I think it may have been on my third read through Patrick O’Brian’s marvelous, masterful Aubrey-Maturin series of shipgoing adventures that I decided I would try another series as well: C.S. Forester’s series about Horatio Hornblower. The earliest of these books, written between 1937-1967, predate O’Brian’s by several decades. They are so widely read and so influential (everyone from Hemingway to Gene Roddenberry has loved them) that I was sure I would love them, as well.
Instead, I’ve had to force myself to read them. I read the first in 2001, and it’s taken me until 2013 to read seven of them. Part of it is that (for me) they suffer in comparison with Patrick O’Brian’s mysteries, but most of it is simply that I don’t like Hornblower. Forester has created a character we are supposed to see as admirably flawed: a man who is really courageous, far-seeing, and strategic but sees himself as cowardly and embarrassingly prone to seasickness. This is true (at least at first) but he is also insufferably smug in other areas. He’s cruel and condescending (and unfaithful) to his wife, who was his childhood companion and knew him before he’d climbed the social ladder. He makes her do without basic needs so he can have gold stripes on his sleeves. He’s cutting, sarcastic and moody, and seems to feel he’s entitled to it. His perception of himself as cowardly never changes or grows; this isn’t humility, it’s delusion. Essentially, he’s a major jerk, particularly on land but also frequently at sea.
The battle scenes are exciting, and at least Hornblower with all his moods is not a flogging captain. But the delight, the humor, the music, and the powerful friendship that are at the heart of the O’Brian books are totally lacking here. I read 50 pages of this one and decided that not only is life too short to finish this one, I won’t be reading any more.