Hornblower and Aubrey

How much did C. S. Forester's successful Horatio Hornblower series have to do with the launching of Patrick O'Brien's even more successful Aubrey/Maturin series?

Back in the late 1980s a friend introduced me to Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey/Maturin novels. I started Master and Commander but did not get excited about the story and abandoned the book after a chapter or two. Some years later in an airport about to board a plane and desperate for something to read I picked up a copy of The Surgeon's Mate. This time I was hooked. I devoured the first seventeen novels over the next few years, and then hung around the bookstore door impatiently as the rest were published, snatching first editions of the final three novels practically from the hands of the bookbinders.

After O'Brien's death in 2000 I despaired. No more stories of life aboard wooden ships. Finally, I decided to try C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower stories. I had rejected the recommendation that I read Forester in my teens, partly because I thought the name Hornblower to be particularly silly and feared that the books might be satires or farces or worse. With low expectations I found a copy of Beat to Quarters (the US title of the first novel, published in the UK as The Happy Return). To my delight, the book was enjoyable.

The dynamic of Forester's writing was quite different from O'Brien's, of course. Forester was never the scholar of the era in terms of science, diplomacy, cuisine, and fashion that O'Brien proved himself to be, so the stories are not as rich and textured. Beyond that, Hornblower was a solitary creature, always alone in command, whereas Aubrey always had Maturin as a friend and confidante, thus providing the reader with a perspective that Forester could never give. We are aware of Hornblower's internal agonies at times as he wrestles with decision, but we never hear him articulate issues nor explain himself.

Ironically, it's Aubrey who seems the more self-assured of the two fictional captains. I'm not sure if this is the result of the divergent styles of the two writers or is somehow a contradictory consequence of our insight into Aubrey's mind provided by the conversations with Maturin.

Anyway, after reading the Hornblower stories I reflected on the relationship between the two series. There is some evidence to suggest, purely circumstantially, that the suggestion to O'Brien that he write the Aubrey/Maturin stories was triggered by Forester's passing. In the rest of this blog post I'll outline the evidence.

In the author's note that introduces The Far Side of the World, the tenth Aubrey/Maturin novel, O'Brien writes, referring to himself in the third person, "Some ten or eleven years ago a respectable American publisher suggested that he should write a book about the Royal Navy of Nelson's time ..." O'Brien was already known as a good writer with a particular interest in the era, so it would have been natural to suggest that he try his hand at writing such books.

The chronology provides some even stronger support for the hypothesis. Forester died in 1966 and the final Hornblower stories were published posthumously the next year. If the 1984 author's note had been penned a few years before, then it might have referred to the time between 1967 and 1970, when Master and Commander appeared for the first time.

So while I have seen no documentary evidence to prove that O'Brien's opportunity was urged on him by a publisher mindful of the success of Forester's Hornblower books, it is no great stretch to connect the easily available dots and conclude that O'Brien was asked to fill the gap left by Forester's passing.


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