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The last, unfinished adventure of Horatio Hornblower

There is, sometimes, something to be said for the unfinished novel. Some, it is true, can be sorry affairs, finished off by someone other than the author (either at the request of said author, or for commercial reasons). Others end at around the half-way point and if they do get published they become are the subject of ongoing fascination among fans – just who did kill Edwin Drood, for example?

The latter was what happened to the last work of C.S. Forester, who is best remembered these days for being the creator of Horatio Hornblower, a naval officer at the time of the Napoleonic Wars who has been portrayed by the likes of Gregory Peck (in a 1951 movie) and Ioan Gruffudd (in the TV series). When Forester died – fifty-one years ago, at the age of 66 – he was working on Hornblower and the Crisis, the eleventh novel to feature that character.

Forester had been an author with over a decade’s-worth of novels under his belt when he introduced Hornblower to the reading public in 1937. The first Hornblower adventure, The Happy Return (published as Beat to Quarters in the USA), was set in the Pacific and drew inspiration from the fact that in the early nineteenth century, it could take several weeks for news of a cessation of hostilities to reach combatants out on the other side of the world (as happened in the War of 1812, when fighting continued in America for two months after the peace treaty had been signed in Europe); Forester was nothing if not a thorough researcher when it came to planning his historical novels, and the level of historical detail in them reflects this.

Basically, the plot of The Happy Return is that Hornblower’s ship, HMS Lydia, has been sent to the Pacific to assist rebels fighting against Britain’s enemy, Spain. Thanks largely to her captain’s tactical brilliance, the Lydia attacks and captures a bigger Spanish warship which is handed over to the rebels. Alas, Hornblower subsequently finds out that since he set sail with his orders Britain has become allied with Spain, meaning that he has unknowingly weakened his country’s new ally and therefore has no option but to find said ship again and, this time, sink it. Hornblower subsequently returned in A Ship of the Line (where he was attacking the French in the Mediterranean) and the follow-up Flying Colours (dealing with his daring escape from captivity in France after being forced to surrender). Coming out as the world prepared for war once again, they were huge hits, with the likes of Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and P.G. Wodehouse counting themselves as fans.

When he first appeared in print, Hornblower was already a captain. Later adventures focussed on his earlier career, as a midshipman on the Indefatigable under Sir Edward Pellew (a real person, who really was captain of said ship) and later as a lieutenant and a junior commanding officer. Forester was always careful not to have Hornblower take part in the big battles of the era; these, he felt, had already been documented enough without authors messing around by inserting fictional heroes and ships into the narrative. Thus, Hornblower isn’t in the thick of things at the Nile or Trafalgar, and although numerous real people are in the books as supporting characters (none more so than Pellew, although Hornblower also meets with such luminaries as Admiral Jervis, a young Lord Palmerston and even George III), the only time we encounter Lord Nelson is when Hornblower is involved in his funeral procession (which forms the opener to Hornblower and the Atropos).

Many of the authors who were influenced by Forester in the historical fiction genre (and his influence on this was immense) have not been so restrained. The likes of Lord Ramage, Richard Bolitho, Matthew Lawe (the cowardly protagonist of Nicholas Monsarrat’s last work, The Master Mariner) and even the soldier Richard Sharpe would all later find themselves at Trafalgar.

The run-up to Trafalgar, though, is the setting for Hornblower and the Crisis – the unfinished work of the series. Perhaps because it was unfinished, this has never been included in the omnibus editions of the Hornblower novels, with the same going for the five or so separate short stories that Forester wrote for various magazines. I don’t know why this was the case, and it is a shame that the publishers have made the decision they did, although two of the short stories – one featuring Hornblower as a recently-promoted lieutenant, the other as an elderly retired admiral – are included in Hornblower and the Crisis, presumably with a view to padding it out a bit.

The story, such as it is, follows on directly from the ending of Hornblower and the Hotspur, the last complete Hornblower novel that Forester wrote, and it goes thus: Having been relieved of his command of the Hotspur due to his being promoted by Admiral Cornwallis (another real person), Hornblower has to make his way back to the Admiralty in London in order to get his promotion confirmed before he can be put in command of another ship. This is easier said than done, but thanks to an encounter with a French ship on the way home (when Hornblower’s around, it rarely ends well for the French) he is able to bring along some captured dispatches that turn out to contain a new seal being used by Napoleon Bonaparte as well as his new signature (having proclaimed himself as Emperor, he now signs his orders as ‘Napoleon’ rather than ‘Bonaparte’). The Secretaries to the Admiralty (William Marsden and John Barrow, both real people) are pleased. While Hornblower’s in London, the news of Admiral Calder’s indecisive engagement with the French Admiral Villeneuve reaches the Admiralty; as a result, the French fleet, which Bonaparte will need if he’s to stand any chance of invading Britain and which the British therefore wish to destroy, is intact and safe in Ferrol, a Spanish harbour that’s difficult to blockade – as Hornblower knows only too well, having previously been a prisoner there (for this, please refer to Mr Midshipman Hornblower).

Despite thinking that he may be acting rashly, something that this most introspective of fictional heroes is constantly chiding himself for, Hornblower proposes a plan to send fake orders – bearing a facsimile of Boney’s new signature – to Villeneuve to get him to leave port; this is what Nelson, who’s been chasing Villeneuve across the Atlantic, wants. After a meeting between the Admiralty secretaries and a convicted forger who agrees to create the fake orders in exchange for his life, Hornblower is somewhat taken aback to learn that, addition to confirming his promotion, the bureaucrats want him to carry out the mission.

He’d like to refuse, because all he really wants is to be given command of a warship so that he can go and fight the French at sea, but he can’t. Fictional military and naval heroes do not, as a rule, tend to like the business of spying – whatever the era in which their adventures are set. But orders are orders, and if they’re told to do it, they’ll do it. It’s at this point, with our hero coming to terms with the fact that he’s about to become a spy, that the story abruptly ends. Shame, because it was shaping up to be a belter (and it wouldn’t have been the first time Hornblower went out of his comfort zone and had had an adventure mainly on land, either). There follows a very brief summary which tells the reader that, according to Forester’s notes, the plan was for some more introspection followed by the mission in France and Spain, which would result in the French fleet putting to sea, leading to the decisive British victory at Trafalgar.

So there we have it – Horatio Hornblower doesn’t fight at Trafalgar, but he does play a key role in getting the French fleet to put to sea so that the battle can take place. Or rather, he would have done. That was to have been C.S. Forester’s great plot twist, but he never lived to finish it.

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