Horatio Hornblower: In Which Order Should You Read the Novels?

A Choice of Chronology or Creation

Hornblower: The TV Show

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Set primarily during the Napoleonic Wars, C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower books chronicle the adventures of a British naval officer as he battles the enemy, struggles with life and rises through the ranks. Although newer competitors, particularly Patrick O'Brian's "Aubrey and Maturin" series of books, have reduced Horatio Hornblower's dominance of the naval genre, he remains the favorite of many.

A well-regarded British TV series (1998–2003) attracted an even wider audience who was now able to visualize naval warfare with greater clarity.

Unless you're unlucky enough to be trapped somewhere with just one book, newcomers to Hornblower are faced with a key decision: to read the books in the order Forester wrote them or in the order of their internal chronology. For instance, "The Happy Return" introduced the world to Hornblower, but the series has five other books with events predating those of "The Happy Return."

There's no right answer here. Read the books in chronological order, and you follow Hornblower through his career and across the development of the Napoleonic Wars. In contrast, reading the books in the order of Forester's creation allows for a much easier introduction ("The Happy Return" is deliberately welcoming to new readers, as it's where the author began) and a chance to miss contradictions, as Forester sometimes changed his mind or made errors and assumptions that are much more obvious in a chronological reading.

The decision will differ depending on each reader.

Order of Creation

Following Forester's study of "The Naval Chronicle" that details the wars with Napoleon, a trip aboard a freighter from California to Central America, and his trip back home to Britain, the first book was plotted. The next books first appeared serially, in Argosy and the Saturday Evening Post.

But it was the packaging of the first three books into a trilogy that made the series take off in the United States. Following that success, Forester penned more stories to fill in gaps in the timeline, which is why they weren't written in a chronological order of events—the overall series' story arc developed as he went, not at the start.

If you read the Horatio Hornblower series in the order of creation, you will follow the story as the writer penned it, starting with world creation (background context) and character introductions. Here is the order of creation, which may be the easiest way to read them:

  1. "The Happy Return" ("Beat to Quarters")
  2. "A Ship of the Line" ("Ship of the Line")
  3. "Flying Colours"
  4. "The Commodore" ("Commodore Hornblower")
  5. "Lord Hornblower"
  6. "Mr. Midshipman Hornblower"
  7. "Lieutenant Hornblower"
  8. "Hornblower and the Atropos"
  9. "Hornblower in the West Indies" ("Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies")
  10. "Hornblower and the Hotspur"
  11. "Hornblower and the Crisis"* ("Hornblower During the Crisis")

Hornblower Series: Chronological Order

If you read the series in chronological order, you won't start with Hornblower as a captain but as a midshipman and lieutenant, literally learning the ropes on the navy ship.

He fights in the Napoleonic Wars occurring with Spain, rising in the ranks, but peace with France prevents him from taking command of his own vessel—until the peace breaks, of course. He then earns his captaincy, meets Napoleon, and finds sunken treasure. Following more battles with France, he's taken captive.

After his release, he sails on a mission to Russian territory and the Baltic. Further adventures have him quelling a mutiny and, finally, defeating Napoleon. But that is not the end of his story. The life of a proven leader is not quiet during peacetime. Next, he helps fight against Bonapartists intent on breaking Napoleon out of St. Helena. On his way home to England, he saves his wife and crew from a hurricane. Throughout his career, he earns a knighthood and the rank of rear admiral.

The historical way of reading the books may be harder, but is often recommended: 

  1. "Mr. Midshipman Hornblower"
  2. "Lieutenant Hornblower"
  3. "Hornblower and the Hotspur"
  4. "Hornblower and the Crisis"* ("Hornblower During the Crisis")
  5. "Hornblower and the Atropos"
  6. "The Happy Return" ("Beat to Quarters")
  7. "A Ship of the Line" ("Ship of the Line")
  8. "Flying Colours"
  9. "The Commodore" ("Commodore Hornblower")
  10. "Lord Hornblower"
  11. "Hornblower in the West Indies" ("Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies")

*Note: Many editions of this unfinished novel include two short stories, one set when the hero is a midshipman and to be read after "Mr. Midshipman Hornblower," while the second is set in 1848 and should be read last.

Major Characters

Horatio Hornblower: The series tells the story of this navy leader from the time he enters service as a 17-year-old boy through the death of his first wife and the near death of his second. He may have started life as a poor boy lacking influential friends, but courage and skill in battle forge his character and leadership abilities, eventually rising to the rank of rear admiral. He understands the leadership of men and military chain of command but doesn't fare so well when he has to relate to women or function on land, like Odysseus.

Maria: Horatio Hornblower's first wife and mother of his child. She dies while he is away at sea. She was the daughter of his landlady and helps him through his troubled peacetime. She grieves when he has to go back to sea.

Lady Barbara Wellesley: Hornblower's second wife, a quality match for the leader he has become through his naval service.

She's the (fictional) sister to the Duke of Wellington, and he finds her fascinating. They fall in love when he is obligated to transport her on the ship.

William Bush: The narrator who lets us see Horatio Hornblower through another person's eyes. As John Watson is to Sherlock Holmes.

Brown: Hornblower's servant.

Lieutenant Gerard: Hornblower's second lieutenant.

Real people in the Horatio Hornblower books: Napoleon, King George, Captain Edward Pellew, Admiral William Cornwallis, Lord St. Vincent, British Foreign Secretary the Marquess Wellesley, Russian Czar Alexander I, Minister Anthony Merry, Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz, Military Governor of Riga Ivan Nikolaevich Essen, and many others, especially in "Commodore."

Themes

For Forester, these books were meant for entertainment and action, but they also show the success of good leadership through great accomplishments and problem-solving. As a leader, Hornblower doesn't just surround himself with people of his rank but of all people. He rises to occasions and succeeds at them because he does what needs to be done, analyzing situations and being flexible rather than tackling every challenge in the same way. Courage is vitally important.

He has a moral center and is uncomfortable with corporal punishment. But even if he doesn't enjoy a task, such as climbing a mast, obeying orders he believes are wrong, or such as inflicting punishment—he does what needs doing without complaint. He accepts difficulties with grace. 

Historical Context

The series was written starting in the late 1930s and extended into the 1960s, with the majority of them written during World War II (including its precursor and aftermath).

Setting them during earlier wars with a known outcome made them the perfect escapist fiction. They're of a romanticized, valiant era and are full of period detail that came directly from Forester's research.

Key Quotes

"Mr. Midshipman Hornblower"

“I thank God daily for the good fortune of my birth, for I am certain I would have made a miserable peasant.” 

"'July 4th, 1776,' mused Keene, reading Hornblower’s date of birth to himself."

"Lieutenant Hornblower"

“Bush put both arms round Hornblower’s shoulders and walked with dragging feet. It did not matter that his feet dragged and his legs would not function while he had this support; Hornblower was the best man in the world and Bush could announce it by singing ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’ while lurching along the alleyway.”

“Hornblower worked as hard to conceal his human weaknesses as some men worked to conceal ignoble birth.”

"Commodore Hornblower"

“...irresponsibility was something which, in the very nature of things, could not co-exist with independence.”

"Hornblower and the Atropos"

"The cork was in the bottle. He and the Atropos were trapped."

TV Show

You could, of course, stream the television series and watch episodes in the order they were produced. Know, however, that they cover events from only three of the books; plus, they make changes that are not to everyone's taste. That said, they received 15 Emmy nominations and two awards in 1999 for editing and outstanding miniseries.