Beat to Quarters

beat-to-quartersBeat to Quarters is, in one sense, the first novel in the famous series of Horatio Hornblower novels by C.S. Forester, and in another sense it’s the sixth. This is, in fact, the first novel Forester published about Hornblower, a captain in Her Majesty’s Navy during the early part of the 19th century. He went on to publish ten more, some of which chronicle Hornblower’s life before Beat to Quarters, and some of which follow his career after it. I happen to be reading them not in published order but in the order of Hornblower’s career, so I find myself only now, after five other novels, encountering the first information other readers ever see.

It’s 1808, and Hornblower’s ship, the Lydia, is just off Nicaragua. He has orders to sail to the Spanish Main and form an alliance against the Spanish colonial government with a landowner he will find there. The orders, like so many others, are vague and ambitious, but a man with good luck, good judgement, and good seamanship may make his fortune here. Then Hornblower discovers that his ally, the landowner, is insane (he calls himself El Supremo and believes himself to be a god), that there is a fifty-gun Spanish frigate lurking in the area, and that, worst of all, a woman wants to come on board for passage to England.

This book, like the rest of the Hornblower novels, makes for entertaining reading, but to be honest with you, I felt the entire time as if I was cheating on it — in the arms of one book and thinking of another. I am such a complete, helpless, utter fan of the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey-Maturin novels that these books are pale substitutes. I read them and think, “What would Jack do in this situation?” or “Stephen would have taken him up with a round turn,” or “He ought to know that the confidence of the captain affects the whole ship — oh, dear, that’s not this book.” I will say that toward the end of this one, when Lady Barbara Wellesley becomes a more important character, I was more drawn in and able to forget my odious comparisons. But overall, I would recommend Patrick O’Brian ten times out of ten over these. Still, in the absence of new O’Brian books, these are solid, enjoyable seafaring reads. They’re just not the superlative joy I’ve come to expect from the sea.

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7 Responses to Beat to Quarters

  1. Danielle says:

    We seem to have very similar interests these days–I just pulled out the third book (Hornblower and the Hotspur), which I’m contemplating reading. I also want to read them in the chronological order. I love a good adventure story and Hornblower is the perfect English gentleman–even if he is a sailor (maybe because he’s a sailor). Have you seen the A&E adaptations? They are what got me hooked initially.

  2. Danielle says:

    Duh–so sorry. I didn’t realize there were two authors here (how long have I been reading thinking there was just one person). So I have similar tastes to bother readers here! :)

  3. Eva says:

    That’s so funny; I love the Hornblower series, but I don’t enjoy Patrick O’Brian much at all. :)

  4. Jenny says:

    Danielle — Yes, I did see the A&E adaptations, which I thought were wonderful (better than the books, maybe, in that Hornblower is not quite so morose and lost in recriminations all the time.) Good adventure is what these are all about. Board ’em in the smoke!

    Eva — Then you and I can never be friends. Kidding! But I have read the entire Aubrey-Maturin series three times and will probably read it three more at least before I die. I am completely devoted to the power of the friendship that drives it, the humor throughout it, and the beauty and humanism of the writing. I do know it’s not to everyone’s taste. :)

  5. Preserved says:

    Which ain’t O’Brian the best historical novelist ever, ain’t he?
    I am an O’Brian addict. My family is grateful there is no parallel group (yet) similar to the Trekkies. I would be at the conventions. I have read the series twice in five years. In between, I’ve read the Hornblower series–good training for O’Brian which has more depth. Cochrane, “The Sea Wolf”, who Aubrey and Hornblower are modeled after is a fascinating study. His real life heroics are as incredible as any described in O’Brian or Forester. He was beloved by the British public, survived scandal, died in his mid 80s and was accorded a hero’s burial at Westminster Abbey. There are several biographies. Cordingly’s is the latest. David Cordingly’s The Billy Ruffian: The Bellerophon and the Downfall of Napoleon is an in depth study of the building and fighting of the HMS Bellerophon in all the major sea battles of the Napoleonic war and it was the ship who Napoleon surrendered to before being sent to Elba. It is a remarkable read. Under Enemy Colors by S.Thomas Russell is a recent Napoleonic sea novel about a British officer who has a French mother. It too is excellent. I hope Thomas writes another sea novel. The A & E Hornblower series in the boxed set is a good change of pace from reading and it is well done. O’Brian isn’t for everyone, but if one reads the first three books, there is no choice but to read the remaining 17 + 3 chapters. There’s not a minute to lose. Arrgh!

  6. Jenny says:

    Preserved Killick, what are you doing here, for all love? Give you joy of the meeting, and welcome aboard. Thanks for the wonderful recommendations, especially the Russell. I’m feeling the temptation to embark on another re-read. There’s nothing like it in all the world.

  7. Preserved says:

    You are preaching to the choir regarding O’Brian. You have the record re-read on him as far as I know. I am sure to read him again in a few years. I’m pleasantly stuck in the sea novel reading rut; I’m just about a third of the way through Moby Dick, the one sea novel that everyone was supposed to have read in high school or college but never did.

    One feature of the edition that I’m reading is a glossary of arcane terms and archaic words/phraseology on the page’s bottom that the text appears. If only O’Brian had done that. That and a rip-out page for the masts and sails like the one that is in the front of each book. ;)

    For a Christmas present, my wife gave me a copy of Lobcouse & Spotted Dog, by the Amiable Sluts (their words) Anne Chotzinoff Grossman and Lisa Grossman Thomas. It is a must for O’Brian addicts. It has recipes of all meals described by O’Brian with the text quoted wherein the recipe was mentioned. O’Brian, Aubrey, Maturin and I share a common addiction-a good cup of Hot Joe. In the back of each book I kept a running tally of the number of times and page that “coffee” appeared on. Little did I know that the Amiable Sluts had already counted 486 times in the first 18 novels without counting “coffee-house” or “coffee-room.” Every novel mentions Killick’s skill at making a great pot of coffee. There is a enough text about coffee to create a daily calendar for each day of the year. (Hint: W.W. Norton & Co.)

    The most poignant scene in the series for me was in the Reverse of the Medal when Jack executed his sentence of pillory. To visualise his past and present shipmates, from able seamen to Post Captains, unexpectedly showing up and surrounding him by the hundreds to honor and protect him was truly touching and to me perfectly captured the love and affection that they had for their friend and superior at a time when he was at his lowest.

    If you have already seen this site, you will enjoy this one:
    I especially like the article by Ken Ringle “Appreciation” on the naming of the Baltimore Clipper “Ringle”, the sloop Aubrey won from Heneage Dundas in a game of whist.

    Give you joy and remember to keep the weather gauge.

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