Beat to Quarters/The Happy Return
By C. S. Forester
Reviewed by D. Andrew McChesney
In the early nineteenth century, Captain Horatio Hornblower voyages from England, avoiding all contact with land or other ships, and makes a perfect landfall along the Pacific coast of Central America. His secret mission is to support a rebellion against Spain and further England’s efforts against France’s ally. But when he arrives, he finds the rebel leader mad, and that Spain has changed sides. These events counter the original intent of Hornblower’s orders. Having already captured a ship larger than his thirty-six gun frigate, Lydia, he is now forced to pursue and defeat Natividad again. His life is further complicated by the presence of Lady Barbara Wellesley and the cavalier attitude of Spanish authorities in Panama.
This story takes place a good way into Hornblower’s career, but it was the first of the series written by Forester. Many back story details do not match those in later books covering the earlier portions of Hornblower’s life. Beat to Quarters reads as if William Bush is serving with Hornblower for the first time. No mention is made of them having been lieutenants in Renown, or captain and first lieutenant aboard Hotspur. In this accounting, Hornblower had been a lieutenant, rather than a post captain during the capture of the Castilla, as later described in Hornblower and the Atropos.
Hornblower’s age does not add up either. He is mentioned as being thirty-seven years old, and if he was indeed born on July 4, 1776, this story would have taken place in 1813. Yet C. S. Forester’s Hornblower Companion shows the majority of this adventure occurring in July of 1808. This book mentions six years have passed since capturing Castilla, while more recent writings suggest that Hornblower went directly from commanding Atropos to captaining Lydia.
These discrepancies can be attributed to Forester writing the Hornblower books in non chronological order. They were not written in order of his career, but were penned at various times to fill gaps existing in the over all story. The author appears to have been developing the story over the entire time it was being written.
These are minor complaints regarding an excellent story. As always, Forester’s writing is clear, precise, and a pleasure to read. Written in the 1930s, it reflects the style and sentiment of an earlier time. Profanity and graphic detail are nearly non-existent, and much of the narration is from a greater distance than is currently acceptable. While some readers might be offended by national and racial stereotyping, it is relatively mild and simply reflects the time in which the story was written. Perhaps it also is indicative of the time in which it is set.
It is the creation of the complex character known as Horatio Hornblower in which Forester excels. Here is an individual who comes across, not as a hero, sure of his abilities, but as one with perhaps more than his share of human frailties. Despite his intelligence and bravery, Hornblower cannot see himself as others do. It is his fear of failure, his feeling that he is unworthy, that drives him to achieve the impossible. Even then, success is not a mark of accomplishment, but a sign of survival. Hornblower’s inability to see his true worth makes him that much more human. Therefore he does not come across as a larger than life character, but as one whom nearly everyone can identify with.
Beat to Quarters/The Happy Return is the first part of a three part series, usually referred to as Captain Horatio Hornblower. It was soon followed by Ship of the Line and Flying Colours. Those three stories were combined in the early 1950s movie Captain Horatio Hornblower, starring Gregory Peck and Virginia Mayo. As it usually happens, many details of the story were changed in producing the movie. A few characters exist in the film that did not appear in print, even though scenes can often be identified and crossed from one version to the next. A notable characteristic of the film is that about three-quarters of it deal with events from the first of the three books. These events are covered in great if not always exacting detail. The last portion of the movie basically provides a visual synopsis of the remainder of the overall story. Ship of the Line and Flying Colours are pretty much glossed over as the film winds its way to a conclusion.
Unlike past reviews of C. S. Forester’s Hornblower books, this reviewer did not note any technical problems regarding the author’s descriptions of vessels or weaponry. If any existed, it may have escaped attention due to a more concentrated search for inconsistencies between this and other stories of the Hornblower saga.
As the United States of America prepares to celebrate its 235th Anniversary, let all those who appreciate the character of Horatio Hornblower prepare to celebrate his Birthday as well. We might all wonder at C. S. Forester’s motivation in designating July 4, 1776 as the date of birth for his most famous character, but regardless of his reasons, Happy Birthday USA, and Happy Birthday Horatio Hornblower!
This reviewer considers himself to be quite fortunate in having copies of the three earliest Hornblower books dating from the time of first publication. They can not with certainty be said to be first editions, and their physical condition is such that they are probably not of any great value. Yet they are old enough to give Copyright dates of 1938 and 1939. Nor do they list any ISBN or Library of Congress information.