C. S. Forester
BORN: 1899, Cairo, Egypt
DIED: 1966, Fullerton, California, U.S.A.
GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction
The African Queen (1935)
The General (1936)
Captain Horatio Hornblower (1939)
The Good Shepherd (1955)
C. S. Forester. Evening Standard / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
A prolific author whose career spanned over forty years, C. S. Forester wrote action and adventure novels characterized by historical detail and unpretentious language. The British author was an outstanding storyteller who wrote highly cinematic fiction, and many of his books were adapted for film, including The African Queen (1935). His careful research and absorbing plots made him one of the top producers of popular fiction in English in the mid-twentieth century.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Birth in Egypt. C. S. Forester was born Cecil Lewis Troughton Smith in Cairo on August 27, 1899, the son of George Smith, an official in the Egyptian Ministry of Education, and his wife, Sarah (nee Troughton). His mother returned home to England with Forester and his four older siblings so they could be educated there. From early on, he read voraciously, a book a day or more. He also developed a precocious interest in naval battles and military strategy.
Effects of War. In secondary school during World War I, Forester attended Officers’ Training Corps but was disqualified for military service due to a heart condition. World War I was caused by territorial tensions and entangling alliances that were spun into action by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The war soon engulfed nearly the whole of Europe, resulting in massive loss of life for soldiers and civilians alike. Nearly a million British soldiers alone were killed, wiping out much of a generation of young men.
In August 1918, bereft of friends lost in the war, which was nearing its end, Forester went on a solitary four-week camping trip. During the trip he came to terms with his rejection for military service and decided to enter medical school; however, he turned out to have a profound ineptitude for anatomy. In 1921, he adopted the pen name Cecil Scott Forester and embarked on a career as an author.
Two Books a Year. Forester wrote his first novel in two weeks at the astonishing rate of six thousand words a day, had it typed, and sent it off to a publishing house. After four rejections, Forester gave up on the manuscript and started another. This time he injected an element of discipline into his efforts, slashing his daily production by two-thirds. By his own admission, he had not yet mastered the art of fully developing his ideas prior to commencing work. Forester would later disparage the second novel as ‘‘very bad.’’ Nevertheless, The Paid Piper (1924) would later become his third published book.
Forester’s third literary effort, A Pawn among Kings (1924), about Napoleon Bonaparte’s Russian campaign, was his first published book. Before it appeared, its publisher commissioned Forester to write a biography of Napoleon for an advance of twenty-five pounds, the first money he had earned as a writer. He subsequently wrote the biography Josephine, Napoleon’s Empress (1925). He would later consider this phase of his career as hackwork, and his earnings were less than he had anticipated. To ensure a subsistence income, he estimated, he needed to produce at least two books a year. He supplemented his income with more biographies and articles for trade periodicals for goldsmiths, pawnbrokers, and bus drivers.
Improved Literary Status. The thriller Payment Deferred (1926) began to establish Forester’s reputation. The novel, about a bank clerk who sees an opportunity to advance by poisoning his nephew, was later adapted for the stage and screen. Keeping up his prolific pace, he published ten works in five years, including three in 1929: a biography of Horatio Nelson, a travel book, and his first work of naval fiction, Brown on Resolution, about a captured seaman in World War I.
Off to Hollywood. In 1932, Forester moved his family to California to write for the burgeoning motion picture industry in Hollywood while continuing to crank out historical and military fiction. At this time, motion pictures were becoming a big business in the United States in part because of the transition from silent to sound films. The demands of sound movies led to increased opportunities for writers who produced scripts for the assembly-like production of films in this period.
Forester wrote two of his finest novels in the mid-1930s. In The African Queen (1935), set during World War I, a missionary’s daughter and a rough-mannered boat captain plan an attack on a German gunboat. The General (1936), sometimes considered Forester’s masterpiece, is a satire of the military mentality and the shortcomings of military organization in World War I. It recounts the rise of an incompetent English officer to the rank of lieutenant general. Hitler apparently saw the character of General Curzon as the epitome of British military ineptitude and ordered his generals supplied with translations.
Hornblower at Sea. Forester’s deep appreciation for naval life in the Napoleonic era likely has its roots in Egypt, where he was born and spent his early years: British naval hero Horatio Nelson scored a massive victory over Napoleon’s forces in the Battle of the Nile in 1798. The story of Nelson’s cunning and bravery was no doubt recounted for the young Brit living, as he did, in the shadow of this major military triumph. In 1937, during a six-week voyage on a merchant ship, Forester began to develop the heroic character Captain Horatio Hornblower (clearly named after the hero of the Nile, Nelson), with whom he would forever be linked. Forester did not intend a whole series of Hornblower novels when he wrote The Happy Return (1937). He turned from the Hornblower character and covered the Spanish Civil War (a struggle for control of Spain between Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco, and Republicans, who wanted to continue the Spanish Republic founded in 1931) for the New York Times. Afterward, he conceived the idea of depicting Hornblower’s entire naval career.
A reluctant hero, introspective and tenacious, Horn- blower represented heroism and martial fortitude for millions of readers. The eleven novels in the Hornblower cycle leap back and forth in chronology, chronicling his role in the Napoleonic Wars and his advancement through the ranks of the British navy from midshipman in 1794 to admiral of the fleet in 1848. The remarkably popular Hornblower novels were often serialized in the Saturday Evening Post and other periodicals. The first three in the series were published together as Captain Horatio Hornblower in 1939.
Wartime Activities. In 1938, Forester returned to Europe as a correspondent for the New York Times and witnessed the German annexation of Czechoslovakia. By this time, Nazi Germany, led by dictator Adolf Hitler, was acting on its territorial ambitions by taking over country after country in Europe. While the British and French implemented a policy of appeasement (which allowed Germany to annex territories for several years) in hopes of avoiding war, they finally saw that this policy would not work and declared war on Germany when it invaded Poland in September 1939. The war soon engulfed most of Europe, later included a Pacific theater of action, and many countries became involved worldwide.
During World War II, Forester produced propaganda material for the British Ministry of Information. His duties gave him the opportunity to travel on British warships. In the summer of 1943, on board the USS Tennessee, he experienced severe pains in his legs. He was diagnosed with arteriosclerosis (the hardening of arteries resulting in reduced blood flow) in the legs, a condition which sometimes led to amputation. Although friends thought he should retire, Forester’s habit of writing a thousand words a day helped him reconcile himself to his situation. He suffered a severe heart attack in 1948, but as an aid to recuperation, he wrote the next Horn- blower book, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (1950), which begins to fill in details of his hero’s origins.
Tales of Fighting Sail. Aside from the Hornblower novels, Forester continued to produce well-regarded works of swashbuckling fiction with a great variety of historical and military settings. The Earthly Paradise (1940), for example, is set against the background of Christopher Columbus’s third voyage to the New World in 1498. The Captain from Connecticut (1941) progresses down the American coast to the Caribbean during the War of 1812. Forester also wrote a nonfiction account of that war, The Age of Fighting Sail (1956), which is also an exciting narrative. One of his best works, The Ship (1943), follows the British warship Artemis as it escorts a convoy to the besieged island of Malta during World War II. Forester intersperses descriptions of action with the personal histories of various crew members.
Following World War II, Forester wrote two dark, reflective novels: The Sky and the Forest (1948) and Randall and the River of Time (1950). The Sky and the Forest, a somber work about the African slave trade in the nineteenth century, is also an allegorical criticism of imperialist ideology. One of his most appreciated stories is The Good Shepherd (1955), in which an American commander tries to protect a convoy from German submarines in 1943. It is perhaps Forester’s most intense study of one of his predominant themes: the individual charged with solitary responsibility and the stresses that independent command places on character.
Forester’s health declined following another heart attack in 1962. He died on April 2, 1966. The eleventh Horatio Hornblower novel, Hornblower and the Crisis (1967), was published posthumously, as was Forester’s autobiography.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Forester's famous contemporaries include:
Winston Churchill (1874-1965): British politician and Nobel Prize-winning historian; prime minister during World War II.
Graham Greene (1904-1991): British author of literary thrillers, including Stamboul Train (1932).
Agatha Christie (1890-1976): Immensely popular British novelist and playwright known for detective stories and murder mysteries such as Murder on the Orient Express (1934).
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961): American novelist known for works depicting male heroism, such as A Farewell to Arms (1929).
James Michener (1907-1997): American novelist; author of meticulously researched historical sagas like Texas (1985).
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Forester's literary bailiwick was the open sea, where much of the world's great adventure literature is set, including the following:
Odyssey (eighth century B.C.E.), an epic poem by Homer. The epic poem of the ancient Greeks recounts the adventures of Odysseus as he returns home to Ithaca after the Trojan War.
''The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'' (1797), a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This legendary poem, one of the early works of Romantic literature, is the source of the phrase ''an albatross around one's neck.''
Moby Dick (1851), a novel by Herman Melville. This great American novel pits man against whale in a fateful struggle to the death.
Captain Blood (1922), a novel by Rafael Sabatini. An Irish doctor, deported to the Caribbean, becomes a buccaneer in this popular adventure novel.
The Far Side of the World (1984), a novel by Patrick O'Brian. The tenth novel in a well-regarded nautical series follows Jack Aubrey aboard the HMS Surprise during the War of 1812.
Works in Literary Context
Forester’s literary sensibilities, and his interest in naval battles and military strategy, were formed at an early age. Some of the material that he devoured in his youth, such as Robert Leighton’s The Thirsty Sword (1892) and H. Rider Haggard’s novels, certainly influenced his later work, as can be seen in his depictions of physical combat. The sea writings of Frederick Marryat prefigured the nautical genre Forester helped to define. Forester enjoyed reading nautical and military studies, particularly of the Napoleonic period. No less than fifteen of Forester’s novels relate to the era of the great French emperor, who fascinated Forester and whom he considered the Hitler of the nineteenth century. Many scholars see in the character of Horatio Hornblower traces of a real British naval officer from the Napoleonic Wars, Thomas Cochrane.
‘‘The Man Alone”. A principal theme in the Horn- blower novels and several of Forester’s other works is that of ‘‘the man alone,’’ the solitary hero or commander who must make weighty decisions and overcome mighty obstacles to achieve a worthy objective. This is, of course, a conventional and time-tested definition of heroism, especially of the martial variety. The nautical setting of so many of Forester’s stories—in which the protagonist is literally at sea, adrift from civilization, and left to his own devices—enhances the sense of isolation with which Forester imbues his heroes.
Sensitivity to Class. One notable subtheme in Forester’s work is a sharply observed portrayal of class tensions, especially in British society. For example, Brown on Resolution savagely satirizes middle-class snobbery, and The African Queen reveals the hypocrisy saturating the class system in Britain. But Forester never could remove himself from the conventions of that system. Invariably in his novels, characters from the lower social orders—such as Charlie Allnutt, the protagonist of The African Queen—are inarticulate and often display a cringing subservience to their ‘‘betters.’’ In the Hornblower series, the author often refers to his hero’s poverty and nonaristocratic background. At the same time, the class division between officer and common seaman is never forgotten.
Cinematic Works. Forester’s historical fiction, especially his naval fiction, spawned many imitators due to its immense popularity. The Jack Aubrey novels by Patrick O’Brian, beginning with Master and Commander (1970), are among the better contemporary efforts in this mode. Indeed, Thomas Cochrane served as a model for the character of Jack Aubrey. More broadly, Forester’s skills at plot and action, and his penchant for historical verisimilitude, set a standard for popular literature as well as film.
Works in Critical Context
The Hornblower Saga. Forester will be remembered as a crackerjack writer of popular fiction largely due to the success of his Hornblower saga. The character Horatio Hornblower became a symbol of pride for British citizens during World War II. Eight million copies of the works that recounted his adventures were sold in Forester’s lifetime. The author grasped the imagination of his public, providing it with a hero whose qualities, while stereotypically British, could flourish in the American literary market. A lively Horatio Hornblower fan culture thrives today, with conventions and Internet blogs, but it is surprising that so little critical or scholarly interest has been shown in the work of so prolific and socially conscious a writer. Besides a telling biography about Forester written by his son, John Forester, that reveals a strained relationship between them and a more scholarly biography penned by literary critic Sanford Sternlicht, little else has been written about Forester. A great deal of research remains to be done.
The African Queen. It is likely that Forester’s best-known work is The African Queen, whose film adaptation is now considered a classic American film. Unlike the Hornblower novels, The African Queen was a critical success upon its publication in 1935. Critics agreed that certain elements of the story were somewhat implausible, but conceded that Forester makes it worth the reader’s while to set this fact aside. In the New York Times Book Review, Percy Hutchison concluded, ‘‘The credulity of the reader may be stretched here and there, but, having given himself to the tale, as one must always give one’s self up wholeheartedly to romance or eschew it altogether, he will go on. Suspended again and again in midair, he will find pleasure in the suspense, a device of which Mr. Forester again and again proves himself a master.’’ In her Saturday Review of Literature review, Amy Loveman wrote that Forester ‘‘has sufficient skill in characterization, sufficient psychological subtlety, to lift his story above the general run of adventure yarns, and enlist interest in his hero and heroine as personalities and not mere lay figures on which to hang excitement.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Compare Horatio Hornblower to one or two contemporary action heroes in a visual presentation. Does the comparison tell you anything about how times have changed? Explain.
2. Why did the Hornblower novels, set during the Napoleonic Wars, resonate with the British public during the Second World War? Write a paper with your findings.
3. Write about the characteristics of narrative and plot in Forester’s action novels, citing several of his works.
4. The General is often considered an antiwar novel, but Forester wrote many war stories and detailed battle scenes. What were Forester’s attitudes on the subject of war?
5. The character of Napoleon figures in several of Forester’s books. Evaluate how Forester portrays the Corsican general. Create a presentation in which you share your findings.
Forester, C. S. Long before Forty. Boston: Little, Brown, 1967.
Forester, John. Novelist and Storyteller: The Life of C. S. Forester. Lemon Grove, Calif.: John Forester, 2000.
Parkinson, C. Northcote. The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971.
Sternlicht, Sanford. C. S. Forester and the Hornblower Saga. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1999.
C. S. Forester Society. Reflections. Accessed March 31, 2008, from http://www.csforester.eu. Last updated in March 2008.
Horatians.org. Accessed March 31, 2008, from http://www.horatians.org. Last updated on March 31, 2008.
scaryfangirl.com. Accessed March 31, 2008, from http://www.scaryfangirl.com. Last updated on March 29, 2008.