A Ship of the Line by C S Forester, is an adventure story. It is a love story. It is a war story. It recounts social attitudes and political history.
We join Hornblower as he takes command of his Dutch-built British-captured ship of the line – definition: ‘a square-rigged warship having at least two gun decks and designed to be positioned for battle in a line with other such ships’ – HMS Sutherland near Plymouth. We are alongside him ashore as he struggles to sleep next to his wife the dowdy Maria. We accompany him to the party of his (unfulfilled) paramour from the previous cruise in the Gulf of Mexico – Lady Barbara Leighton (her newly-married name) – and her husband who is to be his new boss. Afloat, we are with him when the Sutherland escorts and defends a ‘John Company’ fleet, and then plunders it for its seamen. We successfully harass a French fleet and Italian troops near Rosas. We witness the attack on two French luggers, we harass the Spanish shoreline, sink barges on the canals of the midi, rescue HMS Pluto. “And then – a bellowing roar, and [a French ship’s] broadside came tearing into the Sutherland… ’Oh, stop’ muttered Hornblower. “For God’s sake!”. Surrender.
A Ship of the Line was written by C S Forester in 1936. It is the second of his Hornblower writings, and chronologically the seventh. At the start of the book, we see Hornblower reading the proof of a recruiting poster. It summarises his recent successes and we are reminded of his former captaincy of the Lydia and the sinking of the Natividad. In ‘Some Personal Notes’ CSF recounts how he is reading the proofs of Ship of the Line when his small son John said “Oh, hurry up and finish that Daddy. I want to read it. I liked the first one so much”; the ‘first one’ had been of course, The Happy Return. The Hornblower series was written largely out of chronological order – but Happy Return, Ship of the Line and Flying Colours follow each other in terms of story-sequence, writing and publication.
Oh, the characters we meet. The Coxswain Brown with his superb physique: – “Brown was standing statuesquely on the taffrail, balancing superbly…. He made a magnificent picture”. A Ship’s Boy from Cornwall, newly press-ganged and attending his first Mattins on board ship: – “The hymn meant something to him, at least. He was weeping broken-heartedly…. The big tears running down his cheeks and his nose all-beslobbered. The poor little devil had been touched in one way or another… perhaps the last time he had heard that hymn was in the little church at home, beside his mother and brothers.” Midshipman Longley: – “The boy had his dirk between his teeth in the fashion he had heard about in sailors’ yarns. He looked so foolish hanging in the netting with the great clumsy weapon on his mouth that Hornblower giggled insanely….”. But later: -“Little Longley was at his side now, white faced, miraculously alive after the fall of the mizzen topmast. ‘I’m not frightened. I’m not frightened…. ‘No, sonny, of course you’re not’ said Hornblower. Then Longley was dead….”
British incompetence is undoubted: “That twelve tons of biscuit had been delayed was the result of the usual incompetence of the victualling yard, whose officials seem incapable of reading or writing or figuring”. Other things do not seem to have changed either. ‘“Fi’ pound for twenty-three months’ pay”….The men had been scandalously badly treated, imprisoned in the ship’. It is an inimitable Irish accent we hear calling: “Holy Mary… Will ye look at th’ old bitch?”. Brown’s “’Ere, you. ‘Op in there’”- a moment before – on the other hand, is indisputably cockney.
C S Forester pictures Hornblower in all his personal complexity This is the man who is enraged by the flogging of newly pressed ‘hands’; it is Hornblower who has lent his own money so as to pay the ship’s hands a modicum of what they are owed (retaining just enough to pay his officers’ expenses); Hornblower “could not bear the sight of frightened men being hounded up the rigging by petty officers with ropes’ ends”. Hornblower “hated the idea of people thinking him poor… but Maria, fortunately, was used to poverty and to staving off creditors”. The Man Alone, indeed, but also the man with the personal experience of life’s disappointments and challenges. The Royal Navy ‘is a pitiless, cruel service’ and Hornblower is the man whom our author reveals as calculating its best elements, and progressing his career through it while developing an advanced social conscience.
C S Forester subsumes the reader in an assumption of understanding of naval practice and 19th century terminology. He is a master of the written word; his use of “a Peninsular disregard for the flies” introduces the reader to a new adjective, just as the reader is assumed to know what a pelisse is when Vilena is fully dressed. Avast or Belay are not words of the everyday twentieth century vocabulary, nor indeed is the identification of a limber to be taken for granted.
Personally, I was so gripped by re-reading A Ship of the Line that I found myself going on to the sequential Flying Colours – and indeed, John Forester in the biography of his father ‘Novelist and Storyteller’, comments that CSF viewed Ship of the Line and Flying colours as a single story – followed by ‘Commodore’.
There are personal reminders of the C S Forester Society, too; at the beginning of Sutherland’s voyage one of the East India Company ships is named ‘Walmer Castle’ and we recall the Society’s AGM and visit to Walmer Castle itself, near Dover, in 2014. I believe CSF would have been proud of our Society; founded in Oxford by an English anaesthetist, revived and furthered by a German business manager, driven by Dutchmen and Belgians, with members in France (of all places) the United Kingdom (of course) and all over the world, free of membership charges, publishing a regular magazine Reflections – keeping up with the times, too; initially in print, now ‘virtual’ – meeting almost every year in different countries: it is over two centuries since the putative events of Hornblower took place, and some ninety years since the stories were penned. Our C S Forester Society nears its 25th birthday; a ship of the line, indeed.
Lawrie Brewer, December 2021.