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beat to quarters

12 September 2003

First, there was the Bounty. Or not first; there have been popular novels about war in the age of sail since James Fenimore Cooper's Pilot (1824). Cooper served in the U.S. Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, and wrote about a dozen nautical novels. Though he is more famous today for Natty Bumppo, he once complained that his readers clamored for "more ship!"

The modern "heart of oak" genre got under way when Charles Nordhoff and James Hall published Mutiny on the Bounty and its two sequels (1932-34). The trilogy is still in print, but it has an intrinsic limitation: it tells a self-contained story. By the end of the third volume, the characters are mostly dead, and popular demand for more sequels about the adventures of Captain Bligh has been limited.

The wooden-world genre needed a series hero, and C.S. Forester obliged. Forester stumbled onto Hornblower. He was supposed to be writing a pirate movie. The studio killed the pirate idea when Captain Blood got there first, but Forester got interested in high-seas derring-do, and the result was Beat to Quarters. (Or, The Happy Return, as it's known in Britain, though it is not happy and there's no return. Beat to Quarters makes more sense: it's the order given when all hands must take battle stations, a scene repeated over and over in the novel.)

There are no pirates in Beat to Quarters, but there is a rebellious lunatic named El Supremo. When the young, buttoned-down Captain Horatio Hornblower reaches the west coast of Nicaragua in 1808, at the start of the action, he meets the blithely psychotic Supremo – convinced that he is a god – and the mother of all naval-adventure series is launched.

Beat to Quarters is equal parts sex, violence, and shipfitting. Through it all, Horatio Hornblower remains enigmatic. We get to know him in the sense that we can predict his actions, but his motives remain sketchy. He seems driven by a fear of ridicule (a factor in the making of many successful careers). Forester's fiction is about surfaces and impressions. If you want meditative depths, read Joseph Conrad.

If there's a flaw in Beat to Quarters, it may be Forester's self-conscious adoption of the perspective of the 1930s. In his last books (about Hornblower's earlier career), as throughout Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series, we are immersed in the period; any reflections on our historical distance from Nelson or Napoleon are implicit. The self-consciousness in Beat to Quarters breaks the illusion and makes one think that Forester feels superior to his characters.

But it's not a grave flaw. Ernest Hemingway admired Forester, and Beat to Quarters shows why. Hornblower offers pure narrative without excrescence or digression. The last few years have seen a new uniform edition from Little, Brown. I'd like to rejoice, but, like the Captain, I'd better just say "Ha – h'm."

Forester, C.S. Beat to Quarters (1938; UK title: The Happy Return). Boston: Little, Brown, 1999.