Review by George S. The Happy Return was the first of Forester’s Hornblower novels to be published, though later books would fill in the hero’s earlier career. The book’s beginning plunges us straight into the action, with Captain Hornblower arriving in South America to begin a risky mission.
He and his ship, the Lydia, have been sent to give British assistance to Don Julian Alvorado, a rebel against the Spanish authorities. When Hornblower meets Alvarado, he turns out to be an absurd maniac with delusions of grandeur who calls himself el Supremo and rules his subjects sadistically. Those who oppose him are tied to posts and left to die of thirst.
Hornblower obeys his orders, and attacks the Spanish ship that has come to bombard the rebels. The small but nifty Lydia defeats the Natividad, a fifty-gun two decker, in the first of the book’s brilliantly described naval battles. The Natividad is handed over to el Supremo.
When Hornblower reaches Panama, however, he receives new orders. Britain is now in alliance with Spain; political considerations mean that he must now head south again to recapture the Natividad from el Supremo.
This mission is complicated by the presence on board the Lydia of Lady Barbara Wellesley (the Duke of Wellington’s sister) who has demanded that Hornblower transport her back to Europe. He does so unwillingly, though he gradually comes to feel very attracted to her. He makes no advances, though, partly because he is married, and partly because of the social gulf between them.
The action passages are very well done, especially the second fight with the Natividad – fifty truly gripping pages. In addition, Forester is in clear command of his historical and naval detail – or at least writes with an authority that convinces the reader. What lifts the book above the genre of adventure yarn, though, is the character of Hornblower, a man having to deal with the difficulties of leadership.
We first see him pacing his quarterdeck, in a lonely morning ritual that must not be interrupted. He is composing himself for another day in which he must wear the imperturbable mask of command. The book’s real drama is in the contrast between this mask of command and the man behind it. Hornblower is a sensitive and uncertain man, but has to disguise this, just as he has to disguise his feelings of revulsion when one of his sailors is flogged. (One of his officers has ordered the punishment, and the officer must be supported.)
Hornblower was always able (rather against his will) to do what most of his officers failed to do – he saw his men not as topmen or hands, but as what they had been before the press caught them, stevedores, wherry men, porters.
His position as Captain means that he cannot speak his real feelings to anyone – even to Bush, his loyal first lieutenant. His suppressing of his feelings often makes him seem inarticulate: ‘Ha-h’m’ is often his verbal response, as though he is repressing words more expressive of his feelings.
Immediately after reading The Happy Return, I re-read the novel that Forester had published the year before, The General, a study of a First World War general whose ineptitude costs the lives of thousands. I was surprised by the similarities between the two characters – Curzon, the ‘donkey’ general, and Hornblower, the brilliant naval strategist. Both are personally brave, dedicated to their jobs, and yet socially uncertain. the difference between them is that Hornblower has imagination and a flexible tactical intelligence. I’ve written about the pair of them on my Great War Fiction blog.
This is the first of the Hornblower series to be written, and later books in the series would fill in the hero’s early career as well as describing his later exploits. It is a page-turner, but more than that. Hornblower is a three-dimensional character, and the book has interesting things to say about the psychology of command.
Forester is one of the twentieth-century novelists who found a very large middlebrow audience, and thereby exempted themselves from serious critical appreciation. Forester’s son John, in an interesting and ambivalent essay about his father, gives us this insight into how Forester saw himself in relation to more respectably literary fiction:
My father recognized his own standing, as he wrote to his mistress and literary advisor, Frances Phillips, after reading half a dozen novels by Orwell.
“I’ve been quite drunk over them. And smug. I’ve been able to tell myself that I can write novels better than Orwell could-N.B. that doesn’t mean the same as saying that I can write better novels. Some of his technique isn’t so good, especially when he’s handling plants for conversation. He has the clarity of mind, and so on, but he hasn’t the low cunning.”
I’ve read five Forester novels now, and I’d say that he possesses both the cunning and the clarity, in generous measures.