Hornblower and the Atropos
C. S. Forester
Reviewed by D. Andrew McChesney
After reading Hornblower during the Crisis, a work which felt unrefined and not quite ready for publication, it was a joy to begin Hornblower and the Atropos. This book follows the former in terms of Hornblower’s life and career, but it was written at an earlier time.
The beginning presents a rare view of Hornblower as husband and father. He is accompanied by Maria, expecting their second child, and little Horatio as he journeys via canal to London. There Hornblower is to take up his first command as a post captain in the Royal Navy. Despite his sometimes callous treatment, it is apparent that Hornblower has grown quite attached and protective of Maria. While he seems to relish domestic life, it is clear that the Navy and devotion to duty are at the forefront of his priorities.
Once in London, finally in command of HMS Atropos, and facing the eminent birth of his second child, Hornblower is detailed to organize the water-borne portion of Lord Nelson’s funeral ceremony. History does not readily provide the name of the individual who actually orchestrated this event, but Forester does well to give the responsibility to Hornblower. With attention to detail and a sharp fear of failure, the relatively junior post captain succeeds, even when faced with the near sinking of the barge carrying Nelson’s remains. While quite hilarious in some ways, this incident is another challenge for Hornblower to overcome.
Further endeavors include the capture of a French privateer masquerading as a British trawler, the recovery of treasure from under the noses of the Turkish authorities, and the capture of a large Spanish frigate. Further complicating Hornblower’s life is the presence of a German prince, a relative of King George III, his Secretary of State, three divers from Ceylon, and a rather unpleasant salvage master.
Hornblower and the Atropos is one of the better books in the saga. He comes across as a likable and real individual, carrying for his wife and family, dedicated to his duty, and all the while, unsure of his abilities. As always, Hornblower cannot realize that others, his superiors, see and appreciate those skills.
This book is Forester at his best. Even so, as with nearly all of the series, certain technical questions arise. Once again there is the title vessel’s classification. Quite often Atropos is referred to as a sloop, even though rated at twenty-two guns. Normally a sloop-of-war carried fourteen, sixteen, or eighteen guns and was captained by a master and commander. Being a vessel of twenty guns or more, Atropos would have rated a post captain in command and would have been referred to as a “post ship” or a “sixth-rate.” When Atropos faces Castilla, the latter is described as carrying forty-four eighteen pounder guns. A typical forty-four gun frigate would have carried that many guns or more, but not all would have fired the same weight of shot. Twenty-eight or thirty guns firing the nominal weight of shot would have equipped the gun deck. Weapons mounted on the forecastle and quarterdeck would have been of lighter weight, nine pounders, perhaps, if they were traditional naval guns. Carronades may well have fired shot heavier than those on the gun deck.
The copy of Hornblower and the Atropos read for this review was published by Back Bay Books in 1999. ISBN is 0-316-28929-9. Cover price was at the time of printing, $13.95 US.