If Aubrey fought Hornblower, who would win?

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.

10 responses to “If Aubrey fought Hornblower, who would win?”

  1. A very enjoyable article! However, you didn’t mention one of the more important characteristics of the Aubrey/Maturin series, its technical accuracy. His terminology is proper for the period, his language successfully walks the line between accuracy of dialect and understandability, and his descriptions of ships and battles are…well, accurate.

    You also neglected to mention another noteworthy series on the 18th Century British navy, Alexander Kent’s Richard Bolitho series. It is notable for exploring the leadership qualities of naval officers (and in several cases their lack).


  2. Hornblower would win, of course! He’s a virtual incarnation of Nelson, whereas Aubrey is a flawed human being.


  3. That’s true. Both had the first name “Horatio” which was probably not coincidental.


  4. Excellent article.

    I read all 11 Hornblower books in my teens, and obviously found them enjoyable.

    Much later in life, I sampled the Aubrey-Maturin novels. This was just after the movie version of “Master and Commander” came out, IMO, the best seafaring film ever made.

    The book, however, disappointed.

    So much so, in fact, that I couldn’t finish it. Like you, I found it to be in serious need of an edit, which is a very major flaw in any work of fiction. Some time later, I tried “H.M.S. Surprise” (upon which part of “M&C” the movie was based) and had the same reaction. Couldn’t finish it. Finally, after reading more about how great many felt the O’Brian books were, I tried to read “M&C” again.

    Couldn’t get through it.

    I point this out because, recently, I found a copy of “Mr. Midshipman Hornblower” at a library sale. I bought it on a whim and began reading it, curious to see whether it held up for me as an adult compared to my teenaged recollections. Somewhat to my surprise, it did. In fact, I agree once again with your assessment: Well-plotted page turner. A book to savor, rather than plod through.

    Yesterday, I was at a 99-cent bookstore (one of those temporary installations) and found a large set of the most popular titles of the Aubrey-Maturin novels for sale – at just $1 each. Yet I passed.

    I’ll keep a weather eye out for Hornblower instead.


  5. That’s odd, I read through every single Aubrey/Maturin story voraciously, including the unfinished 21st manuscript. Having heard from all over the place that the Horatio Hornblower stories are also a must read if I liked all O’Brian’s fiction so much.
    It’s probably just me, but so far “The Happy Return [Beat to Quarters in the U.S.] just not gripping me like any books of the Aubrey/Maturin series. This is not to say that I am disinterested to the point of not reading them, I am just reading this book much more slowly; this is perhaps a good thing, as each O’Brian novel only lasted me a few days at most… so I’ll most likely end up enjoying this series over a longer period of time.

    Of course, now I’ll have to go find the Bolitho series as well, so I have something to read when I run out of Hornbower stories.

    I still like Aubrey the best though. Perhaps it’s something in the rum…


  6. I thought just the opposite. I read the aubrey series before hornblower and liked jack a lot more. Call me weird if you must.


  7. George Coventry Avatar
    George Coventry

    Perhaps it is a case of which series of books you read first. I read the Hornblower books back in the 1960s and absolutely loved them, read them over and over again. Hornblower is a complex character with a lot of hangups…in a way, he’s a rather tragic figure in his personal life, but a brilliant tactician. I later tried to read the Aubrey-Maturin books and just found them too long-winded and verbose to put up with…although I admit they are quite good in their own way. The Hornblower stories will never bore you at any point. I can’t say that about O’Brien’s books. However, it might be that if I had read O’Brien first, I would have developed a preference for his approach. Who knows?


  8. Aubrey is an anti-Hornblower. The social milieu of the Royal Navy is the air he breathes; he is so familiar with it that he doesn’t even notice it, and takes it and everything about it for granted. That is why he is so surprised when Maturin questions whether becoming an admiral is really the summit of human happiness. It had never occurred to Aubrey that it might not be.

    Aubrey wins the battle because he is OF the Navy. Hornblower is merely IN the Navy.


  9. Jack in a real human being. Hornblower is just a robot playing a part. Everything Jack does in his job seems so natural, he has all the unwritten navy rules in his nature. He doesn’t even do the maths, but reaches accurate goals by instinct. He loves his job, his men, his ships. He enjoys life and makes us enjoy with him as readers.
    I never seen that in Horatio.


  10. Who can tell who wins in a single ship action between Aubrey and Hornblower in ships of equal strength? Both in their historical fiction worlds are tactical masters and are fated to figure out a way to win their battles by O’Brien and Forester. If I had bet pick the winner I’d go with Aubrey if for no other reason than he carried less psychological baggage and was less isolated from his crew.

    I’d certainly prefer to serve under Aubrey. Hornblower was something of a stick and not at all the type of Captain that Aubrey would respect. While both understood the need, as understood at the time, for the Captain to be unquestionably the first and last word as to how a ship would be run and to maintain distance from the crew, Aubrey found the isolation of command to be a regrettable if necessary burden while Hornblower found it psychologically necessary. Aubrey would have respected Hornblower as a good seaman, for his good tactical mind and for his inclination to keep flogging to a minimum but he would have found him to be unnecessarily remote and hard on his officers.

    I’ve read both series multiple times and much prefer the Aubrey books to the Hornblower books. Many think O’Brien rambled and needed a more firm editor, which is probably the case, but I like the lulls between the action and the more fully fleshed out character and plot lines. That and the fact that in reading the Hornblower books I often have the urge to smack him upside the head for being such a jerk. In Hornblower’s defense, he was really in need of meds not available at the time. The Aubrey books also have the advantage of having a second very interesting character in Maturin.


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