Cecil Lewis Troughton Smith

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1008

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.}

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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.

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