Friday, April 2, 2010

Booty: Not Nelson But Shakespeare

I've never been shy about voicing my opinion (*in general*) about who the finest author of seafaring fiction was, is and ever shall be. Yes, I pray to Patrick O'Brian the way Baudelaire prayed to Poe. Don't judge me. But one has to acknowledge those who came before. Without Poe there would have been no Baudelaire. Without today's author there would have been no Aubrey/Maturin series by O'Brian.

Today is the forty-fourth anniversary of the death of C.S. Forester, the rightly famous author of the Horatio Hornblower series of nautical novels. He died in Fullerton, California and is buried in Loma Vista Memorial Park. It's kind of ironic for me to know that now as I spent part of my youth in Anaheim and went to school in Fullerton. So close to such an icon.

Forester was born in Cairo, Egypt to British parents and was living in England by the age of three. His first novel was published when Forester was in his twenties (A Pawn Among Kings, set during the Napoleonic wars but not specifically nautical) and his career took off from there.

A decade later, Forester was in Hollywood writing screenplays when he began the first Hornblower novel. What C.S. didn't know was that he was on his way to fame.

After a stint back in England, Forester returned to Hollywood during World War II and lived in California the rest of his life. He authored numerous novels and screenplays, the most famous outside the Hornblower series being The African Queen, which of course became the movie featuring Hepburn and Bogart. He also wrote two books about his adventures aboard his boat Annie Marble and a scholarly book about naval history, The Age of Fighting Sail.

Many critics and historians have stated unilaterally that Forester's Hornblower books are the best of any Royal Navy series yet written. Better than Marrayat, Pope, Kent, Woodman and yes, O'Brian. The argument is that Forester makes the story interesting, the characters believable and the seamanship easy to understand. To each there own, I say. Forester's series is compelling, even gripping, but I am not so much a fan that I cannot see the forest for the trees. Hornblower grates on me like fingernails on a chalkboard. His incessant adherence to honor, his over-riding need to be the "man alone" and infallible commander, his failure to marry the woman he loves. Gah! Do something "bad" already! Jack Aubrey he ain't.

But that's just me. As I said, to each his own. One thing I do find particularly interesting about the series is the hero's name. The overwhelming number of people I've spoken or corresponded with about the books assume (as I once did) that Hornblower's given name comes from the famous Nelson. Not so, according to Forester:

"Horatio" came first to mind, and oddly enough not because of Nelson but because of Hamlet... Then from Horatio it seemed a natural and easy step to Hornblower.

When Forester died his publishing company went into a minor paroxysm wondering what they would do about the loss of such a lucrative author and series of novels. The answer was found six months later, when Forester's editor approached Patrick O'Brian about creating a new series about Nelson's navy. And so the baton was handed over. And the adventure continued.

If you'd like to read the Hornblower series, I suggest (as I do with the Aubrey/Maturin series) that you start at the beginning. Any book will stand alone, however, and my personal favorite is Beat to Quarters. Here are the books in order for your convenience and as a tribute to the great author who to this day gives so many so much pleasure. Fine weather and fair winds, sir.

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, Lieutenant Hornblower, Hornblower and the Hotspur, Hornblower During the Crisis, Hornblower and the Atropos, Beat to Quarters, Ship of the Line, Flying Colours, Commodore Hornblower, Lord Hornblower and Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! And happy Friday to you and all of your followers. While I have not read the Hornblower series, I hear what you are saying with your criticism of the books. O'Brian's characters do seem to be a bit more "human" and fallible (although I have my own "issues" with some of O'Brian's writing, as you already know). I did not know the rest about Forester's life though... very interesting, Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! I think it's really a matter of taste as far as writing style in particular. Forester was certainly just as talented as O'Brian on all levels. You just have to pick what you like. Good stuff!

Susan Holloway Scott said...

I first discovered the Hornblower books in middle school, and whipped through them all a single summer. It helped that the paperback editions I read had thrilling covers - gory action scenes with a hunky model for Hornblower - that I spent a lot of time studying. I thought they were pretty cool, and sure beat Nancy Drew and other girly books.

When I reread them later, as an adult, they weren't quite as satisfying. I noticed things that I hadn't when I was younger - most specifically, how the female characters were definitely lacking. Think of Hornblowers poor hapless first wife! The only woman that Forester seems to like is Lady Barbara, and even then he stresses her "mannish" qualities - how tough she is, how she doesn't care about her complexion, how she's practical, no-nonsense, and doesn't fuss with her dress. He's much more comfortable with the friendship between Hornblower and Bush.

O'Brien, OTOH, isn't afraid to delve into Jack's messy relationships, and his women all seem genuine.

I can appreciate how the Forester books actually have beginnings, middles, and ends - the whole story-telling arc- while the O'Brien books often just...end, Hornblower is also interesting as a kind of upbeat propaganda and a reminder of the mightiness of the English empire, written as they were at a time when England was badly battered by WWII.

So I guess I'm like you, Pauline. I like 'em both, respect 'em both, but my prize goes to Jack Aubrey, huzzah! :)

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Barbara and thank you so much for your insight.

Like you, I can see the good in both series. I find the character many critics of O'Brian have a problem with is Stephen Maturin who, when you don't look very closely, seems rather lofty and godlike. Of course if you row the other way you see his drug addictions (first to laudanum and then to coaca), his disasterous ineptitude with the opposite sex and his holier than thou attitudes. None of that in Hornblower for sure.

I honestly believe (though I can't prove it) that O'Brian used real historical Royal Navy men as the basis for Jack Aubrey (and not only Cochrane) where Hornblower is far more a fictional character. For me, that is what makes Jack so much more comfortable than Horatio. He seems more "real" (the kind of character we'd all love to put down on paper).

What ever it is, I wouldn't have minded being one of Jack's messy relatitonships. Huzzah! indeed.