The original Hornblower tales, which began with the appearance of a reserved-to-the-point-of-withdrawn Captain on independent duty on a secret mission to the Pacific coast of South America, struck a chord with the public, and subsequent stories were eagerly serialized. The several short story collections date from this appetite by the pre-television public for more about the heroic captain. As counterpoint to hardcore naval discussions, the novel featured a love interest with Lady Barbara Wellesley, who gradually teases Hornblower into a less stiff and reserved character. Subsequent sequels explore the relationship they develop. Hornblower ages gracefully and with a touch of humour now and again performs acts of human kindness against what duty would dictate, in the end creating a triumphant figure who has risen above and surpasses his early training.
According to Forester, Hornblower, the son of a doctor, was born on July 4
(the date of the adoption of the United States Declaration of Independence
), in Kent
. He was given a classical education
, and by the time he joined the Royal Navy at age seventeen, he was well-versed in Greek
. He was tutored in French
by a penniless French émigré and had an aptitude for mathematics, which served him well as a navigator
Described as "unhappy and lonely", Hornblower is chiefly characterised by his reserve, introspection, and self-doubt—at least until particularly difficult feats of seamanship, organisation, or navigation are called for under pressing circumstances, things which few others could do, and fewer still in such combination. He belittles such feats by numerous rationalizations, remembering only his fears—and forgetting he overcame them; diminishing amazing feats of seamanship—apparently unaware of the admiration in which they are regarded by his fellow seamen, while they stand amazed instead — believing that no one could have pulled that off.
He regards himself as cowardly, dishonest, and, at times, disloyal—never crediting his ability to persevere, think rapidly, organize, or cut to the nub of a matter and put such things aside while staying focused on the priority of the moment. His sense of duty, hard work, and a drive to succeed make these imagined negative characteristics undetectable by everyone but him, and being introspective, he blows up petty things beyond reasonable measure to reinforce his poor self image. His introverted nature continually isolates him from the people around him, including his closest friend, William Bush
, and his wives never fully understand him. He is guarded with nearly everyone and reticent to the point of giving offense, unless the matter is the business of discharging his duty as a Kings' officer, in which case he is clear, decisive, and almost loquacious while giving orders and instructions, as the needs of the exigency demand. His introspection makes him a very self-conscious and lonely man, a characteristic which is displayed even in the short fiction about his career as a midshipman and lieutenant; through most of the books, the enforced isolation of being "The captain" (and later, as Admiral) in the Royal Navy makes him lonelier still.
He suffers from severe chronic seasickness
, especially occurring at the beginning of his voyages and for a time was known derisively as the midshipman who was sick (in the excellent sheltered harbour) at Spithead. He has an immense reading appetite and can discourse on the works of various contemporary figures of literature and the classics, has mastered the difficult art of celestial navigation and its arcane mathematics to the point that in Lydia
he made a perfect landfall while voyaging five months out of sight of land or contact with other ships (an interpretation of his orders to maintain secrecy) and furthermore, plays excellent whist
, essentially professionally—a talent which he uses to maintain himself financially from time to time, as when a “not confirmed” field promotion to commander was never confirmed. This left him in an unfortunate position of debt to his government, having to pay back the difference in the two salaries; a job he was quite capable of undertaking with the help of his card playing abilities.
He is tone-deaf
and finds music an incomprehensible irritant (in a scene in Hotspur
he is unable to tell the British and French national anthems
from each other), and when Lady Barbara played guitar when long balmy Pacific airs had Lydia
becalmed, he kept away from the gaggle of off-duty officers despite longing to mix in. He is philosophically opposed to flogging
and capital punishment
, in many cases when called for by the Articles of war, yet as Captain and Lieutenant had to call men to account knowing such harshness would be the result. While possessing a superb sense of duty—one might say hyper-developed—on occasion he is able to set it aside for his more human and humane component parts underlying the facade of the strict officer—to the extent that in Hornblower and the Hotspur
he contrives an escape for his personal steward who would otherwise have been hanged for striking a superior.