Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Ha --- hm!

I guess I have some things in common with Ron Swanson. Not many; I'm not quite so enthused about guns, wood working, or whiskey. But I like breakfast foods. And I like Patrick O'Brian novels.

Pretty sure my parents have that lawnchair.
So imagine my intrigued-ness (keep moving) when good ol' Alice gave me two Horatio Hornblower novels.

Beat to Quarters is the first Hornblower book of a series which we might possibly be more familiar with as a TV show. (I first became aware of Hornblower via discussions of Sharpe on a Lord of the Rings message board Way Back When.)

Three Hobbit movies is such a bald grab for ticket money but FINE.
I found Forester's writing style sort of simple, although I'm not entirely sure of what I mean by that. One odd feature is that the narrator occasionally jumps in to remind us that we're in the past, for instance when Hornblower finds Lady Barbara tending the wounded after a battle:
It was a shock to Hornblower to see her engaged thus. The day was yet to come when Florence Nightingale was to make nursing a profession in which women could engage. No man of taste could bear the thought of a woman occupied with the filthy work of a hospital.
Perhaps the best evidence I can give of the "simple" style of writing is that these kind of interventions aren't totally jarring. It's a very narrated book. O'Brian, of course, has that knack of completely impressing you with the difference between modern and historical attitudes without spelling things out.

Oh yeah, there's a LADY on board the ship. They pick her up pretty early on. She's pretty and classy and rich and so on, with the charm to make friends of everyone while putting them at their ease blah blah. Also she's unmarried and like 27 with famous brothers and a title yadda yadda. The last portion of the book is all SEXUAL TENSION between Hornblower and Lady Barbara, culminating in a little making out which Hornblower ends because he realizes it's undignified. Oh right! And also he's married. His wife is super frumpy though, but then again she did take care of their kids before they died in some sort of plague. When Hornblower decides that a quick game of Blow the Horn in her cabin (OH GOSH THAT TURNED OUT MUCH DIRTIER THAN I MEANT IT I'M SO SORRY) is unbecoming of his status as the captain* (*also, married), Lady Barbara gets all offended and huffy and leaves the ship in a very wrapped-in-her-dignity state. Meanwhile, the narrator seems to be pretty much pro-adultery, basically regretting that they didn't have more time left in the journey to work things out. Classy.

This being a book written in the 1930s about the early 1800s, there is also a fair bit of racist language and so on. The worst of this is definitely Lady Barbara, who has a black maid I almost can't tell you about. Let's say she likes men and gets some bad treatment from Lady B. What makes this especially bad is that the maid is barely mentioned -- her stereotyped-ness and bad treatment is just a footnote. Somehow the casual nature of this bit of racism is much worse than the sailors' attitudes toward Spaniards and native South Americans. It manages to come across less as "that's how people were then" and more like "that's just what stupid black women get". Ugh.

So the pro-adultery stance and racism toward maids (and we all know how bad that is) were two very unfortunate drawbacks.

The boaty portion of the book focuses on a crazy South American rebel/dictator who believes he's an Aztec god and sentences those to displease him to die of thirst. In the story, the bigger picture of political alliances and rivalries between Britain and Spain shift the picture around under Hornblower's feet so that while at first he has to help the crazy torturer, then he has to help the Spanish fight against him, and finally the Spanish send him packing as an interfering foreigner. So obviously the book is interested in moral complexity (kind of), although I don't think it's ultimately very successful. Lots of battles though.

Shall we drag this post out further and talk about Hornblower as a character? No, I think I shall save that so that I can post this now and go do Actual Work.

Beat to Quarters is an entertaining, lightweight sort of book, full of plot. Events follow on events, and there is plenty of battle and maneuvering for your reading pleasure. As a historical novel it does an adequate, although not particularly engrossing, job of setting the stage and portraying another time. Its moral compass does seem a little muddled, and perhaps because Hornblower doesn't seem to think about the Right and Wrong of situations. He might be uncomfortable with helping a deranged and brutal tyrant, but apparently more because he's concerned for his ship's safety than because he feels he's collaborating with evil. I don't ask that he necessarily do the right thing, by his lights or mine, mind you; but I didn't think the book did much to show us what his lights are, which seemed odd when dealing with the theme of how rapidly-changing political boundaries can be, and how duty to one's country can mean opposite things from one day to the next as a result. But anyhow, it was an enjoyable book -- and I'll be back to talk a little about Captain Hornblower himself at some point.


  1. I would like to state that I knew NOTHING ABOUT THIS other than the fact a miniseries had been made from it. But I remember being morally uncomfortable during African Queen, so I am rather unsurprised.

    WAIT so is there actually a game called Blow the Horn, or were you in FACT trying to say it as a euphemism, but then it was a super-dirty euphemism?

    1. Euphemism! Because he has a dirty euphemistic sounding name. They just did some passionate on-a-boat-in-the-tropics kissing. I kind of wonder whether scenes like this are why O'Brian always stresses how there is NO privacy on the boat and EVERYONE always knows about everything going on.