Book Reviews

Book Review: Hornblower During the Crisis – C.S. Forester’s Last Novel, Incomplete

When writer C.S. Forester penned his series around the character Horatio Hornblower, he didn’t write the books in chronological order. The first three novels were about mid-point through the series, and then he worked both before and after that period to fill in the gaps.

For those that don’t know who Horatio Hornblower is, he is a character created by C.S. Forester who through a series of books goes from being a midshipman in the British Navy eventually to Admiral. Along the way, he has many adventures and proves himself again and again as being both a man of honor, intelligence, and integrity. He is forced into marriage to a woman he does not love but is fond of due to his own conscience. Already they have one son, and another child is on the way.

Before he died, Forester was working on Hornblower During the Crisis. The result is a novel that starts out really promising, and then abruptly ends with just the author’s notes of how the story would have ended. To fill this in, two other short stories about the character. I don’t know if Forester was designing other novels around these stories, also found after his death, or if they were intended to be the groundwork for more novels.

The main story has Hornblower being relieved of his command of the sloop Hotspur as he returns to England to receive the promotion to Captain and secure his next assignment. He no sooner leaves the ship than the Hotspur is run aground by its new Captain. Since he is still In the area on the supply ship conveying him back to England, he is asked to participate in the court-martial of the Captain. This is difficult as he still considers some of the crew his friends, especially Mr. Bush, and he also has qualms about second-guessing a fellow Captain.

This part of the story concludes and segues into the waterboy managing to not only evade pursuit by a French vessel but to board it and almost capture it as a prize of war. That doesn’t happen, but Hornblower manages to get away with the ship’s papers, including secret dispatches from Emperor Napoleon himself. He delivers these to those in charge in London while he’s there to secure his promotion. The result is his involvement in a plot to infiltrate those guarding a strategic harbor with false orders so Admiral Nelson can have at them. Unfortunately, the book ends with the notice that he will have this assignment, and though one page of the author’s notes tells us what he planned to have happen, having that build-up only to have a one-page summary was quite disappointing

The two short stories take place at opposite ends of the series. Hornblower and the Widow McCool is set before he became a Lieutenant. Irish revolutionary Barry McCool is charged with desertion and is due to be executed when Hornblower gets the assignment to handle the preparations for the execution. Worried about violence if McCool tries to incite his fellow Irishmen at his hanging, Hornblower cuts a deal to return a sea chest to his widow along with a final letter. After McCool honors his promise, Hornblower agonizes over the inability to fulfill his part of the bargain due to his assignment, but that also gives him time to ponder the request. Will he ultimately figure out the real truth behind McCool’s request?

The final story, The Last Encounter represents the final chapter in the story of Hornblower. He has retired on his estate and is pondering all that his life has been one night when a man appears at his doorstep claiming to be Napoleon and saying he needs to get to Paris. Hornblower deduces he’s a madman and I trying to figure out how to decline the request for a horse and carriage to take him seven miles down the road when his wife appears and graciously honors the request.

I liked these last two stories quite a bit. However, not having read the entire series just yet, how Hornblower arrived at his station in life depicted in the last story is a bit of a mystery, as are some of the characters who appear here.

Forester imbues his stories with the usual attention to detail and naval terminology. There are times I look up the terms, and times I can gloss over them, not needing to know the actual meaning. This presents a challenging read at times, but I find it to be fun. My biggest disappointment is the build-up of the main story as it sounds like it would have been a terrific tale.

Hornblower is his usual self, second-guessing his choices and being more critical of himself than others are of him. I liked his encounters with his old crew, although I was looking for more signs of the deep friendship between him and Mr. Bush. It seems to be missing from Hornblower During the Crisis, but it does take steps to solidify the background of how strong the loyalty is between the two men.

Hornblower During the Crisis is a short book that left me wanting more, although I enjoyed what was here. I wish I had waited to read the final story until I understood how he arrived at that point in his life, and I’ll probably return to it once I’ve finished the series. It’s nice that it was published rather than losing these tales to history, I just wish Forester had lived to write more books about Hornblower.

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