Bryan Perrett,
The Real Hornblower: The Life & Times
of Admiral Sir James Gordon GCB

(Arms & Armour, 1997;
Pen & Sword, 2013)

It's no secret that C.S. Forester, like many authors of naval fiction, borrowed heavily from the true-life exploits of Britain's navy heroes when crafting the fictional adventures that have excited readers for generations. Forester's enduring protagonist, Horatio Hornblower, is no different; while much of his saga was indeed cut from the billowing sailcloth of Forester's imagination, he based those stories on research.

Bryan Perrett here makes the case that Admiral Sir James Gordon, the last of Nelson's captains, provided much of the foundation for Hornblower -- his actions and engagements, his character and his personal life.

Frankly, I'm not persuaded that he made his case, nor do I entirely accept Perrett's argument that Forester, when writing a history of the War of 1812, purposely concealed Gordon's involvement in hopes that Hornblower fans wouldn't see the name, research him and see parallels between the real and fictional careers.

That said, the book is an interesting biography of a fascinating man. While Perrett's prose is sometimes dry, his subject is anything but -- Gordon appears to have been a capable ship's captain, bold in the face of enemy fire and compassionate with his men, and there are plenty of stories to tell. In fact, it was a fleet of ships under Gordon's command that bombarded the walls at Fort McHenry, serving as inspiration for "The Star Spangled Banner."

However tenuous Gordon's connection to Hornblower, the book is well worth a read if you're interested in naval history.

book review by
Tom Knapp

21 September 2013

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