Time, June 14, 1971


by C. Northcote Parkinson 304 pages; Little, Brown;

UNLIKE THEIR MORE EVANESCENT brothers of the flesh, the great figures of fiction are not covered by the laws of libel. Did not Sherlock Holmes admirers helplessly endure odious allegations asserting that Dr Watson was a woman? Accordingly, anyone fond of Midshipman, Lieutenant, Captain, Commodore or Admiral Horatio Hornblower naturally approaches this new biography with suspicion. Will Britain's second greatest seaman, one wonders, be spuriously presented, for example, as a Hermaphrodite Brig? Or Nelson's long-lost younger brother.

The heartening answer is neither.

For C. Northcote Parkinson, though known for his prankish wit, was a naval historian before he began his researches into the modern disease that may properly be called "administrationitis."* see footenote  His fully fabricated account of Hornblower's career, from an impecunious "boyhood in Kent to a peaceful death at 80 in 1857 - which came, appropriately, while the by then viscount was reading Gibbon - is circumstantial to a fault. The book bristles with references to "new sources" of information, as well as a full quota of those "we can fairly assume" peculiar to Victorian biography. It comes fully provided, too, with an index, footnotes, useful explanatory charts of naval engagements, appendices, tables of consanguinity, illustration showing various Hornblower residences and a bibliography of books on Sir Horatio, all, as it happens, written by an author named C.S. Forester. Parkinson even reproduces a marriage notice from the Naval Gazette.

This marshaling of material lends authority to the biography on mere speculations when, with exquisite tact, the author mildly reproaches Hornblower for infidelities to his wife, Lady Barbara (sister of the Duke of Wellington), or speculates that she, too, may have enjoyed a brief liaison with Baron von Neffzer in Vienna in 1815 - when Hornblower and the Vicomtesse de Gragay were temporarily holding Bonaparte's regulars at bay along the Loire. A similar tact touches Professor Parkinson's handling of the then Lieutenant Hornblower's heretofore unsuspected murder of Captain David Sawyer (H. M.S. Renown, 74 guns) on the West Indies station in 1800.** see footenote  A pedant or a gross popularizer would have made much of the incident, but Parkinson, clearly not wanting to perplex inattentive readers, presents it in Appendix 2, reproducing a letter from Hornblower to his descendants that was not made public until 1968.

If Professor Parkinson's painstaking work has a weakness, it lies in its treatment of all those already well-known, oft retold Hornblower adventures - in quarterdeck and boudoir - that did so much to confound Great Britain's enemies in the Napoleonic Wars. It was Horatio Hornblower's peculiar character to combine brilliant seamanship and a calculating mind with such inner ravages of self-doubt that though he never lost a battle - or very rarely so - it always seemed he was about to. From a score of perilous voyages one may perhaps recall the long patrol to Latin America of the frigate Lydia (36 guns), which forced Hornblower to confront the 50-gun Natividad not once but twice. The second time, with much of his crew killed or wounded and Lady Barbara inadvertently cowering in the orlop, Hornblower actually sank the larger vessel, an unheard of exploit that has since become the most famous single ship-to-ship action in British history.

Perhaps out of deference to his lofty subject, in the retelling of this familiar feat, and all the others, which necessarily make up a large portion of his story, Parkinson customarily confines himself to a somewhat plodding, precis narrative.  As a result, his biography may be mainly read by Hornblower scholars who wish, as it were, to set their very stuns'ls in pursuit of their elusive literary quarry. As for the rest of us, one is put in mind of the French Gourmet Brillat-Savarin, who was once offered grapes for dinner. "Non, merci" he briskly replied, "je ne prends pas mon vin en pilules."***see footenote



* Parkinson's first law about the proliferation of paper-shufflers, in fact, was born when he discovered that while the number of British Navy vessels dwindled from 62 to 20 between 1914 and 1928, the number of shore-bound Admiralty officials nearly doubled during the same period. return to text

**Naval scholars may remember that Sawyer, a sadist who mistreated his crew, mysteriously fell into a hatch, doing himself permanent injury, and soon thereafter was killed by a mob of Spanish prisoners who temporarily took over the Renown. It now appears that Hornblower both pushed Sawyer down the hatch and later cut his throat during the melee with the Spanish. It was all done, however, for the good of the ship and the British navy. return to text

***"1 don't take my wine in pill form." return to text