• Kathryn Houghton

Why You Should Read The Hornblower Saga

Updated: Oct 20, 2020

Photo by Kathryn Houghton

Maybe you’ve watched Horatio Hornblower onscreen or know others who have, but you probably didn’t know that it’s a historical fiction installation spanning 11 books! Yes, that’s right, there are that many books about nautical warfare.

But why bother getting into a saga that is not well known anymore and is just historical role play on the life of Horatio Nelson? Well, let’s break down the series in a little more detail.

The Chronology

All of these books were actually published out of order by C.S. Forester, and it can be tricky to figure out where to start. I’ll list the books in the order they were meant to be read in and then explain what editions are most easy to follow in accordance with this.

  1. Mr. Midshipman Hornblower

  2. Lieutenant Hornblower

  3. Hornblower and the Hotspur

  4. Hornblower During the Crisis

  5. Hornblower and the Atropos

  6. Hornblower: The Happy Return

  7. Hornblower: A Ship of the Line

  8. Hornblower: Flying Colours

  9. Commodore Hornblower

  10. Lord Hornblower

  11. Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies

The most affordable and aesthetically pleasing set I’ve found is published by Back Bay Books. You can find the first novel here.

The Main Characters

Photo by Kathryn Houghton

The world revolves around Horatio, so we only really get to know those who he deems important enough to think about, one of those being Lieutenant William Bush. Horatio considers William to be his closest friend and confides in him from time to time. He’s fiercely loyal but leaves all strategy to Hornblower. Bush is his muscle, in a way. Act first, think later.

We know that Bush takes care of his sisters and mother in Bristol where they live in a little cottage, and he does this without complaint. Hornblower often notices the twinkle in his frank blue eyes and sometimes wishes he wasn’t so loyal to him.

Another main character is Maria, Horatio’s wife. She doesn’t get much credit despite the lengths she will go to for her husband. She appears to be rather whiny and jealous of where Horatio’s attention often lies but means well all the same.

There are other supporting characters such as Captain Edward Pellew, Mr. Brown, and Lady Barbara.

The Plot Thickens

Photo by Kathryn Houghton

Most of the time the plot is strong and captivating in every novel. Each story has something new. The first novel Mr. Midshipman Hornblower would actually be an amazing read at the moment, as Hornblower goes through quarantine after dealing with the black plague. I remember reading the book right around the time COVID-19 was first taking place and finding Horatio’s thoughts very relatable.

Whether it‘s a plague and quarantine or hiding from the French, there are many times I feel engrossed in what’s happening, just waiting for the next turn of events.

The Descriptions

Photo by Kathryn Houghton

Another thing I love about this saga is all the beautiful descriptions. A lot of evenings spent out on the decks of these ships with the sunset reflecting off the sparkling sea and dolphins in the distance and lighthearted conversations. It’s lovely to read about the scenery of their travels.

A Few Complaints

Photo by Kathryn Houghton

This can be looked at in two ways, but all of the ship terms talked about in these books can be confusing. I had to look up pictures and definitions of certain terms just so I had a general idea of what was being done. Even though I found this to be educational and insightful, others could become easily annoyed by these nautical words.

Another complaint is the racial slurs. Granted, these were written long enough ago to be considered classics. Forester was also trying to be historically accurate. Even still, I felt that this could be avoided.

The last negative aspect isn’t really to do with the writing as much as just the character's morality. Hornblower doesn’t always treat women well and thinks only of his own pleasures and problems in this aspect. I wish that could have been avoided.

The Historical Appeal

Photo by Kathryn Houghton

I don’t think I’d know nearly as much about the Napoleonic wars had I not read these. These books can teach us so much about that time period and its historical figures. Not only does it mention well-known battles fought during the time, but it picks apart historical figures such as Horatio Nelson, Thomas Hardy, and, of course, Napoleon Bonaparte.

I’m also much more familiar with the inner workings of the Royal Navy. I can now distinguish classes and ranks along with who carried certain responsibilities and when discipline needed to be applied.

Further Insight

Photo by Kathryn Houghton

As a bookworm (you most likely are if you’ve stumbled across this article), you have probably read at least one Jane Austen novel in your lifetime.

In her novel Persuasion, our main man is Captain Wentworth, who serves in the navy. Also, two of Austen’s brothers were in the navy starting as midshipmen, eventually working their way up to admirals.

These books are in the same time frame as Persuasion and when Austen’s brothers were living. This means we get a closer (and slightly more political) look into their day to day life and what it might’ve meant to be a relative or wife to a naval officer. Certainly, they had to go through quite the hardships.

Ultimately, you reach a deeper appreciation for the characters and world that revolves around Jane Austen through Hornblower.

Are You Convinced?

Photo by Kathryn Houghton

Whether you’re searching for new adventures, classics, action, history, or have a deep love for the Age of Sail, these books are for you. We see Horatio at his absolute best and worst. We grow up with him in a sense. We read about the epic battles and the strategies used to find the best outcome. We read about the philosophies used by Hornblower to compare man to the sea.

It has lessons about romance, friendship, and what drives us in life. There’s so much to love about these novels and to admire. I hope you at least give the first book a try and get a glimpse into this world of ships where the ocean is the battlefield.

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