Hornblower and the Island

I first read C. S.. Forester’s Hornblower books as a pre-teen, and I’ve re-read them several times since. A few weeks ago, I decided to see what iBooks had for Hornblower –I wanted to see if they had the continuation of the last, unfinished, Hornblower book. I didn’t find it (then), but I did trip over the Hornblower Addendum, five short stories Forester had written, and Hornblower and the Island, a pastiche by James Keffer. Bought and bought. I finished the Keffer book in the wee hours of this morning.

It took me some time to get into the book, because Keffer doesn’t capture Forester’s voice well, and his characters don’t really feel like the originals. It’s hard to describe what I mean, but like Justice Stewart, “I know it when I see it.”

Forester’s style, first of all, feels rather traditionally British, and slightly urbane, without being unapproachable. Forester paid attention to the words and phrases he used to convey the action he had conjured up in his mind. To repeat a quote, he wrote in the Companion:

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.

I don’t get the sense, on the other hand, that Keffer paid much attention to his actual prose. There is certainly no attempt to emulate Forester’s style, just a straightforward, unadorned recounting of the plot. The prose feels, for want of a better phrase, very American, both in its style and in some of the attitudes conveyed. (By way of contrast, Sophie Hannah’s Hercule Poirot book feels like an Agatha Christie.)

Hornblower and the Island feels very much like fan fiction. Aside from the matter of authorial voice, it references a lot of things from the original series. Too many things. Perhaps the most noticeable thing is that he resurrects Hornblower’s closest friend, who Forester had killed off in Lord Hornblower. He does it more or less plausibly (helped by the fact that Forester did the deed without ever producing a body), but also brings in Hornblower’s old ship, old second lieutenant, and a host of other points. By the time it came to the point where one of the antagonists was an expatriate Frenchman who had been a sailor on one of the four French ships Hornblower battled at the end of Ship of the Line, I was saying, “aw, c’mon.”

I don’t think Keffer gets either Hornblower or Bush right, either. His Hornblower is nowhere near as conflicted as the original, nowhere near as self-conscious, nowhere near as self critical. He is much more open about his feelings, and much more willing to let Bush know how he feels about him — and much more willing to strategize and plan in front of Bush, something the original Hornblower much preferred to do by himself, lest anyone realize if something went wrong.

Bush, for his part, is not the original Bush. He is brighter, more insightful than Forester’s Bush, who was always portrayed as stolid, unimaginative, who Hornblower valued for his loyalty, and seamanship, but whose strategic abilities Hornblower had no faith in.

I will say that I felt Keffer’s Lady Barbara is closer to the original; unfortunately she only appears in the first part of the book.

Once I got past the issues of characterization and voice, I rather liked the plot. I think using Forester’s characters (and I’m curious how the Forester Estate views this book) actually does the book a disservice, by setting up invidious comparisons to Forester’s prose and Forester’s characterizations. On the other hand, the Hornblower name is what made me buy the book.

The book starts out two years after Waterloo. Hornblower is back home, and bored with life as the Squire of Smallbridge, even to the extent of snapping at Barbara in his unhappiness. She writes to her brother, the Foreign Secretary, Marquis Wellesley, to see if some use can found for Hornblower.

There is. After Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to the island of St. Helena in the middle of the South Atlantic, and he has been making a fool of the current governor, a career bureaucrat, Wellesley feels that Bonaparte will be more likely to respect a self made military man like Hornblower, and that Hornblower is smart enough, and strong enough, to be able to handle Bonaparte.

It’s an interesting situation. During the war, Hornblower had drawn Bonaparte’s attention, to the point when he was captured at the end of Ship of the Line, Bonaparte had ordered him brought to Paris for execution in the first part of Flying Colours, and the sentence had almost been carried out in Lord Hornblower.

So, Hornblower sails for St Helena with his family, aboard HMS Agamemnon, under the command of his old friend Captain Bush. Once he takes up office, he faces down Napoleon during their first encounter, and gradually develops a friendship with the former Emperor, who recognizes Hornblower as a kindred spirit, despite the fact that his role is that of Bonaparte’s jailer. In that role, he detects and foils a rescue attempt on the part of some French loyalists.

Once the book gets going, it does move well. I got into the meat of it last night, and it held my attention until I finished it around 3:30 this morning. So clearly, Keffer can plot well, and the scenes between Hornblower and Napoleon are well done. He establishes a minor character, Lieutenant Brewer, as an aide to Hornblower who he reuses in other books; it looks like he’s starting his own series of books around Brewer.

I just wish this book had been better copy edited, and was either more in keeping with Forester’s actual characters and voice, or simply didn’t use them at all. It’s choppy in places — at one point, the action jumps back to Europe, in a way that’s a little hard to follow at first. There are some minor continuity errors that could have easily been fixed without affecting the book.

On balance, as a Hornblower book, it doesn’t succeed. The characters are wrong, the voice doesn’t match, and the central friendship with Bonaparte invalidates the first chapter of Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies — Forester would have written that much differently had the assignment to St. Helena “actually” happened. As a piece of standalone fiction, it works much better, and I may check out some of Keffer’s other “Brewer” books to see if he does better.

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