The original Hornblower tales began with the appearance of a reserved, even withdrawn, Captain on independent duty on a secret mission to the Pacific coast of South America. The stories 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 that 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.
There are many parallels between Hornblower and real naval officers of the period, especially Thomas Cochrane and Horatio Nelson. The name "Horatio" was inspired by the character in William Shakespeare's Hamlet and chosen also because of its association with contemporary figures such as Nelson. The name Hornblower was probably derived from the American film producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr. with whom C. S. Forester had been working prior to writing the first Hornblower novel.
Forester's original inspiration was an old copy of the Naval Chronicle, which described the effective dates of the Treaty of Ghent. Because of the times required to communicate around the world, it was possible for two countries to still be at war in one part of the world after a peace was obtained months before in another. The burdens that this placed on captains far from home led him to a character struggling with the stresses of a "man alone". At the same time, Forester wrote the body of the works carefully to avoid entanglements with real world history, so Hornblower is always off on another mission when a great naval victory occurs during the Napoleonic Wars.
Hornblower is described as "unhappy and lonely," 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 that 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). Lady Barbara played guitar when long balmy Pacific airs had Lydia becalmed, but 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 that such harshness would be the result. Hornblower possesses a superb sense of duty—one might say hyper-developed—yet 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.
As a junior lieutenant, he serves under Captain Sawyer, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia on a trip to the Caribbean, during which he begins his long friendship with William Bush. Returning to England, Hornblower is demobilised after the peace of Amiens, causing him great financial distress — he resorts to making a living as a professional gambler, playing whist with admirals and other senior figures for a modest income.
In 1803, he is reactivated and confirmed as commander of HMS Hotspur when hostilities resume against Napoleon. After gruelling service during the blockade of Brest, he finally is promoted to captain and recalled to England. Once there, he meets the secretary of the Admiralty and post rank is conferred immediately when Hornblower agrees to take part in a clandestine operation that eventually leads to the resounding British victory at the Battle of Trafalgar that costs Nelson his life.
Hornblower then organises Nelson's funeral procession along the River Thames and has to deal with the near-sinking of the barge conveying the hero's coffin. Later, he secretly recovers sunken gold and silver from a sunken ship on the bottom of Marmorice Bay within the Ottoman Empire with the aid of pearl divers from Ceylon, narrowly escaping a Turkish warship at the end. Upon unloading the treasure and refitting, his ship, HMS Atropos, is taken away from him to be given to the King of the Two Sicilies for diplomatic reasons. On his return to England, he finds his two young children dying of smallpox.
He later (in the time line, but presented in first novel written) makes a long, difficult voyage in command of the frigate HMS Lydia, round the Horn to the Pacific, where he supports a madman, El Supremo, in his rebellion against the Spanish. He captures the Natividad, a much more powerful Spanish ship of the line, then has to reluctantly cede it to El Supremo to placate him. When he finds that the Spanish have switched sides in the interim, he is forced to find and sink the ship he had captured—adding injury to insult, as he'd given up a fortune in prize money to maintain an uneasy alliance with the insane revolutionary. On his return voyage, he and his well-connected passenger, Lady Barbara Wellesley, the fictional younger sister of Arthur Wellesley (later to become the Duke of Wellington) become dangerously attracted to each other, resulting in a kiss that is interrupted by Lady Barbara's maid Hebe—when she is sent away, Hornblower is reluctant to re-enter the moment, and perceiving herself rejected, Barbara's temper flares. She leaves the Lydia two days later, and Hornblower fears the worst for his career having offended the daughter of an earl and sister of a Marquis.
He is sent with his coxswain, Brown, and his injured first lieutenant, Bush, to Paris for a show trial and execution. During the journey, Hornblower and his companions escape, and after a winter sojourn at the chateau of the Comte de Graçay, navigate down the Loire river to the coastal city of Nantes. There, he recaptures a Royal Navy cutter, the Witch of Endor, mans the vessel with a gang of slave labourers and escapes to the Channel Fleet.
Hornblower faces a mandatory court-martial for the loss of the Sutherland, but is "most honourably acquitted." A national hero in the eyes of the public, he is awarded a knighthood and made a Colonel of Marines. When he arrives home, he discovers that his first wife Maria had died in childbirth and that his infant son has been adopted and cared for by Lady Barbara. As she has been widowed by the death of her husband, Hornblower's former commander, Admiral Leighton, they are free (after a decent interval) to marry. Barbara is more beautiful, cleverer and far richer than the poor Maria (whom Hornblower had more pitied than loved). Thereafter, he lives (uncomfortably) as a country squire in Kent.
Freedom from this purgatory comes when he is promoted to commodore and sent on a mission to the Baltic Sea, where he must be a diplomat as much as an officer. He foils an assassination attempt on the Russian Czar and is influential in the ruler's decision to resist the French invasion of his vast country. He provides invaluable assistance in the defence of Riga against the French army, where he meets Carl von Clausewitz.
He returns ill with typhus to England, yet soon after his recovery goes off to deal with mutineers off the coast of France. After taking the mutinous ship by trickery, he sets up the return of the Bourbons to France, and is created a peer as Baron Hornblower, of Smallbridge in the County of Kent
When Napoleon returns from exile at the start of the Hundred Days, Hornblower is staying at the estate of the Comte de Graçay. He leads a Royalist Guerrilla movement; after capture by the French, he is about to be shot under an earlier warrant for his execution when he is saved by news of Napoleon's defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.
After several years ashore, he is promoted to Rear Admiral and appointed Commander-in-Chief of the West Indies. He foils an attempt by veterans of Napoleon's Imperial Guard to free Napoleon from his captivity on Saint Helena, captures a slave ship, and encounters Simón Bolívar's army. He retires to Kent and eventually becomes Admiral of the Fleet.
His final, improbable achievement occurs at his home, when he assists a seemingly-mad man claiming to be Napoleon to travel to France. That person turns out to be Napoleon III, the nephew of Hornblower's great nemesis and the future president (and later emperor in his own right) of France. For his assistance, Lord Hornblower is created a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. At the end of his long and heroic career, he is wealthy, famous, and contented; a loving and indulgent husband and father; and finally free of the insecurities and self-loathing that had driven him throughout his life.Forester, C. S. "The Last Encounter" in Hornblower and the Crisis.
Forester provides two different brief summaries of Hornblower's career. The first was in the first chapter of The Happy Return, which was the first Hornblower novel written. The second occurs mid-way through The Commodore, when Czar Alexander asks him to describe his career. The two accounts are incompatible. The first account would have made Hornblower about five years older than the second. The second account is more nearly compatible with the rest of Hornblower's career, but it omits the time he spent as a commander in Hornblower and the Hotspur. There are other discrepancies as well; in one account of his defeat of a Spanish frigate in the Mediterranean, he distinguished himself as lieutenant and in another he is a post-captain with less than three years seniority. It appears that these discrepancies arose as the series matured and accounts needed to be modified to coincide with his age and career.
C. Northcote Parkinson, more famous for his invention of Parkinson's Law, has written a very fine biography of Hornblower, detailing his career as well as personal information. The biography sheds light upon what really happened to Captain Sawyer on the H.M.S. Renown (arguing that Hornblower and Wellard were the only ones in a position to have given Captain Sawyer a push down the hatchway), as well as subsequent careers of Lord Hornblower's descendants, ending with the present Lord Hornblower's emigration to Apartheid South Africa in the late 1960's.
In chronological order:
Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, Lieutenant Hornblower and Hornblower and the Atropos were compiled in one book, variously titled Hornblower's Early Years, Horatio Hornblower Goes to Sea, or The Young Hornblower. Hornblower and the Atropos was replaced by Hornblower and the Hotspur in later UK editions of The Young Hornblower.
Another short story The Point And The Edge is included as an outline only in Forester's The Hornblower Companion (1964).
Two final stories Hornblower and the Widow McCool (aka Hornblower's Temptation) (1967) and The Last Encounter (1967), are often included with the unfinished novel Hornblower and the Crisis.