Beat to quarters

Beat to quarters / C.S. Forester. Originally published 1937.

Beat to quarters (UK title: The happy return) is the first book in the Horatio Hornblower series. Chronologically, it takes place somewhere past the midpoint of the character’s career.* The Hornblower books are the best well-known of the Napoleonic naval novels and were turned into a series of films by A&E.  A favorite of Hemingway and Winston Churchill, the series is a classic of the historical adventure genre.

*Yes, I read these in publication order while I read the Vorkosigan saga in internal chronological order. I never said I was consistent.

Brief plot description

(Spoiler free)

Horatio Hornblower is captain of the frigate HMS Lydia tasked with supplying a colonial Spanish governor for a revolt. The situation is complicated by his obligation to take Lady Barbara Wellesley as a passenger.

So how is it?

This is actually a somewhat complicated question. Beat to quarters is a fun adventure story that pushes all the right buttons for fans of the genre, but there are some aspects that haven’t aged well.

The central element of Beat to quarters is Captain Hornblower’s internal dilemmas. Incredibly insecure, Hornblower finds himself torn between his duty to his country and his personal moral code. To make matters worse, he must also struggle with his attraction to the Lady Wellesley in the face of his loveless marriage. Forester’s internal conflicts are brought to the fore, in an unusual move for what is essentially a straightforward adventure à la early 19th century James Bond: exotic locales, beautiful women, and narrow escapes, but while Bond is essentially a psycopath in Fleming’s novels, Hornblower is constantly questioning himself. It’s heavily implied that his lack of self-confidence and his struggles to deal with it are his great strength: the effort he puts into masking his insecurity is what enables him to accomplish feats where other officers would balk. Whether or not that’s a healthy way to handle your insecurity is outside the scope of this blog but it’s worth considering.

The major problem with this book, and the Hornblower series in general, is that Hornblower is profoundly, mind-bogglingly racist. His concern for the natives of Nicaragua is essentially of the “oh these poor savages” sort and it is repeatedly established that he insists on having an all-white crew. It’s not just the character’s attitudes that are racist, it penetrates the characterization as well; Lady Wellesley’s maid is essentially Prissy from Gone with the wind. Unlike the Aubrey-Maturin books, this racism goes pretty much unexamined here. This might have been unremarkable when the book was originally published, but from a 2014 perspective it’s blatant and makes the book seem embarrassingly backwards.

Strengths:

An introspective main character unusual for its genre

An entertaining adventure story

Weaknesses:

Rampant racism

Extensive use of naval terminology (although not as technical as in the Aubrey-Maturin novels)

Recommendation:

The overt racism makes this book tough to recommend. I have recommended it, with that caveat, a number of times to people I knew well. It’s a good read if you can look past the racism (and, to a lesser extent, the sexism that is virtually universal in books of that time).

It’s possible that I’m overstating the racism angle, but it was honestly fairly shocking to me. The A&E series (which is excellent) elides this element of the stories and they certainly don’t suffer for it.

Beat to quarters is approximately on par with Gone with the wind as far as racism goes, so if that doesn’t bother then this won’t either. Still, it takes this book from an unqualified recommendation to a cautious one.

Most of the individuals I would recommend this book to have already read it, as it’s more than 70 years old, is an easy and quick read, and is widely known. Still, I have recommended it a couple of times, once to a father looking for a travel-related adventure story and to a fan of Alexander Kent’s Bolitho novels. I’d recommend this to teens looking for good historical fiction, but as I’ve stated many times in this review, the racism makes me hesitant. I’m probably being over-cautious in that regard.

Other books for people who enjoyed this one:

The complete midshipman Bolitho / Alexander Kent

Flying colours / C.S. Forester

Master and commander / Patrick O’Brian

Bloody Jack / L.A. Meyer

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