My new copy of The Hornblower Companion, by C. S. Forester, arrived last week. It’s a companion book to the Horatio Hornblower series of books about a British naval officer during the Napoleonic era. Besides containing a set of maps showing where each of Hornblower’s adventures took place, Forester describes his writing style, and explains how each of the books was written. It replaces my very well worn original copy.
When I think back, a quote from the Companion was among the first words I read about the series. I was eleven or twelve, and had found a Reader’s Digest volume of condensed books; among them was a condensed version of Beat To Quarters, the original volume in the series. The preface contained Forester’s comments from the Companion describing the setting. And then I dove into Beat To Quarters:
It was not long after dawn that Captain Hornblower came up on the quarterdeck of the Lydia. Bush, the first lieutenant, was officer of the watch, and touched his hat but did not speak to him; in a voyage which had by now lasted seven months without touching land, he had learned something of his captain’s likes and dislikes. During this first hour of the day, the captain was not to be spoken to, nor his train of thought interrupted.
The book is about a British sea captain who has been sent on a mission to support a rebellion in Central America against Spain. To prevent the Spanish from finding out, he has orders to avoid sighting land until he arrives in the Gulf of Fonseca, to meet with the leader of the rebellion. He accomplishes his orders, and after seven months at sea, manages a perfect landfall, only to find the leader is a madman who has decreed himself to be El Supremo (the Almighty). Nonetheless, he carries out his orders, is able to capture a much larger Spanish ship, the Natividad by surprise, and turn her over the rebels. After the two ships part, Hornblower finds out that during the time he was out of communication with the Admiralty that a treaty has been signed with the Spanish, they are now allies, and he now has to fight the larger Natividad – in open waters, without the benefit of surprise. Complicating matters, he has provide passage back to England to an English lady, (the sister of the Duke of Wellington) who has been stranded in Panama.
I just lapped that book up. My father had passed down his love of nautical lore to me, and Forester has an admirably clear and easy to read style. There’s plenty of adventure, and Hornblower is very human too – he’s quite self conscious, and has no self confidence. For example, he would rather lead than drive, and then condemns himself for being too soft.
I finished the condensed book, but didn’t realize exactly what I was missing, or that what I’d just read was the first book in a series. Then, one day, about a year later, I was cleaning up downstairs and found a boxed set of Captain Horatio Hornblower: Beat To Quarters, Ship of the Line and Flying Colors in one set. It’s easy for me to date the time I read them: Christmastime when I was in the 8th grade. I distinctly remember being buried in Ship of the Line during the week before Christmas; the rest of the class was making a lot of noise, and I was just absorbed by the adventures of HMS Sutherland. Sister Theresa Ann came in, and I was the only one who didn’t get in trouble, because I was too wrapped up in Hornblower to get into trouble.
After finishing those books, I went to the library and read the other books in the series. And much later, I bought my own copies of all eleven books, plus the Companion. I’ve reread them all dozens of times. For a while, it was a personal Christmas tradition to reread Ship of the Line at Christmas time.
I have a special fondness for the Companion. Forester and Isaac Asimov are my two favorite authors, and in the latter part of the Companion, Forester describes his writing process. First, he comes across something that he recognizes as the basis of an idea:
…It happens that…the initial stimulus is recognized for what it is. The causal phrase dropped by a friend in conversation, the paragraph in a book, the incident observed by the roadside, has some special quality and is accorded a special welcome. But having been welcomed, it is forgotten, or at least, ignored. It sinks into the horrid slime of my subconscious like a waterlogged timber into the slime at the bottom of a harbour… [At some point] the original idea reappears in my mind, and it has grown.
From there, he describes how the plot gradually comes together for him. Unlike Asimov, he did all his plotting ahead of time. Gradually the plot starts to demand more and more of his attention. And then it comes time to actually write. Unlike Asimov, who was incredibly prolific because he enjoyed the process of writing, Forester found writing to be painful and fatiguing:
The happy-go-lucky methods of the jellyfish have to be abandoned for the diligence of the ant and the endurance of the mule. For me, personally, the change of state occasioned by starting to write is abrupt and violent. It is the difference between standing at the top of the toboggan slide and starting the descent. It is taking the plunge, swallowing the pill, walking through the door marked “Abandon All Hope.”
In I, Asimov, his (third) autobiography, Asimov described how he enjoyed reading his own writing:
A prolific writer… has to love his own writing.
I do. I can pick up one of my own books, start reading it anywhere, and immediately be lost in it and keep reading until I am shaken out of it by some external event.
By contrast, Forester was deeply self critical of his writing. In the Companion, he compares reviewing his own work to an “ugly woman” looking at her make-up in the mirror to see if anything can be done, and asks, “Can a finished book ever be as good as the book the writer dreamed of before he started writing it?”
And yet, as an adult, part of the reason I still enjoy the series is Forester’s command of the language. He clearly has a sense of the sound and the rhythm of his words. I love this passage describing the tactics of composition:
The words must be chosen, the sentences devised, which most accurately and most economically – and most suitably – describe the scene I am witnessing…An awkward sentence may bring the reader back to reality, just as a breaking stick may alert the feeding deer.
Hornblower has served as the inspiration for a lot of writers, among them Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, and Nicholas Meyer, the writer and director of Star Trek II, the Wrath of Khan. Captain Kirk was modeled on Hornblower.
So if I’ve convinced you to read the series, where should you start? There are two ways to do it. You can read them in the order in which they were written, as I did, starting with Beat To Quarters. Beat To Quarters was originally intended to be a standalone novel, so it’s more self-contained. It also means there are more inconsistencies with the rest of the series. As he filled out Hornblower’s life, Forester became more aware that he was writing a series and paid more attention to continuity. Or you could read them chronologically, starting with the beginning of his career as a seasick seventeen year old in Mr Midshipman Hornblower, continuing all the way to Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies. Whichever way you decide, you’re in for a treat.