Cecil Lewis Troughton Smith Biography

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(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

C. S. Forester, also known as Cecil Scott Forester, was born Cecil Lewis Troughton Smith on August 27, 1899, the youngest of five children in the family of George Smith, a British official in Cairo, Egypt, and Sarah Troughton Smith. He adopted the pen name when his family strenuously opposed his career change to writing. His mother returned to England with her children when he was two. Young Cecil found Great Britain cold and inhospitable. He was placed in council infants school at the age of three, by which time he was already able to read and write. Although he was an academic prodigy, his education was not without difficulties; he was a slight child who made an easy target for bullying classmates. His older siblings won scholarships, however, and he was expected to do the same.

Denied the usual childhood outlet of street play, Cecil turned to books, starting a lifelong habit of reading at least one a day. During World War I, the seventeen-year-old youth tried to enlist in the British army but failed the physical examination as a result of a heart irregularity. He began medical studies at Guy’s Hospital, where, for the first time, his marks suffered. As a means of escape, he began to write small pieces for the hospital gazette and discovered that he enjoyed writing more than practicing medicine. Despite his parents’ wishes, he made a clean break from medicine to become a full-time author. His first novel, a work he later admitted was “atrociously bad,” was the product of a frantic, two-week effort; it was never published. He was to write three novels before the third one, A Pawn Among Kings, was accepted for publication in 1924. What followed were several Napoleonic histories before Forester returned to fiction with a mystery tale, Payment Deferred, published in 1926.

Forester married Kathleen Belcher, a sports instructor, in 1926. They later had two sons, John and George. Payment Deferred received favorable attention and was converted to a successful screenplay. The royalties from this book cemented his new occupation. Forester ultimately moved to California, where his fame grew. In 1943, Forester was stricken with arteriosclerosis, a painful affliction that made him a virtual invalid. A year later, he and Kathleen were divorced. He married Dorothy Ellen Foster in 1947. His body was crippled, but he continued to write as crisply as ever until suffering a stroke in 1964. He lingered until dying of heart disease on April 2, 1966.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111206298-Forester_CS.jpg C. S. Forester. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Cecil Scott Forester (FAWR-uh-stur) won no major literary awards, and his books are rarely taught in schools. His distinction is of a different sort, for he is among the rare novelists to have created a character whose name has entered everyday speech. The depth of his mark on modern culture was dramatized in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter was eulogizing former vice president Hubert Horatio Humphrey at the Democratic National Convention. In the tradition of convention speeches, Carter praised Humphrey at length, while withholding the latter’s name until his triumphal final words: “that great American, Hubert Horatio Hornblower!” Few who heard the president that night needed to have his mistake explained, for he was thinking of none other than the immortal naval hero, Horatio Hornblower, created by British novelist C. S. Forester.{$S[A]Smith, Cecil Lewis Troughton;Forester, C. S.}

In a writing career spanning nearly five decades, Forester wrote eleven books about Hornblower. Although easily his best-known works, they represent less than a quarter of his total output. Forester started his writing career in the early 1920’s after dropping out of medical school in London. With no literary background whatsoever, he began furiously cranking out novels that publishers immediately rejected. Only the commissions he received to write hack biographies kept him from giving up; they gave him the time he needed to hone his writing skills.

Forester’s first critical success came in 1926 with Payment Deferred. Three years later a biography of the British naval hero Lord Nelson and a novel about naval warfare, Brown on Resolution, pointed the way for the Hornblower stories that were to come. Meanwhile, he was achieving solid success as a novelist; plays based on his books were produced in London’s West End, and Hollywood beckoned for his services as a screenwriter. Publication of The African Queen and The General in the mid-1930’s further broadened his readership. Finally, in 1937, he created Hornblower, who would lift him to international fame that he would sustain through the rest of his life.

Most of Forester’s novels have military settings, but he himself never saw military service. He reached induction age during World War I but was disqualified for medical reasons; he observed from a distance the carnage that devastated his generation of young British men. In the late 1930’s a crippling disease handicapped him—it threatened to take his life a decade later—but he kept writing. He even sailed on warships during World War II. These experiences, along with his native intellectual bent, give his books an unusual thoughtfulness. Although combat pervades his stories, his characters never exult in victory, and he never shrinks from showing the horrors of war.

Of the threads running through Forester’s fiction, the most evident is the theme of the man alone. A second thread is the frequent presence of tricky problems that confront his protagonists. Many of Forester’s stories spring not from characters but from unusual problems. When his protagonists succeed—which is not always—their intelligence and perseverance count more than their strength and courage. Finally, most of his novels are rooted in history, which Forester re-created as accurately as the demands of his fiction would allow.

Forester’s first published novel, A Pawn Among Kings, anticipated his later emphases on both problem-solving and historical settings by inventing a lover for Napoleon Bonaparte to explain three battles that he lost at moments when he inexplicably hesitated to act. In Payment Deferred, a far more mature novel, a man named Marble kills a relative for money, then buries him in his yard. Marble feels safe until he confronts an unexpected problem that forms the core issue of the novel: He begins making so much money that it becomes ludicrous for his family to remain in his shabby home. Afraid that the body in his garden will be discovered if he ever leaves his house, Marble becomes a man truly alone.

Even The African Queen, which many regard as uncharacteristic of Forester’s work, typifies Forester’s preoccupation with problem stories. Set in German East Africa at the outbreak of World War I, it has a dissolute Cockney man and a spinster missionary woman sail a rickety boat down a treacherous river to sink a German ship commanding a great inland lake. Thrilling action sequences and a satisfying love story have made the book a modern classic, but Forester’s real interest in the book is solving the problems of getting the boat down the river.

Forester’s most famous character, Hornblower, grew out of a problem that caught Forester’s fancy in the early 1930’s when he sailed along Central America’s west coast. The wild and forbidding scenery made him think how easy it would have been for a petty warlord to defy the old Spanish Empire. After imagining a madman called “El Supremo” who enlists the British Royal Navy’s aid against Spain during the Napoleonic Wars, Forester constructed the kind of naval officer who would be commissioned to deal with him. The result was Hornblower—a man whose rank, background, intelligence, and personality quirks all grew out of the need for a suitable foil to play against El Supremo. In the first Hornblower story, Beat to Quarters, a young Captain Hornblower sails a frigate around Cape Horn without even revealing his ship’s mission to his own officers. In the adventures that follow, Forester found a character whose sudden popularity led him to follow quickly with two sequels.

After suffering through his illness and focusing his attention on World War II, Forester returned to Hornblower with Commodore Hornblower and Lord Hornblower in 1945 and 1946. These stories carried Hornblower through the Napoleonic Wars, completing his career as a wartime commander. Forester wanted then to abandon the character but was drawn back to him in 1950 to write Mr. Midshipman Hornblower. He went on to fill in gaps in Hornblower’s career in six more novels and several short stories, and he was working on his last Hornblower book when he died in 1966.