Ah, the heroic British Navy captain, circa early 19th century or so. Back then, at least depicted in fiction, British sailors were real men who lived extremely virile lives at sea. Sailors survived on weevily ship biscuit, endless amounts of salt beef and salt pork and, when necessary, rats. In command was their heroic captain, always sailing under admiralty orders. Much of naval life back then apparently consisted of dreary tasks like blockading the coasts of England’s many enemies. But occasionally it involved engaging an enemy ship in fearsome battles that often left many dead and gruesome numbers of wounded.
As popularized in modern fiction, readers can enter this world principally through two authors. The first was a gentleman named Cecil Scott Forester who wrote eleven novels about the indefatigable Captain Horatio Hornblower. Forester’s books chronicle Hornblower’s adventures from lowly midshipman through his final posting as an admiral in the Caribbean. More recently the British novelist Patrick O’Brian wrote a total of twenty books from 1970 through 2000 that chronicled the adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and, perhaps more importantly, his best friend, ship surgeon and secret British intelligence agent, Stephen Maturin.
As you might expect both Hornblower and Aubrey were written as brilliantly strategic fighting captains who frequently won fearsome battles against superior forces. In temperament though, they could hardly be more different. Captain Horatio Hornblower was remote and insular, very much a “stiff upper lip” type. He was both deeply private and deeply conflicted. He carried around with him a lot of hidden baggage and rigorously masked his inferiority complex. As Forester depicts him, Hornblower was certainly respected by his men, although it is hard to understand why. A captain that shuts himself up in his cabin, does not confide in his officers and trusts only his own judgment is not usually successful officer material. Hornblower was anxious to be perceived as brave and wholly unperturbed even though inside he continually fought cowardice. I have to wonder if Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry modeled Spock after Hornblower, rather than Kirk. Kirk is more like Jack Aubrey.
Captain Jack Aubrey, on the other hand, was gregarious and popular with his men. His relationship with Steven Maturin was rewarding and helped him grow as a person. Unlike Hornblower, who could not allow his imperfections to be witnessed by his men, Aubrey knew when to let his guard down. When off the ship his behavior could be reckless. Unlike Hornblower, who was typically unlucky when it came to prize money, “Lucky Jack” kept his pockets and the pockets of his crew flush with their share of captured possessions, and could squander much of his fortune on land.
It is pure speculation of course, but I sometimes wonder if Hornblower and Aubrey were on opposite sides fighting each other, who would be the victor? My guess is that in the end Aubrey would win. He would win because he related to every member of his crew. They fought for him because they genuinely identified with him, and he earned their genuine respect and loyalty. Hornblower certainly had a soft side but he found it difficult to show it. Above all else he felt he had to project the image of an ideal captain, even at the cost of his own well being. If he lived today, Hornblower would need to spend many years with a good psychotherapist. At its root, his bravado was a mask, as he ashamedly admits to himself. He just did not know how to escape his own identity crisis. Instead he concentrated on adding to his own mystique. It is not even clear if he ever completely bared his soul to his great love and ultimate wife, the Lady Barbara Wellesley. Aubrey, on the other hand, was dopily devoted and emotionally expressive with his wife Sophie. Hornblower barely interacted with his children. If he did it was in a stiff and Puritan-like manner. Aubrey delighted in his children and was engaged in their lives when he was on shore.
Which series of novels is better? My opinion is that it depends on what you want from such a series. If you delight in obscure naval terminology, historical curiosities, intrigue, finely drawn characters, dialog and detail, then O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels are the ones for you. To my mind, the ship surgeon Stephen Maturin is far more interesting than either Hornblower or Aubrey. I read the Aubrey-Maturin books mainly because I want to experience more of Stephen Maturin’s world. I care little about Jack Aubrey. However, I should warn you that his novels could be challenging to read. While I’ve met some Patrick O’Brian fanatics, I think they overlook serious problems with O’Brian’s writing. If you want a well plotted story line with tight, crisp writing, stay away from O’Brian. His novels meander into areas that fancy his whim at the moment but are likely to leave you bored or skipping pages. The dialog is almost overwhelming and much of it wholly unnecessary. His novels needed to be severely edited and tightened up, but I suspect he would not let his editors do much in the way of wordsmithing. On the other hand, when O’Brian is at his best, his prose is overwhelmingly excellent. I read the “off” novel just so I can enjoy the “on” novel. Generally one book is okay but the next book is much better. For me (and I am down to the last few novels in the series) Desolation Island is O’Brian at his best. I would almost suggest reading it by itself to appreciate O’Brian, except I cannot imagine reading it without first reading the five novels before it, which fully flesh out his characters.
On the other hand if you want to read consistently engaging naval action stories that are finely crafted and that keep you eagerly turning to the next page, the Hornblower novels are for you. A purist would suggest starting with the first book in the series, when Hornblower was a pimply faced midshipman. I would say read them in the order they were written, and then go back for Hornblower’s early history. Start with Beat to Quarters (Book 5), a short and crisp novel set in the Pacific where Hornblower first meets Lady Barbara. It is impossible at the end of the book to simply put it down and not read the next in the series. You simply have to find out if he manages to win the Lady Barbara’s hand (not an easy thing to do since he is technically married at the time). I doubt I will reread the Aubrey-Maturin books again, but I keep coming back to Hornblower every few years or so. The older me now recognizes that Forester is projecting his own masculine insecurities into his Hornblower character. Yet I do not care too much that Hornblower is so darn remote. Forester’s writing is generally a delight and wholly engaging. Whether Hornblower is being harassed as a midshipman or commanding a fleet through the Baltic Sea, it is almost impossible not to be sucked in to his stories.
So if you have the choice, read the Hornblower series first, then try the Aubrey-Maturin novels on for size (starting, of course, with the first book Master and Commander). If nothing else, the Hornblower books are far more accessible to us landlubbers who have a hard time telling our gibs from our staysails. I bet you will find the Hornblower novels hard to put down, but you may find O’Brian a bit too eclectic for your tastes.