundtable where ideas concerning tactics, shiphandling, communications, gunnery, and other naval procedures were discussed, shared, and evaluated. The books went with Forester aboard the Annie Marble, and as they represented his primary leisure reading for many months, the author absorbed them thoroughly and stowed away their copious information for a later day.


All in all, Forester wrote ten Hornblower novels, an eleventh which he was unable to finish before his death, and several additional stories which, some more than others, fit into the Saga. The most important of these stories is “The Last Encounter,” which Forester wrote as a conclusion to the tale of Hornblower. Almost all of the Saga were published first in serial form in the Saturday Evening Post, where they were lavishly and imaginatively illustrated. Some of the stories also appeared in Collier's and Argosy.

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (1950) is, in fact, a collection of ten stories about the young Horatio Hornblower. It covers the period between June 1794 and March 1798. Horatio is seventeen when he reports aboard H.M.S. Justinian, becomes seasick immediately, and shortly afterwards is involved in a duel. Fortunately he is transferred to the frigate Indefatigable, under the command of the dashing Captain Sir Edward Pellew. Midshipman Hornblower is given the opportunity to bring a captured prize to port and promptly loses her. Captured by a French privateer, he sets fire to the enemy ship and effects her capture. His next learning experience is in a cutting-out expedition in which a French ship is stormed at her anchorage, captured, and sailed out. Then the young midshipman sees ship-to-ship action in command of the mizzen top. An unsuccessful attempt at a French Royalist invasion of Revolutionary France finds Horatio in action with British regular troops on the enemy shore. When the becalmed convoy, guarded by the Indefatigable, is attacked by Spanish galleys, Horatio captures one from a small craft. Promoted by Pellew to acting lieutenant, his examination for permanent promotion is interrupted and postponed by emergency action against Spanish fire ships at Gibraltar. He then has temporary command of a cattle boat. Finally, given his first real command, the tiny captured sloop Le Reve, Horatio is himself captured again, this time by the Spanish. His promotion comes through to him in captivity because of his outstanding service to date. The Spanish release him from captivity after he risks his life to effect the rescue of shipwrecked Spanish sailors. In four years the young lieutenant has had an enormous amount of adventure and experience on which he would draw during his future career as a King's Officer.

One additional story is set during Horatio's midshipmancy. “The Hand of Destiny” takes place from October through December 1796. The story was published in Collier's on November 23, 1940, long before Forester thought of the possibility of a collection of Midshipman Hornblower stories. In it, Hornblower faces his first days as a lieutenant. He prevents a mutiny and thwarts a cruel captain. Clearly, Forester omitted “The Hand of Destiny” from Midshipman Hornblower because it conflicts chronologically and artistically with later work. For example, during “The Hand of Destiny,” Hornblower is serving under a Captain Courtney on board His Majesty's Frigate Marguerite and they capture a Spanish vessel named the Castilla. In Midshipman Hornblower during the same period, Horatio is quite busy on the Indefatigable, under Captain Pellew. It is stated that he has been promoted to lieutenant at the age of twenty, whereas in Midshipman Hornblower he is promoted in August 1797 at the age of twenty-one, and while in Spanish captivity. Hornblower will fight another vessel named Castilla in Hornblower and the Atropos (1953). Last, in Lord Hornblower (1948) he would put down yet another mutiny, once more obtaining a free hand from his superior officer to deal with the mutineers. Forester simply cannibalized this story and used the material elsewhere. Then he ignored it nearly ten years later in planning and writing the stories which would comprise Midshipman Hornblower.

The events of “Hornblower's Temptation,” first published in the Saturday Evening Post on December 9, 1950, and later included in Hornblower during the Crisis (1967), take place late in 1799 after his promotion, release, and restoration to duty. Hornblower is the junior lieutenant on H.M.S. Renown. He is given the onerous task of arranging for the execution of a man who is an Irish rebel and deserter by British standards but a hero to his own people. Hornblower agrees to forward the man's sea chest to his “wife” along with a letter and a poem. Eventually Hornblower discovers that the poem contains a coded combination for a secret compartment which holds a very large sum of money and a list of rebel names. Hornblower is tempted to turn over the trunk to his superiors but decides, in order to save the lives of the Irishmen on the list, to jettison the trunk and letter.

Lieutenant Hornblower (1952) introduces Hornblower's longtime friend and shipmate, Lieutenant William Bush. The story, covering the period from May 1800 through March 1803, is told through Bush's eyes. The Renown is commanded by the sadistic, schizophrenic, paranoiac Captain Sawyer, who accuses his lieutenants, of whom Hornblower is the most junior, of plotting a mutiny. Indeed, they have been contemplating the possible need for a Caine Mutiny-type take-over. As Sawyer is about to arrest his officers, he falls or is pushed down a hold. Suspicion seems to fall on Hornblower, who obviously is incapable of harming even a mad superior officer, and also on a mistreated volunteer named Welland. Bush and the reader never learn if Sawyer was pushed or actually fell, although Welland's offstage drowning at the end of the book somewhat implies guilt and expiation.

With Captain Sawyer incapacitated by his fall, the first lieutenant, Buckland, takes command. He is pusillanimous and finds it difficult to make decisions. He finally reads the secret orders given to Sawyer and orders an attack on the fortifications and privateer lair of Samana Bay, Santo Domingo. Poorly planned, it fails, but Hornblower saves the day with brilliant planning and courageous action. After capturing the Spanish fortifications and all the defenders, the victorious English embark all prisoners on the prizes and the Renown. The latter is captured by escaping prisoners while enroute to Kingston. Hornblower, skippering a prize, recaptures the ship of the line, while Sawyer is killed by the Spaniards, Bush severely wounded, and Buckland ignominiously caught and tied up in his bed.

In Kingston, Bush is hospitalized and Hornblower is promoted to commander, subject to final approval at home. He is given command of a sloop and sent to England, where he arrives just after news of peace with France, and so his promotion is not confirmed.

Bush returns to England, now paid off like most of the wartime naval officers, to find Hornblower impoverished, still a lieutenant, without a billet, and eking out a mere subsistence in a club, playing whist, an intellectual card game and the ancestor of bridge.

The reader and Bush meet Maria Mason, daughter of Hornblower's sharp-tongued landlady. Maria, who is dumpy and “not quite young,” is deeply in love with Horatio, who admires her and appreciates her kindness but does not love her. Nevertheless, the book's end finds Hornblower, to Bush's disgust, proposing to Maria, having learned that war with France is about to break out again, that his promotion is finally being confirmed, and that a command is awaiting him thanks to a card partner who admires his brilliant game, one Admiral Lord Parry, a commissioner of the navy.

The viewpoint in Hornblower and the Hotspur (1962) is the hero's once more. This work covers the period between April 1803 and July 1805. Hornblower is in command of the sloop Hotspur. His naval rank is commander. He has appointed Bush his first lieutenant. As the story opens, Hornblower marries Maria and proceeds to take the Hotspur on a long patrol to observe the French fleet at Brest as war approaches once more. Through brilliant seamanship he escapes from the guns of the French frigate Loire as war breaks out. Hornblower learns that Maria is pregnant. He plans and executes a successful attack on a French semaphore station and battery. Unfortunately, his steward proves to be a coward and the servant hangs himself in Hornblower's cabin. He is sent a well-trained servant, Doughty, who takes admirable care of Hornblower until the man makes a fatal mistake of striking a warrant officer in a quarrel. Hornblower reluctantly makes it possible for the steward to escape to the frigate Constitution, an American man-of-war in Cadiz, on her way to attack the Barbary pirates.

Meanwhile, Hornblower and the Hotspur survive a terrible winter on blockade duty and subsequently single-handedly thwart a French invasion of Ireland by smashing the transports. Then, given the opportunity to obtain vast prize money by being selected to participate in an action against a Spanish treasure fleet, Hornblower unselfishly chooses to take the Hotspur off to intercept the French frigate Felicite, attempting to warn the Spanish. Hornblower beats off the Frenchmen but loses all chance for the much-needed money, only to find later on that, although the treasure was captured, the sailors did not share the fortune due to a fine point of law. Maria has had a son, and when Hornblower returns to Plymouth she becomes pregnant again. As the book ends, Hornblower is recommended for promotion to captain and must leave the Hotspur.

Hornblower and the Crisis (1967; American title: Hornblower during the Crisis) deals with, or might have dealt with, the period between August and December 1805. Forester died before completing the work, although he left notes for the remainder of the book. The crisis is the impending invasion of Britain by Napoleon's amphibious forces which are waiting for Admiral Villenueve to achieve temporary control of the Channel. Meanwhile, the British nation is hoping that Nelson will be able to catch Villenueve at sea and destroy the French battle fleet.

As the story opens, Hornblower is just about to leave the Hotspur. He is relieved by Captain Meadows and he takes passage for England in a small supply vessel which, however, is delayed by adverse winds. While Hornblower is aboard the lighter, the Hotspur runs on a rock and is lost. Hornblower is a friendly witness at Meadow's court-martial. The latter received a reprimand and he winds up on the lighter with Hornblower with all the other officers from the Hotspur, including Bush.

The lighter, named Princess, is attacked by a French brig-of-war and, through Hornblower's clever plan and the courage of the English officers, the English get temporary control of the brig and escape. Meadows dies in the fight on the brig. Hornblower remembers to get the codes and dispatches from the cabin of the French captain.

Back at Plymouth, Hornblower brings the captured documents to the port admiral who sends him on to the Admiralty in London. Hornblower conceives a plan to copy and use the seals and Napoleon's signature from the documents to forge an order that, if delivered by British spies, would send Villenueve to sea, where Nelson could get at him. The Admiralty agrees to the plan, promotes Hornblower to captain, and sends him on the mission.

The plot continues in outline. Forester planned to send Hornblower to Spain with the forged order, where he would deliver it to Villenueve, who then would go to sea, only to be caught by Nelson at Trafalgar on October 21, 1805. Thus Hornblower would have been responsible for Nelson's opportunity to save England by ending the invasion crisis.

Hornblower and the Atropos (1953) encompasses the period from December 1805 to January 1808. Trafalgar has resulted in a decisive British victory and the death of Nelson. Maria is pregnant once more and the small family is traveling by canal boat from Gloucester to London. Hornblower is on his way to take command of the twenty-two-gun sloop Atropos. Although he is now a captain in rank, he is so junior that his new ship is still only a sloop-of-war, the smallest captain's billet in the Royal Navy.

To Hornblower's surprise, his first set of orders commands him to organize and execute plans for the funeral procession by water for the late Admiral Nelson. The main funeral barge, carrying the enormously heavy metal coffin, nearly sinks, placing both the hero of Trafalgar's body and Hornblower's career in grave jeopardy. Both “survive” the funeral by inches, for “never, never, would England forgive the man who allowed Nelson's coffin to sink, unceremoniously, in Thames mud beside the Isle of Dogs.”3

At the very moment the funeral is taking place, Maria is giving birth to a daughter, their second child. Hornblower is presented to King George III. The king, sane at the time, orders Hornblower to take under his wing the royal great-nephew, the Prince of Seitz-Bunau, as a midshipman on the Atropos. With the Atropos at anchor in a fog, Hornblower rescues a British merchant ship seized by a French privateer, which he then captures. Hornblower sails for the Mediterranean, where he surmounts political, personnel, and technical difficulties to salvage British gold and silver from beneath the noses and guns of the Turks.

Another Spanish Castilla appears and Atropos joins with H. M. Frigate Nightingale, 28, to defeat and capture her. Hornblower takes Atropos to Sicily for repairs and there, unfortunately, the King of the Two Sicilies, having been driven from Naples by Napoleon and now shipless, desires a war ship and Admiral Collingwood finds it politically expedient to give the king the smallest ship in his command, the Atropos. Bitterly Hornblower returns to England to seek a frigate command, hopefully the Lydia, now fitting out. Arriving in Portsmouth, he rushes to Maria, only to find the children ill with smallpox.

Six months later Hornblower is at sea again on the Lydia, a thirty-six-gun frigate. The Happy Return (1937; American title: Beat to Quarters) covers some five months in Hornblower's career, June through October 1808. Bush is Hornblower's first lieutenant and we meet for the first time Coxswain Brown, and the woman who will be Hornblower's second wife, Lady Barbara. We also learn, late in the story, that Hornblower and Maria's two children have died of the smallpox attack related in Hornblower and the Atropos.

Hornblower has been ordered to sail the Lydia, 36, around Cape Horn to the Pacific Coast off Spanish Central America without making an intermediary port. The Lydia has been under sail for seven months and out of sight of land for eleven weeks. Hornblower achieves a miracle of navigation by making a perfect landfall anyway, arriving as ordered at the Gulf of Fonesca to meet with a mad Spanish rebel who calls himself El Supremo. Hornblower, with much distaste, supplies the rebel band with guns and ammunition and then captures the fifty-gun Spanish ship of the line Natividad, turning the valuable vessel over to El Supremo. Sailing South, Hornblower learns that Spain has taken herself out of the Napoleonic orbit and has allied herself with Britain. Now Hornblower must recapture the Natividad.

The situation is further complicated by the appearance of young Lady Barbara Wellesley in Panama. She is the sister of the future Duke of Wellington and thus one of the most influential women in the British Empire. Lady Barbara, marooned in the Spanish possession, insists on passage to England. Reluctantly Hornblower accedes to her demands. However, despite her presence on board, he must first find and defeat the Natividad once more. This time she is better manned, and the rebels put up a courageous fight before sinking. The damage to the Lydia is enormous and the Spanish will not help Hornblower repair his vessel, so Hornblower sails her to a deserted island and completely refits the battered ship in a mere sixteen days.

Meanwhile Lady Barbara has been a great help with the wounded, and the taciturn captain falls in love with her. She loves Hornblower and offers to become his mistress. The tormented hero cannot bring himself to make love to her and the angered aristocrat sweeps out of his life. The story ends with Hornblower on his way home to Maria, seemingly relieved at having escaped commitment and scandal.

A Ship of the Line (1938) covers the period between May and October of 1810. Hornblower is in command of the ship of the line Sutherland, 74, the “ugliest and least desirable two decker in the Navy list.” He has retained Bush as his first lieutenant. Meanwhile Lady Barbara has married Rear Admiral Sir Percy Leighton and she may have secretly used her influence to help obtain Hornblower his new command, for the Sutherland has been assigned to Leighton's squadron. Maria is pregnant once more.

The Sutherland is assigned to convoy duty and Hornblower saves a fleet of East Indiamen from French privateers through brilliant shiphandling. Temporarily on independent duty, he takes prizes, destroys a shore battery, and even routs an army marching down a Spanish road. Hornblower achieves five victories in three days. When the flagship is dismasted and near to foundering in a fierce storm, Hornblower tows the stricken vessel to safety in a fashion similar to the way a ship of Nelson's was once saved by a subordinate.

Hornblower does not get on well with Leighton, who is not quite up to his job. The admiral orders Hornblower to take command of an ill-conceived and ill-fated Anglo-Spanish amphibious expedition against the French fortification at Rosas. The attack fails and Hornblower barely escapes death. Finally Hornblower takes on four French ships of the line in a desperate attempt to prevent them from escaping Leighton's squadron. Although the French are mauled, the Sutherland is shot to pieces, Bush's foot is blown off, and Hornblower surrenders the ship. As the book ends, Hornblower is facing years of captivity.

The story “Hornblower's Charitable Offering,” which appeared in the May, 1941 issue of Argosy, may have been intended originally as a chapter in Ship of the Line and left out of the book by Forester perhaps because he finished it too late for inclusion, or it may have been an afterthought. The moment is sometime between May 16, 1810, when Sutherland departed Plymouth, and June 12, 1810, when she reached her squadron rendezvous off Point Palamos.

The Sutherland rescues two wretched French escapees from the Spanish prison island of Cabrera, where 20,000 French prisoners of war are being held without shelter and are near starvation. In an act of compassion, surely difficult to explain later on to the Admiralty, Hornblower lands a portion of his ship's food supplies to the pathetic prisoners.

Flying Colours (1938) picks up Hornblower's career immediately after the surrender of the Sutherland and covers the period from November 1810 through June 1811. Hornblower is a disconsolate prisoner at Rosas. The four damaged French ships and the stricken Sutherland are at anchor beneath his fortress prison. He witnesses their destruction by British fire-ships.

Hornblower is to be sent to Paris with Bush to stand trial for “piracy” by order of Napoleon. It is expected that Hornblower will be executed. Hornblower selects Coxswain Brown to accompany them as his servant during the long and arduous winter coach trip under guard through the heart of France. Bush is feverish because of the amputation of his lower leg and Hornblower and Brown struggle to keep him alive on the cruel trip. The coach runs off the road in a snow storm and, seeing a rowboat at the riverside, Hornblower seizes upon an escape plan. The Englishmen overpower their chief captor and steal the boat. They drift down the unknown river until capsized at a waterfall.

Miraculously they all survive and make their way to the first house in sight, where to their good fortune they are sheltered by an old royalist, the Comte de Graçay, and his young, widowed daughter-in-law, Marie. Four months later, the lady becomes Hornblower's lover. In the spring, the Englishmen attempt to escape from France by building a fifteen-foot, flat-bottomed boat (the same length as the Annie Marble), and rowing down the Loire to Nantes, where, disguised as Dutch officers loyal to the French, they recapture the British cutter Witch of Endor, 10, and, with the help of released prisoners of the French, fight off pursuers and sail the vessel to the British channel fleet, where Hornblower is welcomed as one thought to be dead. Bush is immediately promoted to commander.

Hornblower soon learns first that Leighton is dead and then that Maria died giving birth to a son who has survived. In England the routine court-martial acquits him with honor. Hornblower is taken to London and is invested as a Knight of the Order of the Bath by the Prince Regent. He is also awarded a sinecure pension as Colonel of Marines. Now affluent and famous, but still not happy, Sir Horatio calls on Lady Barbara, who has been caring for his infant son, Richard. Flying Colours ends with Hornblower knowing “she was his for the asking,” and the clear implication that he would ask.

Commodore Hornblower (1945) opens with Horatio and Barbara married and living in the manor house of Smallbridge. The book covers the period between May and October 1812. Hornblower is promoted to commodore and ordered to take a squadron of vessels to the Baltic to harass the French forces, protect British maritime trade, show the flag, and exert diplomatic pressure on the Swedes and Russians in the British cause. Hornblower is now a player on the great stage of European diplomacy. He is given the seventy-four-gun ship of the line Nonsuch for his flag and, at his request, one-legged Bush is made captain of the flagship, serving as Hornblower's second in command.

Towing a disabled bomb ketch, Hornblower's squadron forces its way into the Baltic past enemy batteries. He recaptures a prize and cleverly destroys the French privateer Blanchefleur with mortar fire from his two bomb vessels. The action, in Swedish waters, so angers Napoleon that he seizes a piece of Sweden, alienating that nation.

Hornblower sails to the Russian naval base at Kronshtadt, where he stiffens Czar Alexander's resolve to resist Napoleon. Hornblower thwarts his Finnish-born interpreter's attempt to assassinate the czar and Prince Bernadotte of Sweden. Getting slightly drunk at an imperial banquet, Hornblower makes love to the Countess Canerine. She gives him fleas.

Operating in the Baltic, Hornblower harasses Bonaparte's northern flank. Ordered to Riga to prevent one of Napoleon's armies, under the command of General Macdonald, from reaching the northern Russian capital, St. Petersburg, Hornblower meets the countess once more but remains sober. At the siege of Riga, Hornblower serves with Colonel von Clausewitz, the great military theorist, who has defected from the Prussian army under Napoleon's control and is aiding the Russian stand against the tyrant.

Hornblower's bomb ketches blast Macdonald's siege and field artillery, gaining more time for the Russians. Hornblower then plans and executes a successful amphibious operation. Caught up in an enemy attack, Hornblower, on horseback, saves the Russian defenders by leading them in a flanking counterattack. The Russian army and the British naval squadron hold Macdonald at Riga while Napoleon meets his destiny at Moscow, but Hornblower is physically exhausted by his exertions. Finally, as Macdonald retreats, Hornblower has a feverish inspiration and he gallops with Clausewitz after the Prussian army in Macdonald's force. Hornblower convinces the Prussians to defect from Napoleon, thus changing the...

(The entire section is 11069 words.)

Sanford V. Sternlicht (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sternlicht, Sanford V. “Postwar Allegory and Philosophy: 1947-1954.” In C. S. Forester and the Hornblower Saga, pp. 128-41. Syracuse, N. Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, a revised reprint of the 1981 edition of Sternlicht's book, Sternlicht discusses the strengths and shortcomings of two philosophically oriented novels which were not part of the Hornblower series.]

As a world-renowned popular novelist with a following in the millions, and with his Hornblower novels serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, the most widely read family magazine in America, Forester could have stuck to the Hornblower Saga and continued to...

(The entire section is 6441 words.)

James R. Fultz (essay date 1982)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Fultz, James R. “A Classic Case of Collaboration: The African Queen.Literature Film Quarterly 10, no. 1 (1982): 13-24.

[In the following essay, Fultz discusses the collaboration between James Agee and John Huston on the film version of The African Queen and also delineates differences between the film and Forester's novel.]

After John Huston abandoned plans to film James Agee's adaptation of “The Blue Hotel,” he asked Agee to write a script of The African Queen. This was in 1950, a year in which Agee's life was pretty much taken over by the director whose dazzling cinematic sense he had admired in The Battle of San Pietro...

(The entire section is 4986 words.)

John Forester (essay date autumn 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Forester, John. “Father's Tales.” American Scholar 66 (autumn 1997): 533-45.

[In the following essay, Forester's son reminisces about his father's often self-absorbed behavior.]

My father, author of Captain Horatio Hornblower and other novels, was a storyteller, and I started reading his books when I was seven. He spent part of most mornings at the desk in his study, a ground-floor room that looked onto the front garden of our house in suburban London, and when he was in there all the household had to be quiet. No vacuuming, no loud shouting, not while Father was working. However, one morning I found him writing in three books spread out on the...

(The entire section is 5699 words.)

M. S. Mason (review date 2 April 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mason, M. S. “‘Hornblower’ Strikes Blow for the Good Guys.” Christian Science Monitor (2 April 1999): 18.

[In the following review, Mason discusses the 1999 A & E Hornblower series and reports on an interview with the star, Ioan Gruffudd.]

It's rare these days to find old-fashioned virtues tacked on to young male characters in the movies or television—virtues like honor, moral courage, and chivalrous defense of the vulnerable. Yet those things are still attractive, even self-evidently desirable, especially when attached to a dashing young hero like Horatio Hornblower.

The A&E network's four-part miniseries (April 4, 11, 18,...

(The entire section is 825 words.)

John D. Grainger (essay date October 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Grainger, John D. “Who Was Hornblower?” History Today 49, no. 10 (October 1999): 32-3.

[In the following essay, Grainger explores probable models for the character Horatio Hornblower.]

C. S. Forester's fictional sailor of the Napoleonic Wars, Captain Horatio Hornblower, was an immediate success when he first appeared in 1937, in The Happy Return. Sequels continued his story as he found love, promotion and worldly success. The books are still in print, and have been newly adapted into television films.

A recent biography of Admiral Sir James Gordon has claimed that he provides the ‘matrix’ for Hornblower's career (Bryan Perrett,...

(The entire section is 1720 words.)

Max Hastings (essay date 18 December 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hastings, Max. “The Man Who Ruled the Waves.” Spectator 283, no. 8941-42 (18 December 1999): 32.

[In the following essay, Hastings marks the centenary of Forester's birth with a retrospective of the author's works.]

‘It was not long after dawn that Captain Hornblower came up on the quarterdeck of the Lydia.’ Thus, in February 1937, C. S. Forester launched upon the billows one of the most famous figures in historical fiction with the first words of his novel The Happy Return. His highly-strung and much-loved mariner sailed on thereafter through the ten bestsellers which succeeded the first.

Today, Forester's reputation is...

(The entire section is 1850 words.)

M. S. Mason (review date 6 April 2001)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mason, M. S. “‘Horatio’ Storms the Seas Again.” Christian Science Monitor (6 April 2001): 18.

[In the following review, Mason offers a positive assessment of the second series of television adaptations of the Hornblower stories.]

Horatio Hornblower is back in another ripping, high-seas yarn. It is a delight to see that the sequel to the original television miniseries (first aired on A&E in April of 1999) is richer, more complex, and more exciting than the first. It is just as delightful to note how young Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd (pronounced “Yowan Griffith”) has grown into the role, offering us a refined, manly, and experienced hero of the high...

(The entire section is 671 words.)

Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Breit, Harvey. “Talk with C. S. Forester.” New York Times Book Review (6 July 1952): 4.

Offers an interview with Forester.

McGregor, Tom. The Making of C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower. New York: HarperEntertainment, 1999, 124 p.

Provides a reader's companion to the A & E television series based on Mr. Midshipman Hornblower.

Perrett, Bryan. The Real Hornblower: The Life of Admiral of the Fleet Sir James Alexander Gordon, GCB. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1997, 160 p.

Studies a possible model for Forester's Hornblower character....

(The entire section is 183 words.)