27 March 2019

Review: Hornblower: Ship of the Line by C. S. Forester

Trade paperback, 323 pages
Published 1966 (originally 1938)

Acquired May 2007 
Previously read April 2008 
Reread January 2019
Ship of the Line by C. S. Forester

When I originally read this book, as the seventh Hornblower story in chronological order, I wasn't much into it:
Honestly, I think I find Horatio a bit less interesting to read about as an accomplished captain than when he's younger. I don't know if it's due to something intrinsic to the more unsure (and less insane) character of the earlier books or just because of the fact that the earlier books were written later on and Forester sharpened his skills as he went. Certainly it does help that young Hornblower didn't spend all his time mooning over Lady Barbara, though. This book feels less like a novel and, like Hornblower and the Atropos before it, more like a series on incidents that just happen to occur in order on the same ship. It's a little harder to get into as a result, and it might be my least favorite novel in the series yet, but there's still some to enjoy, particularly Hornblower's sneaky impressment of the crews of the East India Company and his ability to be always brilliant, such as when he takes out three forts single-handedly.
This time, reading it second in publication order, I enjoyed it much more. It's a rousing return for a character one wanted to see come back, like, say, the opening of Superman II. Hornblower is on the top of his form in this book, sailing from triumph to triumph to triumph. Last time that kind of irritated me, because it seemed like he faced no real challenges, but this time I enjoyed it, partially because I hadn't read as much Hornblower recently, and partially because I knew what was coming. Ship of the Line follows one of the classic trilogy structures, the one where the second installment ends in devastating defeat for the hero. Ship of the Line is filled with successes, then, to highlight the devastation of the failure at the end, and I think foreknowledge of that-- knowing that Hornblower is going to face a reckoning-- makes reading a novel about success after success after success a lot more enjoyable. (The bit about impressing the East India sailors I had totally forgotten about, and it was once again my favorite part. Impressment is such a bizarre practice, and one of the highlights of Ship of the Line is how much it delves into it.)

I do still struggle with Hornblower's relationship with Lady Barbara. One wants Hornblower to be pure and heroic, but he's not, and I guess that's good from the standpoint of complexity. Perhaps I'm too influenced by Ioan Gruffudd's performance on screen, but's hard for me to imagine him being unfaithful. In this novel, I did kind of reach an understanding of it, though. In Russell T Davies's The Writer's Tale, he talks about how a character's strengths and flaws should really be the same thing. I saw that here. Hornblower's sense of duty makes him into a superb commander and fighting machine, but it also makes him into a man who feels obligated to stay in a loveless marriage, and also refuses to act for his own pleasure outside that marriage. But as I read deeper into the series this interpretation of Hornblower's character didn't quite hold up...

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