Book Review

Horatio Hornblower[1]


C. S. Forester published the first of the Horatio Hornblower books that I read, Lieutenant Hornblower, in 1952, the year that my family and I arrived in the United States (the first book of the saga Forester wrote, however—Beat to Quarters—came out in 1939). It is the first book I read in English, and it is the book that made me a reader. I came across it entirely by accident at the Inwood public library up on Broadway one block north of my junior high school, P.S. 52 Manhattan (Alberto Manguel, in his wonderful A History of Reading, says that “largely [his] encounters with books have been a matter of chance”[2]). Perhaps it was on display as a new release. I liked to hang around the library after school because as the only child of working parents I found our empty apartment in the late afternoons cold and lonely. I don’t have any recollection of the physical appearance of the book, but it must have been a new hardback, for I picked it up shortly after it was published. In contrast the Hornblower books I now own are in the handsome eleven-volume Back Bay Books paperback set. The jacket illustrations of these books pose one of the first questions that seem to come up immediately about the books that have made readers readers: Is this a book for children or adults?

There is a whole intriguing subset of books written originally for adults, and that sits pretty high on everyone’s list of great books, that nonetheless became—at any rate for a time—books for children. I am thinking of books like Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and some (or many) of Dickens’ books or Jack London’s. The Hornblower books, clearly, are not books of this sort. They are more like Wells’s The War of the Worlds (a book Forester was extremely fond of, and that he had read before he was ten) or Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. I own the Penguin Classics edition of Kidnapped, and its cover has the same ambiguous qualities as do the covers of my Hornblower books. Like Kidnapped, the Hornblower books are set in one of the most romantic historical periods, at least for the purposes of historical fiction—the final defeat of the Jacobite cause in 1746, in the former case, and the Napoleonic wars, in the latter. And so we find men in strange dress (and especially strange headgear) wielding swords on the covers of both books. The rendering on the cover of Kidnapped is in faded colors and foggy detail, while the Hornblower illustrations are sharp and made to appear as etchings—but in both cases there’s a swashbuckling tone to the whole thing that tells you these are books of action or adventure, popular books, books full of excitement, romance (in the broad sense of the term), and promise that might be read by children and/or by adults. The books that have made readers readers seem to inhabit this borderland or twilight zone, and I want to consider a little what this might mean.

The author of the only scholarly study of Forester, Sanford Sternlicht, says that there were two main heroes of twentieth- century “escapist fiction”: Hornblower and James Bond. “Forester and Fleming,” Sternlicht argues, “captured the hidden self-images of their times,” Forester for the World War II generation and Fleming for the Cold War one.[3] Sternlicht seems to be saying that in the ’40s and ’50s the public persona of Western culture—by implication dull, upstanding, conformist—masked a much more adventurous communal inner self. But on a little probing, Sternlicht’s phrase “hidden self-images” becomes more puzzling. Can Sternlicht mean that most of us see ourselves secretly as Hornblower or Bond? I’d say that’s extremely unlikely. But we may wish we were, or we may slip away from war or cold war into fantasies that we are.

In this sense—reading as escape—the archetypal young reader, to my mind, is Jane Eyre, hidden in her window seat behind the red moreen curtain, clasping her volume of Bewick, and traveling by force of dread or imagination to Nova Zembla (an island, it turns out, in Baffin Bay near Greenland) or exotic scenes of crime and mystery (later, though I find this hard to believe, she says she found the same thrills in Pamela and Henry, Earl of Moreland. In any event her reading was prophetic, for she did marry her master. Although Jane is maybe being a little bold here. Charles Lamb tells the story of reading Pamela one day on Primrose Hill when a friend—“a familiar damsel”—finds him and sits by him, wanting to read along. “There was nothing in the book,” he says, “to make a man seriously ashamed at the exposure; but as she seated herself down by me, and seemed determined to read in company, I could have wished it had been—any other book.” Soon enough his friend is embarrassed and leaves. “Gentle casuist, I leave it to thee to conjecture, whether the blush [for there was one between us] was the property of the nymph or the swain in this dilemma”[4]). Jane is driven to her nook by her position as outcast: this however is the position of every reader, isn’t it, and in particular of every young reader (Manguel writes that “readers are bullied in schoolyards and in locker rooms as much as in government offices and prisons”)? Jane is at once escaping from something she knows well and fears and despises, and escaping to a place in the mind that she doesn’t really have adequate experience of but that all of her instincts tell her is the right place for her. Because this is about looking for home in all the wrong places, both movements have something of wickedness about them. The OED quotes Darwin’s use of an all-but-lost meaning of “escape” as a blunder or peccadillo (especially in the sense of a “breach of chastity”): “Now you may quiz me,” he is quoted as saying, “for so foolish an escape of mouth.” Jane’s hope to escape the cruelty of the Reed household is a blunder, as is her delight in her imaginary travels, for she is soon found out; the very object of her escape is flung at her head by John Reed, and draws blood. Now, however, in unaccustomed rebellion, she lets fly and flings back at the Reeds words that are truly foolish escapes of mouth. For the first time she tastes the narcotic high you get from wielding a sharp metaphorical knife. And the bitter aftertaste.

(Like Forester a century later, Charlotte Brontë—a more extreme case than her heroine of reading to escape—took liberties with Wellington’s family, the Wellesleys, using the family name as a pen name for an early novel, The Green Dwarf, and naming the hero of her childhood epic, Tales of Angria, Arthur Augustus Adrian Wellesley, Duke of Zamorna. She loved Scott above all novelists, and the Duke of Wellington above all men. We have this information from Brontë’s biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell, who tells us about her own early reading that because she was raised in the countryside at Knutsford by old people who only had old books in the house, she read as a girl and loved Henry Brooke’s The Fool of Quality, which as it happens John Wesley abridged into the book that thrilled Jane Eyre under the title Henry, Earl of Moreland.)

I should perhaps pause at this point and, to fill in the backstory, say a few words about my own particular circumstances at the time I first picked up Lieutenant Hornblower. The most important thing to say is that I was born in Slovakia in 1941 to Jewish parents. More or less everything follows from that at once wholly accidental and yet fateful fact of origin. We lived in a small town around thirty miles north of the Slovak capital, Bratislava. It was an unremarkable backwoods town, with the Catholic church on one side of the town square and the synagogue on the other. The only person of note in the town’s history was Franz Liszt’s father, who was born there. Through luck, the goodwill and occasionally the reckless bravery of others, and my father’s indefatigable resourcefulness, we (my mother, father, and I) survived the Holocaust—first living right on the town’s main street (my father was a “Jew Necessary to the Economy”), and then, for about nine months, in a hamlet and bunkers in the Little Carpathian Mountains.[5] More or less everyone else from the town who was Jewish, and who had not had the foresight or good fortune to have fled, perished. Among the dead were all but one of my father’s seven siblings, his mother (his father had abandoned the family and emigrated years earlier), my mother’s one sister, and her parents. Today there are no Jews in my hometown; the synagogue is a “cultural center.”

After the War we lived for five years in Quito, Ecuador, before finally arriving in the United States and settling in the very northern tip of Manhattan, in an apartment on West 205th Street, a stone’s throw from the Harlem River. I missed out on the common—and as far as I can tell universally loved—experience of having had stories read to me as a child, and I did not read any children’s literature. Perhaps the long traveling among strangers and strange languages made choosing books for me impossible for my parents. In any event it did not happen, and I first read for pleasure—and, in the way these things seem to happen, was wholly swallowed up by—C. S. Forester’s Hornblower books.

The Gothic fascination that drew Jane Eyre to Bewick was not what drew me to Hornblower. Jane, trapped in her enclosure in the cold north of England, longing for escape, found comfort in Bewick’s exotic locales, and the farther from her world, and the stranger the scene, the greater her thrill. I had seen more than enough of exotic locales; I had no desire to wander. On the contrary, I wanted to settle and bring my time as an outcast to an end. At the same time, I too, like Jane (and Charlotte Brontë), was looking for home—and I found it more or less as she did. Ferndean, the house Jane at last settles in with the blasted Rochester, and where she begins a family with him, is really a locale out of the Bewick Jane loved as a girl: the novel ends in a place very much like the place where it begins. Ferndean is best thought of as a reading nook, for it is not a house in anything you might call a neighborhood, a place with actual neighbors and dinners with company and that sort of reassuring, homely routine, but rather, more or less in every sense of the term, an escape, a place in the middle of the wood, the sort of place where Dante seeks Beatrice, a place in the mind.

And so, reading the Hornblower stories now, I can immediately see both how they appealed to me, and then how they offered me many things I didn’t know to ask for. And let me say how lucky I was not to have picked up Casino Royale instead, the first Bond novel, which appeared in 1953. Hornblower’s naval universe is a great place to run to—it is an “escape” without being altogether a fantasy (whereas the Bond novels are obviously, and wildly, fantastic). Forester’s method, which is to narrate as though he were reporting mere historical happenings, gives the Hornblower books, once you grant their premises and volunteer a suspension of disbelief, a certain substance, a form of reality, and for a boy part of the unexpected qualities of this reality are the moral ones. Here, for example, is the first paragraph of Lieutenant Hornblower:

Lieutenant William Bush came on board H.M.S. Renown as she lay at anchor in the Hamoaze and reported himself to the officer of the watch, who was a tall and rather gangling individual with hollowcheeks and a melancholy cast of countenance, whose uniform looked as if it had been put on in the dark and not readjusted since.

This gangling, melancholy individual is Hornblower. Now the boy I am trying to conjure up, the Slovak boy lately come to Manhattan from South America, with his failing knowledge of Slovak and small knowledge of Spanish and English, and with his nonexistent knowledge of the greater world, this boy was a neat dresser, the only tidy thing about him, because his mother was a seamstress, and very particular. He will have noticed, with a mixture of emotions, Hornblower’s ramshackle appearance, just as he must have been baffled by most of the rest of the paragraph, beginning with “H.M.S.” (yes, it’s a ship, but what can the letters stand for?) and the odd-looking “Hamoaze” (which I bet, dear reader, you too know nothing about), but continuing to “gangling” and “melancholy” (which perhaps by now, if you’re anyplace near my age, is an old friend?).

The narrative perspective at the opening—and then at the close—of Lieutenant Hornblower is unusual, for almost always Forester narrates his stories in the indirect first person, sitting on Hornblower’s shoulder from a sort of omniscient distance. But here, luckily for the Slovak boy first reading the book, Forester lets us look at Hornblower through someone else’s eyes, and for a time the reader sees him and everything else from Bush’s reliable, stolid, but downright mundane point of view. (First-time readers would not know that in every book Bush is to Hornblower as Watson is to Holmes.) Fleming also narrates in the indirect first person. But there the similarities end. Forester’s English is the great plain style of the public schoolboy of the early twentieth century and is the same English you find in the writing of Bertrand Russell and Leonard Woolf and John Maynard Keynes and Graham Greene. It’s an English grown up along exercises in Latin, of a certain structural rigor and rhythmic muscle, and in that sense athletic, no-nonsense, with an exact but never fancy vocabulary, and an air of inherited authority appropriate to inherited wealth (even when the writer has no wealth and is a Socialist, like Leonard Woolf). And although Fleming went to Eton, he writes a debased version of this English; and whereas everything in Forester is credible, and in fact the beauty of his narratives is that you receive them as reports of actual events by a redoubtable observer, little in Fleming is credible, and for the most part what he tells us is silly when not ridiculous, and is only salvaged in the Bond movies, with their witty self-mockery. Here is a little philosophy from James Bond as he’s about to take on the notorious Le Chiffre at baccarat:

Above all, he liked it that [in gambling] everything was one’s own fault. There was only oneself to praise or blame. Luck was a servant and not a master. Luck had to be accepted with a shrug or taken advantage of up to the hilt. But it had to be understood and recognized for what it was and not confused with a faulty appreciation of the odds, for, at gambling, the deadly sin is to mistake bad play for bad luck. And luck in all its moods had to be loved and not feared. Bond saw luck as a woman, to be softly wooed or brutally ravaged, never pandered to or pursued. But he was honest enough to admit that he had never yet been made to suffer by cards or by women. One day, and he accepted the fact, he would be brought to his knees by love or by luck. When that happened he knew that he too would be branded with the deadly question mark he recognized so often in others, the promise to pay before you have lost: the acceptance of fallibility.[6]

Although this is tawdry, it does reveal one of the main motives for reading, especially of those books that have made readers readers, and this is the desire for guidance. (There are more ways to serve your country in war and peace, Fleming demonstrates, than to serve as a foot soldier or to slave in factory or office.) It may be curious, a paradox, that you should go to escape fiction for guidance, but nevertheless that’s the way it is. The point is perhaps more obvious in the case, say, of Jane Eyre, or me at age twelve, for to learn what we needed to we had only books to go to since there was no example in the adult world to follow, in Jane’s case on account of the perverse morality of her various guardians, and in mine because my parents had even less purchase on the ins and outs of the New World than I. In this sense it is as if every young reader is Huck Finn, whose moral examples are his father the town drunk, on the one hand, and his hopelessly strait-laced guardians, on the other, and who therefore has to find his way on his own. At its most obvious, the guidance we want from books is about what “H.M.S.” stands for, or on which side of the plate to put the forks, or how to address the Lord of the Manor, and more of the same. (The Hamoaze, incidentally, is a stretch of estuary that runs past the Devonport Dockyard, which belongs to the Royal Navy.) More broadly, and deeply, the guidance one seeks in books is about how to get on in the world, how to manage one’s initiation or rite of passage, a process that obviously applies to the young person coming of age, but that can as well, in a more profound sense, have to do with becoming an adult, which is perhaps a process without an age limit (and so the books that end with a marriage, and the books that begin with a marriage).

What makes Jane Eyre a book that can be read happily by children is that on the novel’s first page its heroine is a child of ten, and her trials and triumphs from that point on are equally bracing. If the novel has been abbreviated or otherwise edited, the power of the plot becomes all the more exciting and triumphant, but even unabridged the novel can electrify the young reader despite the fact that he or she may be unable to follow some of the book’s conflicts, themes, or plot lines to their adult conclusions. Injustice, especially injustice wedded to hypocrisy, is a sure draw for the young reader (apparently we all feel hard done by as kids). Insofar as Jane Eyre can be a book for children, it is a book with a definite ending and unequivocal resolutions. The reason, however, that some things are not fit for children is not they are too violent or too raunchy but too ambivalent. The child who encounters too early the reality that things may or may not work out for the best is a child whose childhood has been blasted. The books intended for children build up to a definite ending, something like an enormous, dense wall. An adult finds in these books pretty much what a child does. Not only can these books not be open ended, they do not open out onto any vista; they are not about becoming but about being, being twelve, let’s say, or thirteen. It may be that even if we open these books to escape, once we begin reading we encounter ourselves in ways we had not expected to (as Jane does in Bewick). Nevertheless the adult who reads Jane Eyre will read even as triumphant a book as this one, as he or she will read every great book, that is, with a sinking heart. The inescapably tragic qualities of human being, its rudimentary incompleteness, its curious, exasperating embodiment, its slavery to drives and instincts and passions, not to mention, as Helen Burns insists on mentioning, our mortality—all this forbids not necessarily a happy ending, but finality. There is something of Coleridge’s Wedding Guest in every adult reader, and once the tale is told we return to our everyday world wiser, yes, and vivified by art, but also sadder.

Forester thought of the Hornblower books as books for adults; to him they are psychological studies of, as he puts it, “man alone.” I don’t know whether he cribbed this from Conrad, but if he did he misunderstood Conrad, who was interested in failure, and who (like Beckett after him) saw every human endeavor as a failure (Heart of Darkness has not been abridged for kids), whereas Forester, who writes after all as an entertainer, is interested in success. In Forester’s books success means a successful course of action, problem solving in small and large ways, and leadership. He is in fact intensely interested in the details of action, an area of manliness that only enters Conrad’s books on the level of philosophy: we know that Marlow believes he is distinguishable from Kurtz because he has things to do, a routine to keep, but in truth we never see him doing these things as we do Hornblower.

(Forester loves the accessories of the manly life, and his vocabulary is full of the relish of naming, a delight given extra spice by period detail. When Hornblower first appears on deck in the opening of Beat to Quarters, we learn that “Brown, the captain’s coxswain, had seen to it that the weather side of the quarterdeck had been holystoned and sanded at the first peep of daylight.” The deck is sanded because Hornblower takes his daily walk there. “On one hand his walk was limited by the slides of the quarterdeck carronades; on the other by the row of ringbolts in the deck for the attachment of the carronade train tackles . . .” And there’s plenty more of the same in every book and on practically every page of the Hornblower saga. In Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin books there’s an occasional, half-hearted effort to provide the poor reader with some help in grasping the names of things, so that, for example, several volumes in the series contain a full-page drawing of “The sails of a square-rigged ship, hung out to dry in a calm,” with each sail assigned a number and its name nicely laid out in an accompanying chart. Even so, just in this one chart, there are twenty-one sails to master: there’s no mastering the welter of details about these ships without becoming a fanatic or a time traveler, titles that seem to apply pretty accurately both to Forester and to O’Brian. I want to say for the record that, whatever else might be said, O’Brian’s prose is a sludgy compound compared to Forester’s clean and elegant sentences.)

Hornblower’s success, though, attractive as it is to the young reader, is hardly a one-dimensional matter. He’s not made of wood, and he’s not a cliché. When Bush first meets him, in the opening pages of Lieutenant Hornblower, Hornblower is fiercely berating the acting gunner, Hobbs, and his manner, at least momentarily, gives Bush a wrong impression.

Bush was making a mental note that this Hornblower was a firebrand when he met his glance and saw to his surprise a ghost of a twinkle in their melancholy depths. In a flash of insight he realized that this fierce young lieutenant was not fierce at all, and that the intensity with which he spoke was entirely assumed—it was almost as if Hornblower had been exercising himself in a foreign language.

Not too much later we find Hornblower is green with seasickness; and in each of the books we learn too that he is squeamish about, and thoroughly uncomfortable with, corporal punishment. Now Hornblower, a great leader of men, is always in the company of others, his inferiors and his superiors, friends and enemies, women and men. Forester provides us, that is, with ample evidence of how others respond to exactly the same dilemmas, dangers, opportunities, triumphs, and defeats as Hornblower does. Bush’s insight reveals that Hornblower’s leadership is thoroughly self-conscious: what makes him a great leader, morally, is that he assumes as a matter of course that he must lead (rather than that he can lead; Hornblower’s pervasive sense of responsibility would be much diminished if it all came to him naturally) and that he acts therefore as each situation demands. He can be self-effacing, or fierce, or obsequious all depending on what is necessary to get the job done. As it happens, Hornblower’s many other gifts, including a formidable diligence, always beyond the call of duty, and a supple intelligence, make him a man others trust and lean on; but for the reader, especially the young reader, it’s his moral qualities that are most engaging, and instructive.

Still, there’s something upsetting about the thought that Hornblower, in telling Hobbs off, was practicing a foreign language. And perhaps the phrase says more about Forester than Hornblower. Lieutenant Hornblower was the seventh novel of the saga that Forester wrote (and maybe he hoped it would be the last: like Conan Doyle with Holmes, Forester was forced by public demand to keep on producing Hornblower stories to the bitter end), but its chronological place is near the beginning of Hornblower’s career. A reader who had followed the stories from Beat to Quarters on would have been thoroughly familiar with Hornblower by the time he came to Lieutenant Hornblower, and would have known more or less everything there was to know about the man’s character, abilities, and habits. Perhaps displaying Hornblower’s leadership had grown tiresome to Forester. In any event, it’s clear that to Forester a leader is a man who must always play his part, and who to succeed must know how to use his part to achieve victory. But the suggestion that the language of leadership is foreign to Hornblower clashes with what we know of him; in fact, although he is not a man of steel, or whatever would be the appropriate stereotype, he has an unusual gift for this language, and takes to it readily. That, after all, is what differentiates him from the other, frequently quite capable, characters in the novels, and from us.

At the same time, thinking of being a man as a language that can be learned is enormously reassuring as well as seductive, especially to the young reader (who I assume is likely to be male). The form of courage most often displayed in the novels is overcoming one’s fears. In particular, Hornblower—unassuming, generous, tender-hearted—shows that the man alone, Forester’s pedagogic model for how to be a man, is someone who does what he must, whether he likes it or not, and (of course) without complaint; if he must climb up a mast even though it makes him dizzy, he will do so without hesitation, just as he will exact punishment even though it makes him wince (inwardly), obey orders with grace even though he thinks them wrong, and drink fetid ship’s water with relish, because to do otherwise would demoralize the men . . . When I started reading Hornblower, I was still waking most nights screaming from recurring nightmares caused by my memories of the terrorizing sound of weapons being fired. I was told by my mother—for I don’t remember this—that when we were still living openly in our hometown in Slovakia, and she had taken me out in a carriage for a walk one day, planes appeared overhead. She says I said to her (I was three), “Don’t let them kill me!” Some months later, when I was playing outside the second bunker in which we were hiding, now fairly deep in the Small Carpathians, a German soldier wandering through the woods spotted me and fired his rifle at me. Toward the end of our time in hiding, when we were living high in the mountains, in the fifth and most roomy of our hiding places, the final Russian assault passed directly over our cabin, an enormously loud barrage directed at the retreating German troops. My father refused to stay in the mountains until the Russian advance passed, and we left our hideout with me being pulled in a handcart in the midst of the half-wild Russian front-line soldiers, a bumpy, chaotic, and most of all fearfully noisy journey back to our hometown. These terrifying sounds of war have remained with me all my life, but only rarely after the age of fourteen or so did they blast me out of sleep. In the end I simply outgrew them, or perhaps I felt, finally, safe enough, and magically could no longer hear them. But in the meanwhile, I imagine it must have been very soothing to that uncertain Slovak boy to keep company with the upstanding Lieutenant Hornblower and his wartime terrors, and to believe too that not only were there things that even Horatio Hornblower was afraid of, but that these sorts of terrors, apparently common to us all, could be overcome.

In Lieutenant Hornblower, Hornblower and Bush are junior officers on board H.M.S. Renown, whose commanding officer, Captain Sawyer, is paranoid (actually paranoid), cruel, and, as the book establishes almost at once, unfit for command. I said earlier that injustice is a sure draw for the young reader, and Pip, in Dickens’ Great Expectations, explains exactly why this is so. The way his sister raised him, he says, made him “sensitive. In the little world in which children have their existence whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt, as injustice. It may be only a small injustice . . . but the child is small, and its world is small.” In Pip’s case injustice took the form of the “capricious and violent coercion” he suffered at the hands of his sister, that he suffered, as he puts it, “in a solitary and unprotected way,” with the result that he “was morally timid and very sensitive.”[7]

I too was morally timid and very sensitive. In my case the injustice—though I would not have used the word, or recognized it as applicable—was also capricious and violent. Capricious, violent, but impersonal, and for that reason liable to the most satisfying trouncing not in life but in art. In Lieutenant Hornblower Captain Sawyer’s incapacity for command so exasperates his officers that they arrange a clandestine meeting to talk things over, the only time Hornblower is ever seen to be willing to plot against authority. But as it happens, on his way to uncover the plot in the dark lower decks, the captain stumbles down a hatchway and dies of his injuries. Hornblower is the first to find him, and we are lead to believe—or, in any event, we are not discouraged from thinking—that Hornblower might well have pushed the captain to his death.

Something I could never have done, and in the reading, as an adult, still find it hard to imagine fully. In Lieutenant Hornblower Captain Sawyer’s death doesn’t raise any moral issues or doubts. The only question is whether there will be a suspicion of mutiny when the incident is investigated, and in that case what such an outcome might augur for Hornblower and his fellow officers. But the idea that injustice can be overcome by murder seems in the book—and of course, the Renown is a ship at war—to be a perfectly plausible course of action. Sawyer dies quite early in the book, and his death is followed by a series of adventures, as well as an uncharacteristic denouement (about which, more in a moment). Hornblower has no second thoughts, and we never learn what actually happened. Still, I don’t think I could have done it, not then, when I first read the book; and I doubt I could do it now. I don’t mean to suggest that the act was morally wrong, and I am repulsed by it; no, for there does not seem to be a standard to apply, let alone an absolute standard. Rather, the killing of the captain—if he was killed—brings you directly up against what might be called the Israeli dilemma. As the victim of caprice and violence, are you justified in using caprice and violence to prevent further caprice and violence?

In one of Tom Stoppard’s brilliant short plays for TV, Professional Foul (1977), an Oxbridge professor travels to Prague, ostensibly to attend a linguistics conference but actually to catch a soccer game in the European Cup (one source for the title). A former student, Hollar, searches him out and asks him to smuggle his thesis on ethics to the West. The professor, a worldly and clever Oxbridge type, is uncertain, and in conversation with Hollar debates the rights and wrongs of doing what his student asks. Hollar tells him that when he is unsure of what’s right and wrong he has a simple way of settling the matter: he asks his eight-year-old son. And indeed his thesis is based on the idea of “a sense of right and wrong that precedes utterance,” a sense of “natural justice.”

As a child, you believe—I believed—in this sense of natural justice. In childhood, when, as Dickens so poignantly puts it, the child is small and his world is small, injustice takes the form of, say, being cheated, or, as so often in Pip’s life, of being accused of crimes you have not only not committed but could not have committed (such as having willed your birth to plague the adults). One’s sense of being wronged is visceral and immediate —and we know it to be justified. But Magwitch, Miss Haversham, and Estella confuse things. In his encounters with these compelling but morally ambiguous persons, Pip feels . . . guilty. He is not so much guilty about anything in particular as he is afflicted with a Kafkaesque sense of guilt, one that is existential and, in the end, beyond any apparent cause. By doing the wrong thing for the right reasons—as when he steals food for Magwitch—Pip encounters a new kind of injustice. He is not being cheated, nor is he being falsely accused. In fact he accuses himself, or rather feels the emotion of self-accusation—guilt—at the same time that he loses his sense of natural justice, loses, that is, his bearings. The injustice is no longer something external, happening to him. Instead, the injustice seems to arise directly out of the circumstance of being Pip, that is, of being human. Pip’s sadness, as an adult, is the residue of his guilt and comes from his knowing that there is no natural justice, and worse, that once you have set off for Vanity Fair, as we all do and as we all must, there is no sure way to find your bearings.

A child of the Holocaust, if I am at all a fair example, is a child who knows two powerful truths: that without a sense of natural justice the world is mean, and life a soiled thing; and that survival requires capricious and violent coercion. As a boy, though, I was wholly incapable of capricious and violent coercion. I hated the idea that being a man meant throwing around your fists, and I resisted all assertions that the world is a shithole and I’d better start looking out for Number One, now! But my incapacity troubled me. It is obvious to every boy that the field of meaning is the playing field, which strictly obeys the rules of Darwinian natural selection and whose only morality is: survival of the fittest. It was salving to escape this tangle by living vicariously through Horatio Hornblower, who was steady, wily, tough-minded, but nonetheless good.

At least while he was out on the seas. On land however—and we find Hornblower on land infrequently—he is awkward, diminished, vulnerable, although still recognizably Hornblower. On land, his decisions are not always reliable, and he is, I guess I should say “of course,” especially bad at relationships with women. In the closing sections of Lieutenant Hornblower, after a lot of daring and ingenious triumphs that earn Hornblower promotion to commander, we find him in poverty in a wintry Portsmouth. Peace with Napoleon has been signed, the great Royal Navy has been beached, its ships returned to port or worse, and its officers put on half pay. We now discover that Hornblower’s promotion was never confirmed because peace broke out first, and he has therefore had to live without any regular income at all while he pays back the difference between his lieutenant’s wages and the captain’s pay he earned during his few months in command. Only then, still five months into the future at the time we meet him at Portsmouth, will he finally receive even half pay. In the meantime he lives without an overcoat or much to eat, lodges in a cheap boarding house where he is behind on the rent, and keeps body and soul together through his earnings from games of whist at the Long Rooms, a military club in the port.

What might make others bitter, and might without exaggeration be taken as injustice, is accepted by Hornblower with stoicism, grace, and ingenuity. His ordeal is made a bit easier by the practical help and emotional solace he receives from Maria, the faintly dowdy daughter of his gorgon of a landlady. She mends and brightens his threadbare clothes, feeds him, and even slips money into his pockets, all of which is just about beyond bearing for the proud Hornblower. At the very end of the novel, when war is once more declared, and Hornblower is called again to command, poor Maria is crushed. She can’t hold back, sobs that she wishes she were dead, and—this is the word Forester uses—wails in grief. Bush, who is witness to all this, voices our reaction: “‘Oh, for God’s sake,’” he says, “in disgust.” But Hornblower is incapable of being disgusted by another’s grief, especially as he sees himself to be the cause of it, and especially if the grief is a woman’s . . . and so, naturally, he marries her.

We know he marries her because of the coy pleasure Forester very clearly derives from this, the book’s final paragraph:

She gazed up at Hornblower with adoration shining in her face, and he looked down at her with infinite kindness. And already there was something a little proprietorial about the adoration, and perhaps there was something wistful about the kindness.

Which is not how Hornblower feels about Lady Barbara Wellesley, Wellington’s sister. In Beat to Quarters, where Hornblower battles the Spanish off the coast of Central America, he is ordered to carry her, and her maid, home to England from Panama on his thirty-six-gun warship, the Lydia. Hornblower has little occasion, as a seaman, to encounter women, but when he does it is almost always on shore. He meets Lady Barbara, uniquely, on board his ship. At first he is irritated to have to care for her; she is a distraction and he is at war. Before returning to England he has to take on the much bigger Natividad, which has fifty guns. In Beat to Quarters, the barbarity of battles at sea, in wooden boats that can barely protect the men, without adequate medicines or medical knowledge or even for that matter adequate ventilation —all this, with its brutality, bodily anguish, and loss of life, is baldly displayed. Hornblower expects the aristocratic Lady Barbara to be squeamish and spoiled, but she is neither, proves to be a compassionate but steely and martial companion, as well as an especially able nurse of the many ghoulishly wounded. They fall in love. But as the prospect of arrival at Portsmouth sinks in as an imminent reality, Hornblower finds that

. . . the image of Maria had been much before his eyes of late; Maria, short and tubby, with a tendency to spots in her complexion, with the black silk parasol which she affected . . .

He thinks prudently, moreover, that the “Wellesley family could blast him at their whim. . . . To meddle with Lady Barbara would mean risking utter ruin.” But “then all these cold blooded considerations were swept away to nothing again in a white hot wave of passion as he thought of her, slim and lovely . . . He was trembling with passion, the hot blood running under his skin . . .” Finally: “it was coincidence that his hand should brush against her bare arm as they stood cramped between the table and the locker . . . She was in his arms then, and they kissed, and kissed again.” She tells him his hands are beautiful and that she has loved them ever since she boarded the ship. Hornblower, however, is for once paralyzed. “‘What are we to do?’ he [asks] feebly [!].” He tells her: “I am a married man,” and she replies, “I know that. Are you going to allow that to interfere with—us?” Hornblower hesitates. “She saw the look in his face, and rose abruptly. Her blood and lineage were outraged at this. However veiled her offer had been, it had been refused. She was in a cold rage now.”

The setting is 1808; the publication date is 1939—dates that I bring up because, unlike James Bond, Hornblower is a virtuous figure. There’s never any doubt about his virtue (and virtues) so long as he is strictly in the company of men. In the company of women, though, he is not just uncertain but frequently conflicted, and often enough wayward. Now the Hornblower books were enormously popular, and so I think it’s safe to say that Forester’s treatment of relations between the sexes, and of sex, reflects the outlook of the time. There is something of the suggestion, here and there in the books when women appear, that the time in question is the Napoleonic era, and that, say, the sexual forthrightness of Lady Barbara can be attributed to her “lineage” as an aristocrat in an aristocratic age (but then Charles Lamb’s embarrassment at reading Pamela in the company of a woman suggests something different). One of my first surprises, on rereading the books, was to find not only that Hornblower had a wife but that his emotional and sexual passions are so directly and explicitly on show. Even more, who knew that women could be so straightforward about sex? Upon returning to the novels, I discovered that I didn’t remember anything about the women in the saga. From the point of view of guidance, though, the picture here is nothing like as clear as with Hornblower the leader of men. At sea, Hornblower is always in command; but even at sea, his relation with Lady Barbara turns the tables of power. He is nonplussed; he is unsure of himself; he speaks feebly—all of these unthinkable under any other circumstance. It is as if the boy’s fantasy of adventure can be persuasively turned adult in the theater of war, where human relations are molded by the fierce rules of necessity that every organization devoted to war rigidly imposes on all its members. The common sailors are kidnapped and then brutally schooled into becoming able-bodied seamen (and killers); the officers are strapped into a code of conduct even more rigid than that imposed on the sailors. Once a week the captain reads out loud to the assembled ship’s company the Articles of War, with their merciless warnings against mutiny (even Hornblower worries about the possibilities of mutiny on his ships). The code of conduct that governs relations between men and women seems, in contrast, wholly inadequate. The military code tells you exactly how to behave; but it seems entirely unclear how you’re supposed to behave when a woman presses her leg against yours under the table. Hornblower mainly blushes and obliges. For the young reader all of this must be pretty confusing and, if the reader is a boy, must confirm the troublesome credo that feelings should be kept at a distance, or better, hidden or suppressed, and that whatever happens with women is unfathomable and anyway an exception to the lucid, rule-bound, repressed and repressive world of men. Be a wiseguy, but don’t be a sissy.

On the other hand, or alongside this worldly moral, the Hornblower books—like all novels—appeal to an unworldly judgment, the judgment of a figure you might call the eternal reader. Hornblower’s example is different for us as readers than it is for the characters in the novels because we know what’s behind the façade. When he overcomes fears, or aversions, we know while those other fictional beings living with him don’t know. This is the point not only of omniscience but of all narrative: we know the characters of fiction as we can never know another human being, and as others can never know us. Virtue, in fiction, is sanctioned, then, not along the lines of the usual rules of human relations, which depend upon society (and in this case upon society very much in the sense that Rousseau attributes to it, the society of willing consent and de facto total participation). Nor is virtue in fiction sanctioned by religion, by the Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu . . . God, except by analogy or metaphoric reference. No, instead judgment—implicit but palpable and definitive—is rendered by the collective reader, a divinity present only in the act of reading but in whom the living and the dead, the readers who inhabit the very pages of the books they are reading, equally thrive. This collective conscience frowns upon, or in any event scrupulously examines, the ethos of the playing field: Charlotte Brontë was voicing its credo when she defended Jane Eyre against the religious literary journals of her own time by saying: “Conventionality is not morality.” This collective conscience, the eternal reader, favors the sensitive and morally rigorous over the unreflective doers, insists that truth is beauty and beauty truth (without bothering to declare just what this might mean), and holds the human heart to be most beautiful of all. The eternal reader does not insist on marrying for love but rather on being true to one’s self, which is one version of its faith and is what D. H. Lawrence was talking about when he said, famously, that you have to be so religious to be a novelist.

(The boy Eugene Gant, in Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, his soul bruised by the roughness of his schoolfellows, a devotee, provides a—fulsome, I think is the right word—apologia for the young reader’s agonized faith in literature’s eternal judgment: “His faith was above conviction. Disillusion had come so often that it had awakened in him a strain of bitter suspicion, an occasional mockery, virulent, coarse, cruel, and subtle, which was all the more scalding because of his own pain. Unknowingly, he had begun to build up in himself a vast mythology for which he cared all the more deeply because he realized its untruth. Brokenly, obscurely, he was beginning to feel that it was not truth that men live for—the creative men—but for falsehood. At times his devouring, unsated brain seemed to be beyond his governance: it was a frightful bird whose beak was in his heart, whose talons tore unceasingly at his bowels. And this unsleeping demon wheeled, plunged, revolved about an object, returning suddenly, after it had flown away, with victorious malice, leaving stripped, mean, and common all that he had clothed with wonder.”)

After a time Maria dies and Hornblower marries Lady Barbara. Commodore Hornblower opens with Hornblower—now Captain Sir Horatio Hornblower—in his bath being made ready to receive the ceremonial welcome of the villagers of his new estate, Smallbridge. “Park and orchard and church were all his; he was the squire, a landed gentleman, owner of many acres, being welcomed by his tenantry. . . . This was the climax of a man’s ambition. Fame, wealth, security, love, a child [Richard, his one surviving child by Maria]—he had all that heart could desire. Hornblower, standing at the head of the steps as the parson droned on, was puzzled to find that he was still not happy. . . . [H]e was contemplating the future with faint dismay; dismay at the thought of living on here, and positive distaste at the thought of spending the fashionable season in London . . .”

Just at the end of the ceremony a letter arrives from the Admiralty: he is to be made Commodore and to report immediately for instructions. He is giddy with excitement: “this life here in Smallbridge or in Bond Street need not continue.” He orders his best uniform and sword, the horses and the chariot . . . before he notices that Barbara has all the while been standing next to him. “God, he had forgotten all about her in his excitement, and she was aware of it.” But she puts a brave face on it (of course), and tells him, “And you will come back to me.” “Of course I will,” he responds.

Okay, so this sort of thing goes back to Penelope and Odysseus. Domesticity is the harbor from which the hero sails out into the great world, and to which he returns. Adventure and domesticity are inextricable, and although this is obvious in the books of adventure, it’s essential too to the main tradition of the novel in English, which reverses the center and the periphery, or better the canvas and the frame, making domesticity primary and adventure something out there. At the same time adventure can be incorporated into the domestic, though this can be dangerous and unsettling (as in Wuthering Heights or The Sound and the Fury). In the Hornblower books, though, not to get distracted, Forester lets us down softly from our visions of escape. Life in Smallbridge and Bond Street may seem miserable to Hornblower, who loves nothing better than to be risking his neck out at sea, but even the Slovak boy who read Forester’s novels with utter unreflective absorption knew that life at sea was not for him. He didn’t want to kill anybody, and knew he’d have to settle . . . well, but to settle where? to settle how?

[1] The Hornblower saga includes these eleven books, published in paperback in 1999 by Bay Back Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company: 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.

[2] Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading (New York, 1997), p. 20.

[3] Sanford Sternlicht, C. S. Forester (Boston, 1981), preface.

[4] The impulse to read Pamela in unexpected places, and outdoors, seems to have struck Virginia Woolf, too: “The only peaceful places in the whole city,” she writes in an essay on “Abbeys and Cathedrals,” “are perhaps those old graveyards which have become gardens and playgrounds. . . . Here one might sit and read Pamela from cover to cover.” See Virginia Woolf, The London Scene: Six Essays on London Life (New York, 1975), pp. 50–51

[5] See my memoir under the pen name Jiri Wyatt: Against Capitulation (London, 1984).

[6] Ian Fleming, Casino Royale (New York, 2002), p. 042 [sic].

[7] Penguin Classics, 1996, p. 63.