Magazine article History Today

Who Was Hornblower?

Magazine article History Today

Who Was Hornblower?

Article excerpt

John D. Grainger investigates the creation of C.S. Forester's naval hero of the Napoleonic Wars -- and identifies not one but two Hornblower originals.

C.S. FORESTER'S FICTIONAL SAILOR of the Napoleonic Wars, Captain Horatio Hornblower, was an immediate success when he first appeared in 1937, in The Happy Return. Sequels continued his story as he found love, promotion and worldly success. The books are still in print, and have been newly adapted into televison films.

A recent biography of Admiral Sir James Gordon has claimed that he provides the `matrix' for Hornblower's career (Bryan Perrett, The Real Hornblower, 1998). It appears, however, that the author's clinching argument for his theory is that Hornblower's absence from a particular campaign (on the Potomac in 1812) is proof of its correctness. It is perhaps better to consider Hornblower's fictional career more widely and look at Forester's methods and sources.

Forester was a skilled amateur sailor, experienced both at sea and in inland waters, and the books have stretches of jargon-laden, yet fully convincing, passages. For example, Hornblower and the Hotspur is set in the blockade of Brest just after the outbreak of war in 1803, and is a highly effective re-creation of life aboard a sloop in one of the most difficult operations of the naval war, a picture of dangerous inshore navigation, winter, gales, hunger, danger and thirst.

Forester did his research well: the detail is convincing, the appearance of historical characters is never out of place. Hornblower is made brother-in-law of the Duke of Wellington, and of the Marquess Wellesley, the Foreign Secretary, but the former never, and the latter only once, appears in the stories. Forester used historical situations, but without disconcerting the reader by his hero's intrusion into well-known events.

Forester was once asked by a historian about his sources for his account of the siege of Riga in The Commodore, and in reply claimed to have invented everything himself. But there is too much detail for such a disclaimer to convince.

Part of his method is to choose relatively unfamiliar events. Of the great battles of the wars Hornblower is present only at St Vincent, and even then he was captured before the action started. In the Russian campaign, Forester avoids the well-trodden path of the Grand Armee. Riga was a side-show. At the end he permits Hornblower to persuade the Prussians to change sides, an actual historical event. But he puts the event in an informal context, before the Convention of Tauroggen which formalised the Prussians' desertion only after five days of negotiations.

It is the character of Hornblower, uncertain, introspective, horribly self-conscious, intelligent, inventive, which carries the reader along. Forester evolved the character on a slow sea voyage, during which he also explored the Gulf of Fonseca in Central America in a small boat, which became the setting for much of The Happy Return. But many of his hero's exploits were based on actual events, and these reveal just which historical characters went to make up the stories. One of these men is well known; the other is less famous, but more interesting.

Thomas Cochrane, later Earl of Dundonald, was notoriously unconventional. Court-martialed more than once for disobeying orders, he must have been a terror to have under command. The irascible Admiral St Vincent complained that the whole family were `mad, romantic, money-getting, and not truth-telling'; Admiral Keith, a fellow Scot, called Cochrane `wrong-headed, violent and proud'. In 1809, after his disobedience at the battle of the Basque Roads brought victory, he was placed on half pay for four years. In 1814, after less than a year's re-employment, he was at last dismissed from the service after conviction for a share-selling fraud, of which he was probably innocent.

The lower ranks saw things differently. …

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