Beat to Quarters

Whilst in the midst of reading this volume a month or so ago, I asked my son what the phrase "beat to quarters" meant, and — this is a game we play where he invents definitions for things he's unfamiliar with — he suggested it signifies a really severe beating, as in, you beat someone so badly they are torn into four parts.

What the phrase actually means is this: during the Age of Sail, when an enemy was sighted, the crew of a ship would be sent to their battle stations at the signal of a drum beat. This is one of the many things you learn when you have read all 20 of the so-called Master and Commander books by Patrick O'Brian and six of Forester's Horatio Hornblower books. I can actually tell you what an orlop is! And a mizzen mast! And the weather gage! Sometimes I kid myself into believing I could actually operate a ship.

O'Brian and Forester are two drops in a nearly bottomless ocean (see what I did there?) of naval series. I tried reading the Alan Lewrie books a couple years back but couldn't stick with them. I didn't like Lewrie, which I think may point to a failing in me. Lewrie is a deeply flawed libertine who succeeds often by sheer accident. He has his good qualities, but he's as human as they get, and we see him as though he were completely transparent, which is somewhat disturbing and, I believe the technical term is "icky." By contrast, Jack Aubrey, Stephen Maturin, and Horatio Hornblower are all, in a certain sense, superheroes. They possess flaws, but like an allergy to kryptonite, they are able to master their deficiencies when duty is on the line. They often struggle, but never fail. Nor do they succeed by mere chance. I suppose in the end it's a sort of escapist literature, but in both cases the writing is so damn good it doesn't matter.

"Beat to Quarters" strays from its usual mooring in sheer swashbuckling adventure into melodrama just a bit. The plot revolves around an attempted revolution in a Spanish South American colony, but woven through the book are the threads of a budding romance between Hornblower — a married man — and the sister of Arthur Wellesley, the future Lord Wellington. It's all very chaste and could probably have come out of a 19th century book as well as a book about the 19th century, but there is a ragged fringe to it. Hornblower is flirting with adultery after all, which seems out of character for him. The resolution, if I may spoil the living shit out of the book for you, is emotionally ambiguous, as in the end he hews to his principles. That's good — you don't want to see this fine character compromised. But it's bad — Lady Barbara is clearly a far better match for Hornblower than his cloying wife Maria. As it happens, I read a short story which takes place near the end of Hornblower's life, so I know (and now you do too) that he winds up with Barbara Wellesley, but I don't yet know how. If it were me I would arrange to have Maria crushed under a falling piano or eaten by rats in her mother's inn, but again, Hornblower is a character who engineers his own future. Forester will grant him an opportunity, and he will make a plan, and the plan will serve Maria justly, and it will serve Horatio and Barabara what they desire. No one will be slighted and everyone will get what they need, and Hornblower will be revealed yet again to be a genius of staggering proportions. It's the way these books work, and as ludicrous as it sounds, it's awfully fun to read.