C S Forester’s Hornblower and the Atropos (1953)

Review by Val H: Boy’s Own Plus.  That’s Hornblower and the Atropos: an exploration of leadership within an exciting swashbuckler.

The action takes place after the Battle of Trafalgar.  The Royal Navy’s Horatio Hornblower is recently promoted to captain, taking command of the King’s smallest ship, HMS Atropos (like Hornblower, an interesting name: Atropos was one of the Fates, whose role was to cut the thread and so end lives).  With Napoleon defeated at Trafalgar, there are big opportunities for advancement.  But, rather than putting to sea at once, Hornblower finds his first task is to organise a procession down the Thames for Nelson’s funeral – a struggle with diplomacy, protocol and navigation.  He is then sent to join a large Mediterranean fleet, to harry Napoleon’s forces and to find what adventure he can.  We see him interacting for the most part with his officers and crew at sea, but also with his wife and children, senior officers, the enemy and even royalty.  There is derring-do, but also the daily struggle to keep a ship in good order and well-provisioned; the routine of naval training; the unsettled life of an officer on shore; and the conduct of a search well outside Hornblower’s experience. The funeral procession is amusing because of its potential for chaos – if you have organised a big corporate or government event, you will understand – but also a particularly good vehicle for displaying Hornblower’s character.

If you are one of the Lords of the Admiralty and it’s time for Hornblower’s annual appraisal, what do you say?  Reviewing his performance, you conclude that Hornblower is a gifted captains, with the potential for promotion to the senior ranks, even though he lacks the necessary early 19th century patronage.   He is an excellent strategist and bold tactician, a fine leader and a good manager, albeit with odd notions about corporal punishment.  He has an eye for detail but also clarity, decision and imagination.  He is expert in using the available technology and resources and he strives always to improve himself and his crew.

All good so far.  Areas for improvement?  Well, he could do better at relationship management. Issuing orders, his communication skills are excellent but he is less good at nurturing relationships with senior staff, high-placed officials etc.  He could be a better delegator.  Most troubling of all, while in action he is confident, he is an exceptionally self-critical perfectionist – that is, he has no idea how good he is.  In any situation, he believes he could do better and that everyone around him sees only fault and failure, but at the same time he is compelled by his sense of duty to put himself and others in danger, to succeed in his mission.

The Myers-Briggs personality types, known to so many today from management courses, were of course unavailable to the Admiralty in 1805.  If they had been, Hornblower would surely have been assessed as an ‘INTJ’ type (Introverted iNtuitive Thinking Judging).  He is listed online among fictional INTJs, alongside Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, Captain Picard, George Smiley and Hannibal Lecter.  Here is a description of the type:

INTJs apply (often ruthlessly) the criterion “Does it work?” to everything from their own research efforts to the prevailing social norms. This in turn produces an unusual independence of mind, freeing the INTJ from the constraints of authority, convention, or sentiment for its own sake … INTJs are known as the “Systems Builders” of the types, perhaps in part because they possess the unusual trait of combining imagination and reliability. Whatever system an INTJ happens to be working on is for them the equivalent of a moral cause to an INFJ; both perfectionism and disregard for authority come into play. Personal relationships, particularly romantic ones, can be the INTJ’s Achilles heel … This happens in part because many INTJs do not readily grasp the social rituals … Perhaps the most fundamental problem, however, is that INTJs really want people to make sense. (Heiss, Marina Margaret (February 27, 2005). “Introverted iNtuitive Thinking Judging”)

C S Forester tells his story entirely through Hornblower’s eyes.  This is claustrophobic and can be frustrating (not least because other characters seem thin), but also absorbing over the course of the novel.  We hear his thoughts, share his doubts, feel his way towards plans and solutions (including, very convincingly for an INTJ type, in his carefully thinking about his wife).  We see the actions and reactions of other characters at one remove, and so of course we cannot be sure that we are seeing them correctly.  In fact, we suspect we are not. The perfectionist strives, falls short of impossibly high standards and expects others to condemn even small things, while the rest of the world does not notice.

He sat glowing in the stern-sheets. Anyone seeing his face might well have thought the launch was returning after a complete failure, but it was merely that he was annoyed with himself at not being quick-witted enough to have had the appropriate orders ready… The whole boat’s crew had seen him at a loss. His precious dignity was hurt…he was inclined to sulk in his cabin, but common sense made him…discuss the situation with McCallum.

(All that said, in this novel Hornblower does make a big mistake, but being the man he is, he more or less contrives something.)

A common criticism of historical fiction is that authors endow their characters with the attitudes, beliefs and habits of their own day, rather than the period.  This can help our sympathy for the character, but it can also jar.  Hornblower, for example, has doubts about corporal and capital punishment, which fits more perhaps with our own times.  But Forester is careful not to take it too far.  Hornblower does on occasion use corporal punishment as prescribed, including on the minor royal midshipman who has been wished upon him, but he also reflects on the satisfaction it can give a person infuriated by another’s stupidity.  (Another example, which does not occur in this novel, is Hornblower’s daily shower.  This must have been unusual on an early 19th century ship. I have noticed that historical novelists often give their main characters our hygiene habits, as if this in particular will generate fellow-feeling.)

Another common criticism is the over-use of research, so that action and/or language become clumsy.  Forester wears his research lightly: for example, Hornblower travelling to London by cutting-edge canal transport is convincing and interesting.  Where the amateur reader may have difficulty is in the detail about the operation of the ship: royals, coxwains, gigs and maintacks all running into each other.  What are they?  My approach is not to worry but to press on to the end and work out from Hornblower’s own reactions if things are going well.

This was my first Hornblower, although I have read a Jack Aubrey and all the Sharpe novels.  I found Hornblower endearing and something of an underdog.  It was fascinating to watch his struggles.  I don’t know that I have the patience to do this through all his escapades, but perhaps he develops and matures, and the observation remains of interest.

At all events, Forester invented a sub-genre, gave it something extra and did it well.


2 thoughts on “C S Forester’s Hornblower and the Atropos (1953)

  1. Enjoyed your analysis of Hornblower’s managerial skills. How many novelists are there which deal with these? Does CP Snow?

  2. Hi Mary. I spot a whole thesis there, or at least an article! Long, long time since I read C P Snow but you are probably right. There might be something too in Nigel Balchin (Small Back Room) and Nevil Shute. War novels are probably the best source though, including VADs and the like. Oh a last minute thought – there’s a bit in South Riding as Sarah Burton manages up and down.

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