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Hornblower It's Not
on January 20, 2004
It's probably not fair that when an author decides to write about the English navy during the Napoleonic wars he will be compared to Hornblower, but as the Hornblower novels were one of the first and still the best about this subject, it is to be expected. How does Mr. Lambdin compare? Well, for storytelling, historical accuracy and character development, he's pretty good. However, as a writer--a practitioner of the English language if you will--he leaves a lot to be desired. The prose is pedestrian at best and displays little wit or panache.
The story has to do with a young Englishman in 1780, Alan Lewrie, who after an unfortunate carnal romp with his stepsister is hustled off into the navy as a midshipman. Over the course of the novel he serves on the crew of three different ships, is involved in three terrific battles, and survives a bout with yellow jack fever. He also gets into a duel, falls in love, and has several sexual escapades with various beautiful women. Quite an eventful year, one would think, so much so that it teeters very close to the straining edge of credibility. But if you accept the adventures on their own terms and don't consider them too carefully you'll find that they're not too grossly improbable.
The detail is pretty good. Although there is--by necessity, one supposes--a lot of nautical jargon, the author takes the time to explain a lot it, and it comes across as very informative and interesting. Here is an excellent example, having to the with the ship's cannons: ". . . the guns had been loaded with quarter-weight powder cartridges, eight pounds of powder to propel a thirty-two pound iron ball. An increase in powder charge would not impel the shot any further or faster, since all the powder did not take flame at once." This type of careful explanation, along with the maps and diagrams in the front of the novel, help to make the technical jargon more understandable. If there is a fault with the Hornblower novels, and with the Patrick O'Brian novels as well, it is that the authors perhaps assumed a little too much from their readers.
The characters and descriptions of sea-life are pretty good too. There is a lot of below-decks, working-class banter that one doesn't get in Hornblower and O'Brian, and also much discussion of the day-to-day, hour-to-hour duties of the average sailor. Again, it's interesting and informative and a presents a different view of the sailor's life from that of the officer class.
The problem here is the language which . . . well, it's not awful, but there's nothing elegant or charming about it either. It's a bit coarse on occasion and the f-word is used a little too liberally as well. Worse, it isn't used to convey verisimilitude, or a sense of the times. Lewrie is introduced to his girlfriend's father. His clothing and the, "wig he wore fairly screamed "Country"--of the worst huntin', shootin', ridin', drinkin', tenant-tramplin', dog lovin', View-Halloo variety." Reading language like this, in a novel about English people in 1780, is like listening to the proverbial fingernail on the proverbial chalkboard.
It's quite off-putting, but still probably not enough to prevent me from reading the second novel of this series. Eventually.