Tuesday, December 01, 2020

The Dangerous and Enticing Voyage

Life in the Royal Navy in the Age of Sail can look fascinating and frightening at the same time. Part of the attraction is its impenetrability. We can understand the human element yet, for many people, the language is elusive both for the period setting and for the technical terms that must be employed. The sense of the rarity of any great writer making something not only intelligible but engaging in the genre is part of the appeal of any nautical classic. One of the best of these must surely be 1937's The Happy Return, the first in C.S. Forester's long running series about the fictional officer Horatio Hornblower. It must be one of the most perfectly constructed adventure novels of all time. Forester shows a deftness at introducing characters and ideas without tipping his hand as to how they're going to pay off. The lack of close proximity of characters during sea battles is adroitly offset by the introduction of characters in different contexts. The romantic angle is kept nicely restrained, meanwhile, hovering in the delicious potential of ruin, both physical and social. And all of it is linked together, made to move with endlessly compelling tension, by the third person narrative being almost invariably placed at the point of view of the protagonist, Horatio Hornblower.

Captain of a frigate called the Lydia, the novel begins with Hornblower having sailed to the west coast of Central America from England without ever being seen or making landfall. Since this includes making the dangerous trip around Cape Horn, this is quite an accomplishment yet Forester here, as in many places throughout the novel, has Hornblower check his own ego by contemplating the other responsibilities and uncertainties on his plate. He has to replenish supplies, he has to find a safe place to drop anchor, he has to make contact with the local rebel lord in the hopes of finding an ally against Spain. Set during the Napoleanic wars, England at the time of the novel hopes to unseat Spain's near monopoly on colonial possessions in Central and South America. Forester brings reality to Hornblower's anxieties by describing the steps he must take in determining the depth of the water near shore and, above all, his monitoring of the crew morale and the image he projects as captain. Every practical challenge in the book is overshadowed by Hornblower's mindfulness of the next. This has the effect of both humanising him and conveying a sense of his great talent for leadership.

Like a lot of genre fiction from the period, The Happy Return benefits from the innovations of Modernists like Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce. Forester's book has the appreciation for the romance and potentially ennobling nature of war while also keeping an eye to its ugliness and drudgery. One legacy of those who reacted against the sentimentalism of Victorian poetry was to strengthen the effect of those who revived the Victorian interest in waxing eloquent about war and despair. The battle scenes in The Happy Return don't skimp on the horrific injuries and mutilations or the great equaliser that is a mere splinter of wood, propelled at speed by the impact of a cannon ball.

He does all this so well, it's hard to imagine he could be equally adept at writing a relationship of subtle sexual tension between a man and a woman. But he is. About a third of the way through the novel, a young English noblewoman called Lady Barbara comes aboard, all but demanding transport back to England. A strong minded and independent woman, one can see shades of The African Queen as both she and Hornblower learn to respect each other after a series of misapprehensions both have about the other's world. Her presence aboard also emphasises the drama when the Lydia is terrifically damaged. Forester wisely refrains from making her a cream puff--she's more interesting because she rises to the occasion.

Forester uses sailing terms freely throughout the book without explaining them. Having studied the terminology myself, I have no idea how intelligible the book is to someone who hasn't. But it added greatly to the excitement for me. It's fun to be able to draw on obscure knowledge and Forester certainly rewards such a reader plentifully.

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