Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower

The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower
© 1970 C. Northcote Parkinson
304 pages

Last week I finished C.S. Forester's series of sea stories following the adventures of Horatio Hornblower, a navy man who rose to prominence during the Napoleonic Wars. I began the series in the spring, and early in the summer a fellow student -- also a Hornblower reader -- brought this book to my attention. The idea of a Hornblower biography amused me immediately, although I doubt I would have heard of it had she not asked me about it. (I had to send for the book through England.)

Parkinson's account begins by expressing his gratitude to Forester for having brought the life of Hornblower to the attention of the British public, as well a his sorrow that Forester died before completing his fiction series based on the life of Hornblower. This biography, drawing from Forester's sources as well as from newly-discovered boxes of letters and other correspondence that Forester did not have access to, aims to complete the story of Hornblower and fill in the gaps that Forester left for one reason or another. It is a tribute to both Forester and Hornblower.

"Portrait of Sir Horatio Hornblower, K.B., painted by Sir William Beechey, R.A. in 1811 and now in the possession of the present Viscount Hornblower."' From the inside cover.

The chapters are separated by rank, which coincides nicely with the books, particularly the omnibus collections. When Parkinson's text overlaps with Forester's novels, the result tends toward concise summaries supplemented by maps and letters written by or about Hornblower. There are also image plates: a portrait of Hornblower, the title page of a book he owned in childhood with his signature, that sort of thing. Parkinson doesn't give Hornblower many new adventures in his twenty years at sea: I assume he's somewhat constricted by Forester's timeline. Beyond background information, there is new material here both in the chapter on Hornblower's early life and the chapters which focus on his later years following the final defeat of Napoleon. Hornblower takes an interest in steam-driven vessels and helps establish a commercial shipping firm whose fleet is wholly steam-based.  Appendices include information on Hornblower's descendants (his progeny were at Dunkirk and D-Day) and a letter written by Hornblower in regards to the Renoun affair, in which he was nearly branded a mutineer when the mentally unfit Captain Sawyer mysteriously fell down into the hold prior to the ship's encounter with a Spanish fort. (Parkinson's account of the events is considerably less dramatic than Forester's:  Hornblower and his fellow lieutenants are court-martialed for mutiny and attempted murder of a Royal officer in Forester's stories, whereas in Parkinson's "real" account, only the first lieutenant was placed on trial -- and not for attempted murder, either, but for presuming command when Sawyer was only insane and not yet dead.)

The intended audience is limited from the start -- consisting wholly of Hornblower readers, I imagine -- and it is they who will enjoy this. While it isn't a must-read for Hornblower fans, it will probably be enjoyable to those who enjoyed Forester's stories of his life at sea.


  1. Do you happen to have the 1970 hardcover edition? I am looking for a good image of Plate 13, Lady Barbara Leighton. The later paperback doesn't include the plates.

  2. I'm afraid not; the cover scanned was of my paperback copy.


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