Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Beat to Quarters by C.S. Forester

C.S. Forester was an English author whose series about the British naval Captain Horatio Hornblower was a great success both in England and the United States. Although Forester came of age during World War I, he was diagnosed with a heart ailment that kept him from enlisting. He studied to become a doctor, but found he was not suited to it and became an author instead. Beat to Quarters, published in 1937, is the first novel Forester wrote about Hornblower.

Forester was not a seaman, but he had read accounts of England’s naval exploits during the Napoleonic Wars, and made use of this material when he wrote Beat to Quarters. Eventually Forester wrote a total of 12 books about Hornblower, continuing his exploits and also detailing his early career.

Horatio Hornblower is a captain of a frigate ordered to South America to give aid to rebels in Spain’s colonies, with a view to breaking the Spanish domination of the New World. But after he has fought against Spain, news of an alliance between England and Spain against Napoleon changes things, and Captain Hornblower is forced to turn about and fight against the very foes he was risking his men and his ship for at the start of the book.

Forester was writing almost three generations ago, and there are obvious differences in his political and social views from a European writing today. Hornblower has definite opinions of men according to their class and race, and what kind of treatment will best engage their loyalty and their labor. He sees many of his crew as childish brutes. He believes they need to see floggings to curb their restiveness and that their captain must act lighthearted in the midst of heavy warfare to motivate them to fight with renewed purpose. Hornblower is all too aware of the primitive recruiting system which forces sailors to their trade against their will, but he lives with it as a given necessity, as with many of the other privations and hardships that the crew endures.

The wonderful thing about Hornblower’s character is how human he is. In spite of his prejudices, he is sensitive to the circumstances of those around him regardless of their station. When we read, we are getting a full picture of not just the action but of the characters – if the seamen are handling guns in full battle, we are made aware of the incredible backbreaking labor that’s involved, as well as the smoke, the heat, and the capability of return fire to demolish their limbs and their lives.

Forester makes Captain Hornblower vulnerable to self-doubt, yet once he determines on an action all his faculties are brought to bear on the situation, whether it is remasting the ship or fighting a two day battle. Forester skillfully educates the reader regarding the details of navigating and managing such a ship, so we can appreciate the careful calculation and boldness behind each move that Hornblower makes. I’m now reading through the series, and I wholeheartedly recommend them for readers who appreciate naval history, set with stirring action and memorable characters.

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