Mr. Midshipman Hornblower

by C.S. Forester
Series: Hornblower Saga #1
320 pages, Historical Fiction
Reviewed by Jeanne

Enjoyable tale set in the Napoleonic Wars, but with significant language and violence.


At the age of seventeen Horatio Hornblower may be a late-comer to the British Navy, but when he is commissioned as a midshipman, he is quickly caught up in a series of adventures in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars. His upward path takes him from the worn-out ship Justinian to Sir Edward Pellew's frigate Indefatigable, and from there to a dozen other places: to France, plague ships, and a Spanish prison.


In the midst of battles and their aftermath, mercy is not always given top priority. At one point British seamen attempt to throw defenseless enemies overboard, and when Hornblower notices he does call them off. Several characters risk their lives to save shipwrecked seamen. Patriotism and bravery are commended, but those are really the only virtues shown by the protagonist.

Spiritual Content

One seaman is known to be "simple," and he talks about seeing God in the maintop and the Devil in the cable tiers. Otherwise, God is only mentioned either when His name is being misused or when He is being "thanked" (without much thought). Hornblower thinks about Fate and his destiny.


Hornblower passes through numerous fights and battles. Before a duel, he reflects on death and finds it preferable to life. When a British seaman's epileptic fit threatens to give away a surprise attack, Hornblower remedies the situation by knocking the man out with a blow to the head; it is implied that the man was probably killed. When Hornblower joins with a French anti-Revolutionary invasion of France, he witnesses the guillotine in action and is sickened by it. Scores of men are shot or drowned in action, and Hornblower has a number of brushes with death.

Seamen kill rats for sport until their game is ended by an officer. Although not violent, instances of the plague are gruesome.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Hornblower finds he has a weak head for wine, and he tends to limit himself so as not to do anything foolish. Rum, grog, and wines are all consumed frequently. The crew of a captured ship are found drunk, and Hornblower throws the spirits overboard to keep his own men from drinking as well. It is said that Muslims drink no wine, and characters laugh at one man who seems to have gotten hold of alcohol despite that; it turns out, however, that the man was ill.

Sexual Content

Very little in this book, though it increases with the series. A woman talks in great length about hiding something in her petticoats, and Hornblower is horrified when she does so in his presence.

Crude or Profane Language or Content

Typical seamen's language: "d*mn" is used most often, as well as "hell." God's name, and Jesus', are used in vain. One midshipman is said to use "filthy curses," and then to thank God not five seconds later (the irony is remarked upon).


This first installment in Forester's classic "Hornblower" series is an enjoyable run through the early years of the Napoleonic Wars. The charm derives mostly from the circumstances Hornblower finds himself in, but Hornblower's character itself is given room for further development later on. It is refreshing to find little of a sexual nature to mar the story, but as with all such sea-novels, there is the usual language and violence to watch out for.

Fun Score: 4
Values Score: 2
Written for Age: 13+

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