Posted tagged ‘Napoleonic Wars’

Responsibility/Independence…Independence/Carefreedom–Horatio Hornblower Longs For His Wife’s Hand

May 27, 2010

Scale - Responsibility/Independence

My latest hero, C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower, makes an interesting observation in the 9th book, (the one I am reading tonight), Commodore Hornblower.

Facing difficult decisions in the Baltic in the period immediately before and after hostilities open between Sweden, Russia and France (led by England’s arch nemesis, Napoleon Bonaparte), Hornblower is suddenly, deeply, homesick.  He finds his command and the many duties and expectations heaped upon his slighting stooping shoulders suddenly overwhelming (those who spend the life in the cramped quarters of ships almost always slouch a bit); he misses his wife, child, and the trivial chores of the land-based life in England that he found almost stultifying at the beginning of the book.

Then he calls himself back to the realities both of who he is and of human nature generally:  “And here he was complaining to himself about the burden of responsibility, when responsibility was the inevitable price one had to pay for independence: irresponsibility was something which, in the very nature of things, could not co-exist with independence.”

Responsibility/independence.  I’ve never heard the words rigged quite so cleverly.

What a wonderful thing it is to call one’s own shots.  Yes, it’s nice to get help; it’s very nice to feel taken care of; to have some prop holding up the idea of self-reliance.  But to be able to say “screw you”has a special satisfaction, which, of course, comes with a price.   If you say, “screw you”, to someone, it’s helpful to be able to live without that person’s financial or emotional support.

Perhaps this is all very obvious.  Perhaps I’m just blinded by my current affection for all things Hornblower.   (He really is a very charming character.)   But I find his direct correlation between responsibility and independence remarkably thoughtful.  The odd thing is that when one is burdened with responsibility, it is hard to actually feel independent;  often, especially in today’s society, independence is equated with freedom–freedom from ties, freedom from responsibilities.  But that freedom, or carefreedom, is different from the strength, the possibility for discretion, that Hornblower sees as independence.  (Hornblower catches this irony too as he describes the envy he feels for the able-bodied seamen, who have the carefree nonchalance of those whose only job is to competently carry out orders.)

Hornblower’s understanding all this doesn’t negate his sharp longing for his wife’s hand, son’s smile.  But, ever the stoic Brit, the Naval officer, he (silently) goes down to his cabin to study the chart of Riga Bay.

(That Hornblower.)

Fleet Week – Where are you, Horatio?

May 26, 2010

Fleet Week in New York (See Statue of Liberty in background!)

It’s Fleet Week in New York!   It corresponds, oddly, with my current personal absorption with Horatio Hornblower, the mythical hero of C.S. Forester, who through a series of eleven books makes his way through the ranks and at least some of the depredations of the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars.

It’s an interesting testament to the power of narrative that I had a very hard time tearing myself from the printed page of Forester’s Ship of the Line this morning to watch actual battle ships course down the Hudson, right next to my apartment building.   (So much for living in the moment.)

I just wanted to stick with Hornblower, even though the ships were hugely impressive, and lined with living, breathing human beings.

Much has changed since Hornblower’s time.  The U.S. Navy ships seem inordinately plain compared to Hornblower’s schooners, frigates, ships of the line, with their top gallants, topsails, reefed topsails, mainmasts, mizzen masts, jury masts, rigging,  netting, and long nines.  There are a few small towers of gizmos, presumably related to radar, but for the most part, these new ships are large slightly curved trapezoids of painted grey.

It’s hard  to imagine these huge wedges of steel as the descendants of the beautiful, if gnarly, sailing ships of the British Navy.  Though there they were–men (presumably women too) lined up in rows of white (the sailors) and dark blue (the marines), roughly in the same divisions of rank and service as on Hornblower’s ships.

Other similiarities: decks!  Portholes!  (Wait–are there portholes now?) Starboard, port, stern, bow, lee, tack–vocabulary.

Space constrictions–though I expect modern seamen have more than 18 inches per hammock.

Some monotony of food?  But, hopefully, today’s soldiers  do not have to tap their sea biscuits to scare out weevils.  (They only need to be concerned about trans fat and high fructose corn syrup.)

What else do Forester’s sailors and today’s share?  The sea!  The sky!  The horizon!  Occasional seasickness!

Reading C.S. Forester makes one very conscious that conditions of the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars were almost unimaginably severe, especially with so many sailors press-ganged to begin with.  (Hardly a volunteer force.)

Scurvy, disease, amputation, the requirement of absolute obedience at the threat of flogging, court martial, hanging.  Though, actually, the biggest danger seems to arise from the incompetence and/or greed of supervising officers. (Hornblower, of course, excluded.)  And too, less-than-reliable allies.


Of course, what ultimately makes the books compelling is not the politics, the tacking and heaving of sails, or even the discussions of sea biscuit, but the character of Hornblower himself — outwardly indomitable, inwardly hyper-sensitive, noble (in spirit if not rank), brave, and amazingly quick-witted even when in a near stupor of fatigue and stress.

Did one of his spiritual descendants sail by this morning?

Maybe.   (I, for one, was too busy reading to notice.)

Even Stouter than Hornblower?