Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower

The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower by C. Northcote Parkinson

For any reader who loves adventure, I can recommend C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower books without reservation. They are written in a clear, accessible style, easily understood by landsmen, and give a fascinating lesson of the history of Europe as well as the Royal Navy. Mr Forester presents the world-famous sailor's entire career, as well as insights to his character and thoughts, and will stand as a definitive depiction of Nelson's navy.

Once the entire series is read and re-read, we can rely on Mr Forester himself to fill out the notes on the writing of the books, with his Hornblower Companion. The body of work is good for many months of enjoyment, but for those who just have to have One More Fix - consider The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower by C. Northcote Parkinson.

The work takes form of a scholarly biography, seriously undertaken and exhaustively researched. Every one of Hornblower's heroic deeds is discussed, and placed into context, with maps and engravings of the most famous exploits. Mr Parkinson treats Forester's work with all the respect it deserves, and then some, for the author then goes on to round out the original books and cast light on a few of the mysteries.

Where, for example, is Smallbridge, and why did the Viscount Hornblower continue to live on an estate barely large enough for a recently-titled Captain?

We knew that Richard Hornblower was "in the service of the young Queen", but why in the cavalry rather than the Royal Navy? What became of Richard, and who are his descendants?

What is the untold story of the odd estrangement between Horatio and Lady Barbara, and what was his relationship with her famous relatives?

Using letters and papers "unavailable" to Mr Forester, Parkinson brings a whole 'nother dimension to the saga of Hornblower, even shedding the final light on the death of Captain Sawyer. Through the entire volume, Parkinson stays faithful to Forester's original work. The added biographical details not only ring true, they are as good and occasionally superior.

Interestingly, Hornblower's uncharacteristic seasickness is never mentioned, but this is also consistent with a biography. If the biographer had only contemporary accounts to draw from, and if Forester's work had also been strictly biographical rather than fictional, the seasickness probably would not have been known. Therefore, something which may be seen as an omission becomes instead a wry inside joke based on the format of the book.

If you are a fan of Hornblower and fail to read The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower, you have missed out on the best of the experience.

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