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C(ecil) S(cott) Forester 1899-1966

English novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, and scriptwriter.

Forester was a prolific writer of thrillers, action novels, short stories, and travel books. He is best known for his popular series of novels about the fictional nineteenth-century British naval officer, Horatio Hornblower.

Biographical Information

Forester was...

(The entire section contains 34519 words.)

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C(ecil) S(cott) Forester 1899-1966

English novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, and scriptwriter.

Forester was a prolific writer of thrillers, action novels, short stories, and travel books. He is best known for his popular series of novels about the fictional nineteenth-century British naval officer, Horatio Hornblower.

Biographical Information

Forester was born Cecil Lewis Troughton Smith on August 27, 1899 in Cairo, Egypt, where his father was an official in the Egyptian Ministry of Education. At a very young age he was sent back to England to begin his education. His mother encouraged a somewhat scholarly isolation in young Forester, who read voraciously. He attended secondary schools of excellent reputation, becoming a member of the Officers' Training Corps at Dulwich College. He was rejected for military service because of a heart condition, however, and thus did not participate in World War I. Forester then entered medical school at Guy's Hospital in London but found it did not suit his talents. In 1921 he left medical school, adopted the pen name Cecil Scott Forester, and embarked on a writing career. His first novel met with several rejections, but by the mid-1920s he was becoming a successful novelist and biographer. In 1926 he married Kathleen Belcher, with whom he would have two sons. After the success of the film adaptation of his novel Payment Deferred (1926), Forester moved his family to California, where he began screenwriting in Hollywood. The best known of his efforts in this period was the 1951 film, The African Queen. The Foresters disliked the ambiance of the movie industry and eventually settled in the San Francisco area. In the late 1930s Forester began writing the Horatio Hornblower series of novels which would later solidify his popularity. During the 1930s Forester was also a European correspondent, witnessing the Spanish Civil War and the German annexation of Czechoslovakia. During World War II he worked for the British Ministry of Information and traveled on British warships. In the mid-1940s Forester began to suffer from arteriosclerosis of the legs, a crippling disease, but continued to write adventure fiction and screenplays. His first marriage ended in 1944. In 1947 he married Dorothy Ellen Foster and the following year suffered a heart attack. He continued to produce numerous novels and screenplays during this period and even after a second heart attack in 1962. Suffering from the effects of a debilitating stroke, Forester died on April 2, 1966.

Major Works

Forester's first popular novel was the thriller Payment Deferred, later made into a successful film. Plain Murder (1930) was another well-received thriller. After cruising extensively with his first wife on the coastal and inland waterways of France and Germany, Forester published The Voyage of the Annie Marble (1929) and The Annie Marble in Germany (1930). Two novels, Death to the French (1932; titled Rifleman Dodd in the United States) and The Gun (1933), were set in the Peninsular war, an incident in the Napoleonic campaigns. Perhaps Forester's most famous novel, The African Queen, published in 1935, is a tale of an English spinster and a rough-hewn boat captain and their adventures in German-controlled central Africa during World War I. The award-winning film version of this story starring Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart brought this story to an even wider audience. The character of Lord Admiral Horatio Hornblower first came to light in 1937 in The Happy Return (entitled Beat to Quarters in the United States), which first appeared as a serial in the Saturday Evening Post. Hornblower, a class-conscious, disciplined, introspective young man, appeared in ten more novels. Some of the other novels in the Hornblower series, also first serialized but not published in chronological sequence, included A Ship of the Line (1938), The Commodore (1945), Lord Hornblower (1946), Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (1950), Hornblower in the West Indies (1958), and Hornblower and the Hotspur (1962). In 1951 a film, Captain Horatio Hornblower, starring Gregory Peck and Virginia Mayo, combined the first three Hornblower novels. An “Horatio Hornblower” miniseries on the Arts and Entertainment (A & E) television network in 1999 and a sequel in 2001 brought new popularity to this well-known character. Forester produced a number of other works in the decades between the 1930s and his death, among them The Earthly Paradise (1940; United States title, To the Indies), a story about Columbus's third voyage to the New World; The Ship (1943), which follows a British warship and its crew to the war-torn island of Malta; and The Barbary Pirates (1953), a story for older children.

Critical Reception

Forester is generally regarded as a popular novelist and has not elicited much criticism from literary scholars. Reviewers, however, have often commented on the phenomenon of Hornblower, the quintessential literary adventure hero who has assumed a life of his own. Forester's ability to tell a good story, to invoke the ambiance of the Napoleonic era, and to bring a pseudo-historical character to life has appealed to generations of readers. Film incarnations of Forester's works have proved equally popular. The only full-length study of Forester, by Stanford Sternlicht in 1981, was revived in 1999 to coincide with the first part of the A & E Network miniseries based on a Hornblower novel. The sequel to that series in 2001 also brought renewed interest in Forester's writings.

Principal Works

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Payment Deferred (novel) 1926

Brown on Resolution [Single-Handed] (novel) 1929

The Voyage of the Annie Marble (nonfiction) 1929

The Annie Marble in Germany (nonfiction) 1930

Plain Murder (novel) 1930

Death to the French [Rifleman Dodd] (novel) 1932

The Gun (novel) 1933

The African Queen (novel) 1935

The General (novel) 1936

The Happy Return [Beat to Quarters] (novel) 1937

Flying Colours (novel) 1938

A Ship of the Line [Ship of the Line] (novel) 1938

*Captain Hornblower, R.N. [†Captain Horatio Hornblower] (novels) 1939

The Earthly Paradise [To the Indies] (novel) 1940

The Captain from Connecticut (novel) 1941

Poo-Poo and the Dragons (juvenilia) 1942

The Ship (novel) 1943

The Commodore [Commodore Hornblower] (novel) 1945

Lord Hornblower (novel) 1946

The Sky and the Forest (novel) 1948

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (novel) 1950

Randall and the River of Time (novel) 1950

Lieutenant Hornblower (novel) 1952

The Barbary Pirates (juvenilia) 1953

Hornblower and the Atropos (novel) 1953

The Nightmare (novel) 1954

Hornblower in the West Indies [Captain Hornblower in the West Indies] (novel) 1958

Hornblower and the Hotspur (novel) 1962

The Hornblower Companion (criticism) 1964

Hornblower and the Crisis: An Unfinished Novel [Hornblower during the Crisis, and Two Stories: “Hornblower's Temptation” and “The Last Encounter”] (novel, short stories) 1967

Long before Forty (autobiography) 1967

Hornblower (videorecording) 1999

Hornblower: The Saga Continues (videorecording) 2001

*Comprises The Happy Return, A Ship of the Line, and Flying Colours.

†Comprises Beat to Quarters, Ship of the Line, and Flying Colours.

‡Videorecordings of the 1999 and 2001 A & E Network miniseries based on the Hornblower novels (New York: Meridian Broadcasting Ltd.)

Sanford V. Sternlicht (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: Sternlicht, Sanford V. “Hornblower: The Man Alone.” In C. S. Forester and the Hornblower Saga, pp. 89-115. Syracuse, N. Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay from the only full-length study of Forester, a revised reprint of a 1981 edition, Sternlicht presents a full description of all of the Hornblower novels, along with background sources and an assessment of the importance of the series in popular literature.]

C. S. Forester created Horatio Hornblower in 1937. Their association continued until Forester's death in 1966. It began as Forester watched a freighter captain, the skipper of the S. S. Margaret Johnson, make decisions for that little world he commanded, his ship.1 It developed into a parable for English indomitability in the face of tyranny perpetrated by Napoleonic France or Hitlerian Germany. It ended as a fictional epic of a successful British naval officer, cast in the Nelsonian mold, who was born in obscurity on July 4, 1776, and who survived shot and shoal to live into an honored old age. In the process, Horatio Hornblower became one of those few characters in art who step out of the covers of a book or the arch of a proscenium stage seemingly to usurp an actual place in history. Sometimes those characters survive because they are true to life; Hornblower is true to history.

For Forester, the series were “psychological novels. They started with my interest in the problems of the independent command, they presented themselves to me in the first place as studies in psychology.”2 For his audience, the Hornblower saga represented the historical novel at its most exciting, an opportunity to identify with a Romantic hero and to learn a bit of history at the same time.

Perhaps the Hornblower Saga really began ten years before the first novel, The Happy Return (1937; American title: Beat to Quarters), was published. In 1927, in a secondhand book shop, Forester purchased three bound volumes of an old professional magazine, The Naval Chronicle, published from 1790 to 1820. The issues were written by naval officers for naval officers of the period and they served as a professional roundtable where ideas concerning tactics, shiphandling, communications, gunnery, and other naval procedures were discussed, shared, and evaluated. The books went with Forester aboard the Annie Marble, and as they represented his primary leisure reading for many months, the author absorbed them thoroughly and stowed away their copious information for a later day.


All in all, Forester wrote ten Hornblower novels, an eleventh which he was unable to finish before his death, and several additional stories which, some more than others, fit into the Saga. The most important of these stories is “The Last Encounter,” which Forester wrote as a conclusion to the tale of Hornblower. Almost all of the Saga were published first in serial form in the Saturday Evening Post, where they were lavishly and imaginatively illustrated. Some of the stories also appeared in Collier's and Argosy.

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (1950) is, in fact, a collection of ten stories about the young Horatio Hornblower. It covers the period between June 1794 and March 1798. Horatio is seventeen when he reports aboard H.M.S. Justinian, becomes seasick immediately, and shortly afterwards is involved in a duel. Fortunately he is transferred to the frigate Indefatigable, under the command of the dashing Captain Sir Edward Pellew. Midshipman Hornblower is given the opportunity to bring a captured prize to port and promptly loses her. Captured by a French privateer, he sets fire to the enemy ship and effects her capture. His next learning experience is in a cutting-out expedition in which a French ship is stormed at her anchorage, captured, and sailed out. Then the young midshipman sees ship-to-ship action in command of the mizzen top. An unsuccessful attempt at a French Royalist invasion of Revolutionary France finds Horatio in action with British regular troops on the enemy shore. When the becalmed convoy, guarded by the Indefatigable, is attacked by Spanish galleys, Horatio captures one from a small craft. Promoted by Pellew to acting lieutenant, his examination for permanent promotion is interrupted and postponed by emergency action against Spanish fire ships at Gibraltar. He then has temporary command of a cattle boat. Finally, given his first real command, the tiny captured sloop Le Reve, Horatio is himself captured again, this time by the Spanish. His promotion comes through to him in captivity because of his outstanding service to date. The Spanish release him from captivity after he risks his life to effect the rescue of shipwrecked Spanish sailors. In four years the young lieutenant has had an enormous amount of adventure and experience on which he would draw during his future career as a King's Officer.

One additional story is set during Horatio's midshipmancy. “The Hand of Destiny” takes place from October through December 1796. The story was published in Collier's on November 23, 1940, long before Forester thought of the possibility of a collection of Midshipman Hornblower stories. In it, Hornblower faces his first days as a lieutenant. He prevents a mutiny and thwarts a cruel captain. Clearly, Forester omitted “The Hand of Destiny” from Midshipman Hornblower because it conflicts chronologically and artistically with later work. For example, during “The Hand of Destiny,” Hornblower is serving under a Captain Courtney on board His Majesty's Frigate Marguerite and they capture a Spanish vessel named the Castilla. In Midshipman Hornblower during the same period, Horatio is quite busy on the Indefatigable, under Captain Pellew. It is stated that he has been promoted to lieutenant at the age of twenty, whereas in Midshipman Hornblower he is promoted in August 1797 at the age of twenty-one, and while in Spanish captivity. Hornblower will fight another vessel named Castilla in Hornblower and the Atropos (1953). Last, in Lord Hornblower (1948) he would put down yet another mutiny, once more obtaining a free hand from his superior officer to deal with the mutineers. Forester simply cannibalized this story and used the material elsewhere. Then he ignored it nearly ten years later in planning and writing the stories which would comprise Midshipman Hornblower.

The events of “Hornblower's Temptation,” first published in the Saturday Evening Post on December 9, 1950, and later included in Hornblower during the Crisis (1967), take place late in 1799 after his promotion, release, and restoration to duty. Hornblower is the junior lieutenant on H.M.S. Renown. He is given the onerous task of arranging for the execution of a man who is an Irish rebel and deserter by British standards but a hero to his own people. Hornblower agrees to forward the man's sea chest to his “wife” along with a letter and a poem. Eventually Hornblower discovers that the poem contains a coded combination for a secret compartment which holds a very large sum of money and a list of rebel names. Hornblower is tempted to turn over the trunk to his superiors but decides, in order to save the lives of the Irishmen on the list, to jettison the trunk and letter.

Lieutenant Hornblower (1952) introduces Hornblower's longtime friend and shipmate, Lieutenant William Bush. The story, covering the period from May 1800 through March 1803, is told through Bush's eyes. The Renown is commanded by the sadistic, schizophrenic, paranoiac Captain Sawyer, who accuses his lieutenants, of whom Hornblower is the most junior, of plotting a mutiny. Indeed, they have been contemplating the possible need for a Caine Mutiny-type take-over. As Sawyer is about to arrest his officers, he falls or is pushed down a hold. Suspicion seems to fall on Hornblower, who obviously is incapable of harming even a mad superior officer, and also on a mistreated volunteer named Welland. Bush and the reader never learn if Sawyer was pushed or actually fell, although Welland's offstage drowning at the end of the book somewhat implies guilt and expiation.

With Captain Sawyer incapacitated by his fall, the first lieutenant, Buckland, takes command. He is pusillanimous and finds it difficult to make decisions. He finally reads the secret orders given to Sawyer and orders an attack on the fortifications and privateer lair of Samana Bay, Santo Domingo. Poorly planned, it fails, but Hornblower saves the day with brilliant planning and courageous action. After capturing the Spanish fortifications and all the defenders, the victorious English embark all prisoners on the prizes and the Renown. The latter is captured by escaping prisoners while enroute to Kingston. Hornblower, skippering a prize, recaptures the ship of the line, while Sawyer is killed by the Spaniards, Bush severely wounded, and Buckland ignominiously caught and tied up in his bed.

In Kingston, Bush is hospitalized and Hornblower is promoted to commander, subject to final approval at home. He is given command of a sloop and sent to England, where he arrives just after news of peace with France, and so his promotion is not confirmed.

Bush returns to England, now paid off like most of the wartime naval officers, to find Hornblower impoverished, still a lieutenant, without a billet, and eking out a mere subsistence in a club, playing whist, an intellectual card game and the ancestor of bridge.

The reader and Bush meet Maria Mason, daughter of Hornblower's sharp-tongued landlady. Maria, who is dumpy and “not quite young,” is deeply in love with Horatio, who admires her and appreciates her kindness but does not love her. Nevertheless, the book's end finds Hornblower, to Bush's disgust, proposing to Maria, having learned that war with France is about to break out again, that his promotion is finally being confirmed, and that a command is awaiting him thanks to a card partner who admires his brilliant game, one Admiral Lord Parry, a commissioner of the navy.

The viewpoint in Hornblower and the Hotspur (1962) is the hero's once more. This work covers the period between April 1803 and July 1805. Hornblower is in command of the sloop Hotspur. His naval rank is commander. He has appointed Bush his first lieutenant. As the story opens, Hornblower marries Maria and proceeds to take the Hotspur on a long patrol to observe the French fleet at Brest as war approaches once more. Through brilliant seamanship he escapes from the guns of the French frigate Loire as war breaks out. Hornblower learns that Maria is pregnant. He plans and executes a successful attack on a French semaphore station and battery. Unfortunately, his steward proves to be a coward and the servant hangs himself in Hornblower's cabin. He is sent a well-trained servant, Doughty, who takes admirable care of Hornblower until the man makes a fatal mistake of striking a warrant officer in a quarrel. Hornblower reluctantly makes it possible for the steward to escape to the frigate Constitution, an American man-of-war in Cadiz, on her way to attack the Barbary pirates.

Meanwhile, Hornblower and the Hotspur survive a terrible winter on blockade duty and subsequently single-handedly thwart a French invasion of Ireland by smashing the transports. Then, given the opportunity to obtain vast prize money by being selected to participate in an action against a Spanish treasure fleet, Hornblower unselfishly chooses to take the Hotspur off to intercept the French frigate Felicite, attempting to warn the Spanish. Hornblower beats off the Frenchmen but loses all chance for the much-needed money, only to find later on that, although the treasure was captured, the sailors did not share the fortune due to a fine point of law. Maria has had a son, and when Hornblower returns to Plymouth she becomes pregnant again. As the book ends, Hornblower is recommended for promotion to captain and must leave the Hotspur.

Hornblower and the Crisis (1967; American title: Hornblower during the Crisis) deals with, or might have dealt with, the period between August and December 1805. Forester died before completing the work, although he left notes for the remainder of the book. The crisis is the impending invasion of Britain by Napoleon's amphibious forces which are waiting for Admiral Villenueve to achieve temporary control of the Channel. Meanwhile, the British nation is hoping that Nelson will be able to catch Villenueve at sea and destroy the French battle fleet.

As the story opens, Hornblower is just about to leave the Hotspur. He is relieved by Captain Meadows and he takes passage for England in a small supply vessel which, however, is delayed by adverse winds. While Hornblower is aboard the lighter, the Hotspur runs on a rock and is lost. Hornblower is a friendly witness at Meadow's court-martial. The latter received a reprimand and he winds up on the lighter with Hornblower with all the other officers from the Hotspur, including Bush.

The lighter, named Princess, is attacked by a French brig-of-war and, through Hornblower's clever plan and the courage of the English officers, the English get temporary control of the brig and escape. Meadows dies in the fight on the brig. Hornblower remembers to get the codes and dispatches from the cabin of the French captain.

Back at Plymouth, Hornblower brings the captured documents to the port admiral who sends him on to the Admiralty in London. Hornblower conceives a plan to copy and use the seals and Napoleon's signature from the documents to forge an order that, if delivered by British spies, would send Villenueve to sea, where Nelson could get at him. The Admiralty agrees to the plan, promotes Hornblower to captain, and sends him on the mission.

The plot continues in outline. Forester planned to send Hornblower to Spain with the forged order, where he would deliver it to Villenueve, who then would go to sea, only to be caught by Nelson at Trafalgar on October 21, 1805. Thus Hornblower would have been responsible for Nelson's opportunity to save England by ending the invasion crisis.

Hornblower and the Atropos (1953) encompasses the period from December 1805 to January 1808. Trafalgar has resulted in a decisive British victory and the death of Nelson. Maria is pregnant once more and the small family is traveling by canal boat from Gloucester to London. Hornblower is on his way to take command of the twenty-two-gun sloop Atropos. Although he is now a captain in rank, he is so junior that his new ship is still only a sloop-of-war, the smallest captain's billet in the Royal Navy.

To Hornblower's surprise, his first set of orders commands him to organize and execute plans for the funeral procession by water for the late Admiral Nelson. The main funeral barge, carrying the enormously heavy metal coffin, nearly sinks, placing both the hero of Trafalgar's body and Hornblower's career in grave jeopardy. Both “survive” the funeral by inches, for “never, never, would England forgive the man who allowed Nelson's coffin to sink, unceremoniously, in Thames mud beside the Isle of Dogs.”3

At the very moment the funeral is taking place, Maria is giving birth to a daughter, their second child. Hornblower is presented to King George III. The king, sane at the time, orders Hornblower to take under his wing the royal great-nephew, the Prince of Seitz-Bunau, as a midshipman on the Atropos. With the Atropos at anchor in a fog, Hornblower rescues a British merchant ship seized by a French privateer, which he then captures. Hornblower sails for the Mediterranean, where he surmounts political, personnel, and technical difficulties to salvage British gold and silver from beneath the noses and guns of the Turks.

Another Spanish Castilla appears and Atropos joins with H. M. Frigate Nightingale, 28, to defeat and capture her. Hornblower takes Atropos to Sicily for repairs and there, unfortunately, the King of the Two Sicilies, having been driven from Naples by Napoleon and now shipless, desires a war ship and Admiral Collingwood finds it politically expedient to give the king the smallest ship in his command, the Atropos. Bitterly Hornblower returns to England to seek a frigate command, hopefully the Lydia, now fitting out. Arriving in Portsmouth, he rushes to Maria, only to find the children ill with smallpox.

Six months later Hornblower is at sea again on the Lydia, a thirty-six-gun frigate. The Happy Return (1937; American title: Beat to Quarters) covers some five months in Hornblower's career, June through October 1808. Bush is Hornblower's first lieutenant and we meet for the first time Coxswain Brown, and the woman who will be Hornblower's second wife, Lady Barbara. We also learn, late in the story, that Hornblower and Maria's two children have died of the smallpox attack related in Hornblower and the Atropos.

Hornblower has been ordered to sail the Lydia, 36, around Cape Horn to the Pacific Coast off Spanish Central America without making an intermediary port. The Lydia has been under sail for seven months and out of sight of land for eleven weeks. Hornblower achieves a miracle of navigation by making a perfect landfall anyway, arriving as ordered at the Gulf of Fonesca to meet with a mad Spanish rebel who calls himself El Supremo. Hornblower, with much distaste, supplies the rebel band with guns and ammunition and then captures the fifty-gun Spanish ship of the line Natividad, turning the valuable vessel over to El Supremo. Sailing South, Hornblower learns that Spain has taken herself out of the Napoleonic orbit and has allied herself with Britain. Now Hornblower must recapture the Natividad.

The situation is further complicated by the appearance of young Lady Barbara Wellesley in Panama. She is the sister of the future Duke of Wellington and thus one of the most influential women in the British Empire. Lady Barbara, marooned in the Spanish possession, insists on passage to England. Reluctantly Hornblower accedes to her demands. However, despite her presence on board, he must first find and defeat the Natividad once more. This time she is better manned, and the rebels put up a courageous fight before sinking. The damage to the Lydia is enormous and the Spanish will not help Hornblower repair his vessel, so Hornblower sails her to a deserted island and completely refits the battered ship in a mere sixteen days.

Meanwhile Lady Barbara has been a great help with the wounded, and the taciturn captain falls in love with her. She loves Hornblower and offers to become his mistress. The tormented hero cannot bring himself to make love to her and the angered aristocrat sweeps out of his life. The story ends with Hornblower on his way home to Maria, seemingly relieved at having escaped commitment and scandal.

A Ship of the Line (1938) covers the period between May and October of 1810. Hornblower is in command of the ship of the line Sutherland, 74, the “ugliest and least desirable two decker in the Navy list.” He has retained Bush as his first lieutenant. Meanwhile Lady Barbara has married Rear Admiral Sir Percy Leighton and she may have secretly used her influence to help obtain Hornblower his new command, for the Sutherland has been assigned to Leighton's squadron. Maria is pregnant once more.

The Sutherland is assigned to convoy duty and Hornblower saves a fleet of East Indiamen from French privateers through brilliant shiphandling. Temporarily on independent duty, he takes prizes, destroys a shore battery, and even routs an army marching down a Spanish road. Hornblower achieves five victories in three days. When the flagship is dismasted and near to foundering in a fierce storm, Hornblower tows the stricken vessel to safety in a fashion similar to the way a ship of Nelson's was once saved by a subordinate.

Hornblower does not get on well with Leighton, who is not quite up to his job. The admiral orders Hornblower to take command of an ill-conceived and ill-fated Anglo-Spanish amphibious expedition against the French fortification at Rosas. The attack fails and Hornblower barely escapes death. Finally Hornblower takes on four French ships of the line in a desperate attempt to prevent them from escaping Leighton's squadron. Although the French are mauled, the Sutherland is shot to pieces, Bush's foot is blown off, and Hornblower surrenders the ship. As the book ends, Hornblower is facing years of captivity.

The story “Hornblower's Charitable Offering,” which appeared in the May, 1941 issue of Argosy, may have been intended originally as a chapter in Ship of the Line and left out of the book by Forester perhaps because he finished it too late for inclusion, or it may have been an afterthought. The moment is sometime between May 16, 1810, when Sutherland departed Plymouth, and June 12, 1810, when she reached her squadron rendezvous off Point Palamos.

The Sutherland rescues two wretched French escapees from the Spanish prison island of Cabrera, where 20,000 French prisoners of war are being held without shelter and are near starvation. In an act of compassion, surely difficult to explain later on to the Admiralty, Hornblower lands a portion of his ship's food supplies to the pathetic prisoners.

Flying Colours (1938) picks up Hornblower's career immediately after the surrender of the Sutherland and covers the period from November 1810 through June 1811. Hornblower is a disconsolate prisoner at Rosas. The four damaged French ships and the stricken Sutherland are at anchor beneath his fortress prison. He witnesses their destruction by British fire-ships.

Hornblower is to be sent to Paris with Bush to stand trial for “piracy” by order of Napoleon. It is expected that Hornblower will be executed. Hornblower selects Coxswain Brown to accompany them as his servant during the long and arduous winter coach trip under guard through the heart of France. Bush is feverish because of the amputation of his lower leg and Hornblower and Brown struggle to keep him alive on the cruel trip. The coach runs off the road in a snow storm and, seeing a rowboat at the riverside, Hornblower seizes upon an escape plan. The Englishmen overpower their chief captor and steal the boat. They drift down the unknown river until capsized at a waterfall.

Miraculously they all survive and make their way to the first house in sight, where to their good fortune they are sheltered by an old royalist, the Comte de Graçay, and his young, widowed daughter-in-law, Marie. Four months later, the lady becomes Hornblower's lover. In the spring, the Englishmen attempt to escape from France by building a fifteen-foot, flat-bottomed boat (the same length as the Annie Marble), and rowing down the Loire to Nantes, where, disguised as Dutch officers loyal to the French, they recapture the British cutter Witch of Endor, 10, and, with the help of released prisoners of the French, fight off pursuers and sail the vessel to the British channel fleet, where Hornblower is welcomed as one thought to be dead. Bush is immediately promoted to commander.

Hornblower soon learns first that Leighton is dead and then that Maria died giving birth to a son who has survived. In England the routine court-martial acquits him with honor. Hornblower is taken to London and is invested as a Knight of the Order of the Bath by the Prince Regent. He is also awarded a sinecure pension as Colonel of Marines. Now affluent and famous, but still not happy, Sir Horatio calls on Lady Barbara, who has been caring for his infant son, Richard. Flying Colours ends with Hornblower knowing “she was his for the asking,” and the clear implication that he would ask.

Commodore Hornblower (1945) opens with Horatio and Barbara married and living in the manor house of Smallbridge. The book covers the period between May and October 1812. Hornblower is promoted to commodore and ordered to take a squadron of vessels to the Baltic to harass the French forces, protect British maritime trade, show the flag, and exert diplomatic pressure on the Swedes and Russians in the British cause. Hornblower is now a player on the great stage of European diplomacy. He is given the seventy-four-gun ship of the line Nonsuch for his flag and, at his request, one-legged Bush is made captain of the flagship, serving as Hornblower's second in command.

Towing a disabled bomb ketch, Hornblower's squadron forces its way into the Baltic past enemy batteries. He recaptures a prize and cleverly destroys the French privateer Blanchefleur with mortar fire from his two bomb vessels. The action, in Swedish waters, so angers Napoleon that he seizes a piece of Sweden, alienating that nation.

Hornblower sails to the Russian naval base at Kronshtadt, where he stiffens Czar Alexander's resolve to resist Napoleon. Hornblower thwarts his Finnish-born interpreter's attempt to assassinate the czar and Prince Bernadotte of Sweden. Getting slightly drunk at an imperial banquet, Hornblower makes love to the Countess Canerine. She gives him fleas.

Operating in the Baltic, Hornblower harasses Bonaparte's northern flank. Ordered to Riga to prevent one of Napoleon's armies, under the command of General Macdonald, from reaching the northern Russian capital, St. Petersburg, Hornblower meets the countess once more but remains sober. At the siege of Riga, Hornblower serves with Colonel von Clausewitz, the great military theorist, who has defected from the Prussian army under Napoleon's control and is aiding the Russian stand against the tyrant.

Hornblower's bomb ketches blast Macdonald's siege and field artillery, gaining more time for the Russians. Hornblower then plans and executes a successful amphibious operation. Caught up in an enemy attack, Hornblower, on horseback, saves the Russian defenders by leading them in a flanking counterattack. The Russian army and the British naval squadron hold Macdonald at Riga while Napoleon meets his destiny at Moscow, but Hornblower is physically exhausted by his exertions. Finally, as Macdonald retreats, Hornblower has a feverish inspiration and he gallops with Clausewitz after the Prussian army in Macdonald's force. Hornblower convinces the Prussians to defect from Napoleon, thus changing the entire course of the war. Hornblower has practically saved Russia and caused Prussia to switch from the French to the British cause. However, he has contracted typhus and the squadron sails home without him. Recovering, he makes his way home to England and Barbara's arms.

The events of the story “Hornblower and His Majesty,” published in the March 23, 1940, issue of Collier's and the March 1941 issue of Argosy, take place sometime during the period from late 1812, when Hornblower ostensibly has recovered from his illness and is back on duty, and December 24, 1815, the date of peace between Britain and the United States, and the end of the War of 1812. Here Forester is careless about dates or arithmetic, and Hornblower's Baltic command, not having been written as yet, is of course ignored. Since Forester mentions recent single-ship-action victories by the United States, the time most likely is the end of the first six months of the War of 1812, sometime in January 1813. Sir Horatio is given command of the royal yacht Augusta and ordered to take the mad but lovable King George III for a healthful sail up the English Channel.

The royal yacht is surprised and chased by a Yankee privateer. Hornblower is tempted to surrender with the thought that the capture of the king might bring about an end to the unnecessary war between Britain and America. Putting temptation aside, Hornblower effects an escape into a fog bank.

Lord Hornblower (1946) extends over the period from October 1813 through May 1814. Hornblower is called upon to suppress yet another mutiny. This time the men of the brig Flame have imprisoned their cruel captain and threatened to sail the ship into French hands if they are not given amnesty and redress. Commodore Hornblower is assigned the sister ship of the Flame, the brig Porta Coeli, and he obtains orders to negotiate. He locates the mutineers off Le Harve and is unable to convince them to give up. Hornblower tricks the French into driving the Flame towards him, and in a brilliant hand to hand boarding Hornblower leads the recapture of the Flame and the acquisition of a French prize.

A French prisoner suggests that the mayor of Le Harve might be able to cause the war-weary city to defect in exchange for commercial privileges. Hornblower sends for reinforcements and to Hornblower's delight, Captain Bush arrives with the Nonsuch, 74. The city is secured and Hornblower becomes governor (an early Douglas MacArthur) of a French port with a Bourbon duke as figurehead ruler. Hornblower waits for a French counterattack. He sends Bush up the Seine to attack and destroy the French siege train, and although Bush is successful, he is killed when the powder barges blow up. Hornblower is disconsolate at the loss of his best friend through his orders.

Immediately, Barbara arrives with additional French royalty. Napoleon is finally defeated and Paris is taken. Hornblower is rewarded for his seizure of Le Harve by elevation to the peerage. He is now Lord Hornblower of Smallbridge. In Paris, Barbara is asked by her brother, the Duke of Wellington, to go to Vienna with him and serve as his hostess as he represents England at the Council of Vienna. Barbara is delighted, but Hornblower refuses to accompany her, partly out of jealousy for his brother-in-law's achievement and partly because there would be nothing for him to do there. They quarrel.

Before leaving for Smallbridge, Hornblower meets his old friend the Count de Graçay, and his former lover, Marie, for whom his feelings rekindle. The timing is dangerous for his marriage and career.

With Barbara in Vienna, Hornblower returns to Smallbridge but is soon restless. He and Brown decide to visit Graçay at the count's invitation. He and Marie become lovers again while Brown marries a young French girl. Suddenly their reverie is interrupted by the news that Napoleon has escaped from Elba and the Bourbon army has deserted to Bonaparte. France is Napoleon's again and Hornblower, the count, Marie, and Brown must flee for their lives.

Asked to lead a guerrilla uprising, they forfeit their chance for escape but manage to tie down a division of French troops sorely needed by Napoleon in the North. In the moment of their capture, Marie is shot to death. The count and Hornblower are sentenced to be shot, and as Hornblower awaits execution at dawn he is told, “It is not death.” Napoleon has been defeated at Waterloo. This time the war is truly over and he will return to Barbara and his son, Richard.

“The Point and the Edge” is merely an outline of a story which Forester relates in The Hornblower Companion (1964) as an example of his writing technique.4 Hornblower, in the year 1819, is a very senior captain keeping busy and fit on the beach by taking fencing lessons. He is nearly mugged by a destitute thug but he defeats and captures the mugger with the point of his walking stick. Instead of having the man arrested and executed, he has him enlisted in the Royal Navy. Forester either never actually wrote out the story or it was never published and subsequently lost or destroyed.

Hornblower in the West Indies (1958; American title: Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies) covers the period between May 1821 and October 1823. Hornblower is now a rear admiral and has been given his first full flag assignment as commander-in-chief of the British West Indies Squadron. It is peacetime and the squadron consists of only a few frigates, brigs, and schooners. Yet there is much to do. In New Orleans, Hornblower learns of a French plot to rescue Napoleon from St. Helena and return him to the throne of France, with the probable further outcome that the world would be torn by war once more.

Hornblower thwarts the plot by lying to General Count Cambonne, commander of the Old Guard. He tells the general that Napoleon is dead, giving his word of honor as a gentleman that he speaks the truth. The French are diverted from St. Helena and the despairing Hornblower returns to base to resign his commission because of his loss of honor, only to find that Napoleon has indeed died. Hornblower's long, personal conflict with Napoleon is finally over and the world is saved from the scourge of war.

In the next episode, Hornblower captures a speedy Spanish slaver by cleverly having a drogue attached to the faster ship's rudder. Then Hornblower is kidnapped by pirates in Jamaica, and after his release he destroys their lair using mortar fire once more.

Hornblower then is a witness to the victory of General Simón Bolívar at the turning point of the war for Venezuelan liberation, the Battle of Carabobo on June 24, 1821. His sympathies are with the rebels, who are aided by British mercenaries.

After his three-year tour of duty is at an end, Lady Barbara comes out from England to meet him in Kingston and return home with her husband. Hornblower is saddened by the end of his command. He has, of course, performed brilliantly. Upon being relieved of command, Hornblower and Lady Barbara take passage on a packet ship bound for home. The Pretty Jane runs into a fierce hurricane and nearly founders. Only a waterlogged cargo keeps her afloat. Hornblower takes charge and through his courage, seamanship, and intelligence he saves Barbara's life and the lives of the surviving crew. In the face of imminent death, Barbara confesses that she never loved her first husband and that she has only loved Hornblower. After their safe arrival in Puerto Rico, Hornblower realizes that Barbara's words have made him happy forever.

In the early 1960s Forester wrote the story “The Last Encounter” as a conclusion to the Hornblower Saga, and then he deposited the manuscript in his bank vault, probably desiring its publication after his death. It was published with Hornblower and the Crisis (1967). The story is set in 1848, the year of revolution. Hornblower is now seventy-two, healthy and wealthy, recently promoted to Admiral-of-the-Fleet, although he can never expect active duty again. Lady Barbara is well and still beautiful. Brown continues to serve as Hornblower's butler, although a long time ago he substituted “Ye, my lord,” for “aye, aye sir.” Son Richard is a colonel in the guards serving the young Queen Victoria, and there are promising grandchildren.

On a rainy night a man comes to Smallbridge announcing that he is “Napoleon Bonaparte” and asking the loan of a horse and carriage to get him to the next train station so that he can rush to Paris to meet his destiny in the forthcoming elections. Old Hornblower is sure that the man is mad, but is amused that someone should impersonate, albeit badly, his old, long-deceased adversary. The stranger flatters Lady Barbara and she talks Hornblower into indulging the request. Later it turns out that the visitor was indeed a Bonaparte, Prince Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon I, Pretender to the Imperial Throne, soon to be President of France and eventually Emperor Napoleon III. Once more Hornblower has influenced history. Thus with a humorous tale, the Saga of Horatio Hornblower comes to a happy conclusion.

In 1964 Forester published The Hornblower Companion containing charts of the Hornblower adventures drawn by Samuel H. Bryant with Forester's comments on the locales and “Some Personal Notes.” The latter is an account of Forester's writing techniques and a history of how he came to create and develop Hornblower.5


Forester did not set out in 1936 to write a novel epic. Hornblower came into being as the answer to a set of problems devised by a working novelist as he pursued his craft in the subgenre of the historical novel. Hornblower became almost a living character, and Forester spun out the Hornblower Saga in part because of the circumstances of the novelist's life, because of the initial growing demand for the reading public for more Hornblower, and because Forester found in Hornblower an alter-ego, a surrogate life of action to complement his own life of the mind, his own life of ever-decreasing physical activity.

Not surprisingly, the origin of the Hornblower Saga lies in both chance and Forester's penchant for eclectic and esoteric research. The second-hand purchase in 1927 of the three volumes of The Naval Chronicle from 1790 to 1820, to be read and reread aboard the Annie Marble, provided Forester, along with continuing interest in the Napoleonic war and the Peninsular Campaign, with the seeds for the Saga. Forester also studied Sir Charles Oman's magnum opus, A History of the Peninsular War (1902-1930), after writing Death to the French and The Gun. Finally, although he never mentioned it in his brief autobiographical writings, Forester must have become acquainted with the life and career of Admiral Lord Donald Cochrane and perhaps read either Cochrane's autobiography6 or the biography written by his heir, Thomas Barnes Cochrane.7 Cochrane was probably the greatest frigate captain in the history of the Royal Navy and surely one of its most outstanding seamen. The parallels between Cochrane's real life and Hornblower's fictional life are almost startling. Their dates are similar, Cochrane having been born in 1775 and having died in 1860. Cochrane performed convoy duty in frigates and on several occasions saved English merchant ships from French coastal privateers as Hornblower does in Ship of the Line.8 Cochrane used signal and flag ruses as Hornblower does in Ship of the Line and the tactic is used unsuccessfully against Hornblower in Commodore Hornblower. Cochrane once took on three French ships of the line with only one small ship at his command and damaged them considerably before surrendering, as Hornblower does in Ship of the Line. Cochrane, in sloops or frigates, defeated much more powerful ships, as Hornblower does in The Happy Return. Cochrane fought dockyard corruption, as Hornblower attempts to do in a small way in Hornblower and the Atropos. Cochrane conducted extremely successful amphibious actions against enemy signal stations, shore batteries, and harbors with prizes to cut out, as Hornblower does while commanding both Hotspur and Sutherland. Both Cochrane and Hornblower are harassed by bureaucrats for supposedly excess use of powder and shot expended in the King's service. Cochrane was a friend of the Wellesley family. Like Hornblower, Cochrane destroyed a French army column ashore by brilliant inshore shiphandling and outstanding gunnery. Cochrane planned and led a great fire-ship action similar to the one Hornblower observed at the beginning of Flying Colours. Cochrane was made Knight of the Bath by George III in 1809, Hornblower in 1811. Both Cochrane and Hornblower obtain command of the West Indies Station. Cochrane planned a rescue of Napoleon from St. Helena in order to make him Emperor of South America. Hornblower thwarts a rescue attempt in Hornblower in the West Indies.

However, although both Cochrane and Hornblower were superb navigators and as commanders were adored by their men, their backgrounds and personalities differed. Cochrane was a nobleman by birth and, although beloved by subordinates, was hated by superiors because of his arrogant, uncompromising, and overweening manner. Hornblower was never disrespectful to superior officers no matter what he thought of their abilities. Hornblower's career, when compared to Cochrane's, actually seems more plausible. Yet both the wild lord and the careful, middle-class mariner end their lives as Admirals-of-the-Fleet, the highest rank in the Royal Navy.

Only Lord Nelson, also a middle-class mariner, can claim to have more influence over the writing of the Hornblower Saga than Lord Cochrane. Forester wrote a biography of Nelson before he created Hornblower. In some ways the Hornblower Saga is almost a biography of Cochrane.

The details provided in The Naval Chronicles intrigued Forester. In them he not only learned of naval campaigns, ships' encounters, and diplomatic accomplishments, but also of shiphandling, maneuvers, stationkeeping, signaling, gunnery, heavy-weather sailing, courts-martial, punishment, and execution. He learned in full detail the texts of treaties such as the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812. In a sense, by reading and rereading the Chronicles and other related books, Forester trained vicariously as a British naval officer of the Napoleonic period.

Observing the captain of the Margaret Johnson at work, the Man Alone, in command, making decisions sometimes of a life-and-death nature, but much more often of routine and business, Forester conceived the idea of an historical novel set in the Central American waters he was then visiting in a leisurely manner. It would be a naval story, probably because Forester was at sea, for he was also fascinated by the character of the Duke of Wellington, who certainly could have illustrated and provided a situation of exploring the problems, challenges, and possibilities of the Man Alone as he led the isolated British Expeditionary Force in the Iberian Peninsula. But a sea story it would be, one partially set in the Gulf of Fonesca, where the Margaret Johnson anchored and Forester did some power boating. If Wellington would not figure in the novel which would be The Happy Return, an imaginary younger sister, Miss Barbara Wellesley, would. The Wellesley family had had its scandals. Nelson, of course, had been involved with Lady Hamilton. Perhaps the fictitious sister might have a fictitious naval lover?

The world of 1936 was obsessed with the break-up of Spain and the rising tide of war. In comparison, Forester thought of the break-up of the Spanish Empire in Bonaparte's time and immediately afterwards, a break-up in which Nelson and Cochrane had participated. Queer things had happened on the Central American coast. Could the British, in their desperate attempt to wrench Spain out of the French orbit in 1808, have supported a demonic rebel, one who might call himself El Supremo? Thus the first character of the Hornblower Saga was born, and he was not Hornblower, the hero, but El Supremo, the villain.9

Finally, as the Margaret Johnson entered the Atlantic, the British naval captain, who would be a victim of the Spanish change of sides following Napoleon's attempt to put his brother in the throne of Spain, and who would have to first befriend and then battle El Supremo, began to develop. Hornblower was to be Forester's main example of the Man Alone. The writer would send his protagonist on independent duty far from home and diplomatic support; and further complicate matters for the tested officer by placing an influential noblewoman aboard the captain's man-of-war. That ship would have to be a frigate, for ships of the line seldom operated independently, anymore than battleships did in World War I or World War II.

Without intending to create an epic hero of eleven volumes' duration, Forester, nevertheless, from the beginning set a particular task for himself. Although his hero would conquer his country's enemy or enemies in time, his internal struggles, his cynicism concerning his own motives, his human weaknesses, and his occasional despair would engage him in internal combat for a lifetime. Never would that struggle entirely subside into self-satisfaction.10

Hornblower was not to be an aristocrat, thus making the affair with Lady Barbara more complicated and more interesting. He would be in his early thirties, married to an uninteresting and less than attractive woman, whom he seldom managed to see due to the demands of his profession. Most of all, however, the hero, soon to be named Horatio Hornblower, would be a perceptive, imaginative man, brave but not fearless, a superb leader, through which the reading public would be able to see the events and actions of the novel. He would also be shy and unsure of himself socially, a somewhat tall and gangling man, handsome in an unselfconscious, rugged, masculine way. He would get tongue-tied and seasick. He would be a whiz at mathematics and be totally tone-deaf. The Happy Return was then written with comparative ease and Horatio Hornblower was born seemingly to live out his fictional life in one year and one book.

After the acceptance of The Happy Return, Forester continued to study the Peninsular War and the way British seapower had strangled Napoleon's attempt to reinforce and supply by sea his fortresses in Spain. Simultaneously, Forester was growing more and more interested in General Francisco Franco's revolt in Spain. The author decided to write a sequel to The Happy Return in which he could portray the effectiveness of the British blockade in 1809-1810. Hornblower was to be resurrected and given command of a ship of the line and sent to the Spanish Coast, where he could again use his knowledge of Spanish, first ascertained in The Happy Return. He would help Wellington in thwarting the French design for Spain. But this time Hornblower was not to be so successful. It was one of Forester's most important decisions, in writing Ship of the Line, to insure that Hornblower would not always be victorious, at least not at first. He would lose Lady Barbara to Admiral Leighton. He would be one of the few English captains ever to surrender a ship to the French, and the novel would end with his career in shambles, with Hornblower parted, seemingly until the long war ended, from both his wife and the woman who had nearly been his lover.

With Hornblower a prisoner of the French in a Spanish fortress, Forester began to read some of the letters of Napoleon. The letters revealed to Forester that Napoleon was essentially unscrupulous in nearly all his dealings, a nineteenth-century Machiavellian and practitioner of Realpolitik. Napoleon could be “induced” by the novelist to condemn the imprisoned British captain as a pirate because he had employed a ruse of war in sailing under false colors. The ruse was legitimate but Napoleon could still make political capital out of it. Perhaps there could be an escape arranged for Hornblower, but how could this occur if Hornblower and the wounded Bush were to be transported to Paris for a travesty trial and with almost all of Continental Europe in Napoleon's hands? The problem was fascinating for Forester and Flying Colours resulted.

The difficulty of finding a way for three Englishmen to escape from the middle of France, with one of them recently relieved of a foot, was resolved by Forester's recollection of his boating trip years before on the River Loire in the Annie Marble. Forester's experiences afloat were never as a yachting sailor but rather as a river and canal boatsman. He would put the three escaping Englishmen, Hornblower, Bush, and Brown, into a small boat and float them down a river. The title of the book was, in fact, suggested by the publisher, Michael Joseph, who said to Forester, “You want to bring him back with flying colours?”11 Once Forester got his escapees down to the port city of Nantes, he knew Hornblower could find a ship and sail them all safely home again; but what fun to have his hero no longer in command of a mighty ship of the line, but temporarily skipper of a twenty-foot boat and a crew of three.

Forester decided at this time to kill off both Maria and Admiral Leighton so that there would be no impediments to the marriage of Horatio and Barbara. Yet despite his love affair with Marie de Graçay and the unexpected intimacy with Bush, Hornblower remained the Man Alone, keeping his own counsel always, in command and solely responsible.

It was six years between the writing of Flying Colours and Commodore Hornblower, years in which Forester struggled with crippling arteriosclerosis and depression. The thought of continuing his hero's active life, just as his own active life had been curtailed, appealed to Forester. However it was bomb ketches that really caught his attention. Forester had developed a fascination for those strange, ill-used, two-masted, mortar-carrying vessels of the Napoleonic period. They had been used frequently in amphibious operations, the kind of affair Hornblower rather excelled in. Their special value was that they could lob an exploding shell shoreward in a high trajectory, rather than merely send a solid shot a short distance on a flat trajectory. The bomb ketches presented the first realistic shore bombardment possibilities. Forester had witnessed the effective use of modern long-range gunnery in shore bombardment aboard an American battleship in 1943, just prior to his illness. He decided to plan a hypothetical ship-to-shore campaign with bomb ketches and larger vessels to cover the mortars. Of course, Hornblower was ready to command the squadron. He was ready for promotion, too, to commodore. And he had been trained by Forester as a Man Alone, now ready to make strategic as well as tactical decisions, ready to deal with friendly nations as well as neutrals and enemies. The place was the Baltic, the year was 1812, the book was Commodore Hornblower. Of course it was better for Forester, with his millions of American readers, to have Hornblower in the Baltic in 1812 rather than off Baltimore that fateful year.

Commodore Hornblower first came out in serial form in the Saturday Evening Post. Forester was never quite sure that his work was well suited for that kind of publication and later on the Hornblower books would suffer somewhat because of their episodal construction forced on them by the length limitations and the need for chapter or section climaxes. As a general and family magazine, the Post required a degree of sanitizing and decorum not expected in general fiction in the 1940s through the 1960s. Nevertheless, Hornblower's adultery in Commodore Hornblower, albeit a one-night stand under the influence of drink (Commodore Hornblower could never hold liquor well) and punished by the infestation of fleas, was the first adultery in the history of the Post and it provoked numerous newspaper comments and letters from the reading public. Did Forester mean to imply that the typhus Hornblower contracted, a disease passed on through lice, might have been transmitted in the act of adulterous sexual intercourse and was perhaps a punishment on the Adventurer by the God-Novelist for his first infidelity to Lady Barbara?

Hornblower's recovery after typhus paralleled Forester's partial recovery from arteriosclerosis, or at least the disease had halted and the author had learned to live with his disability. He also had been disabled.

It was now 1945 and Forester was witnessing the break-up of the three Axis empires. With Hornblower safely back at Smallbridge, Forester began to reflect on the fall of the Napoleonic empire. It must be remembered that the first five of Forester's Hornblower books were written either just before or during World War II. In the writing of Commodore Hornblower and Lord Hornblower, Forester used Napoleon as a surrogate Hitler. Both men had been archenemies of England, both had conquered almost all of Continental Europe, both had been kept at bay by the British Navy, and both had come within inches, or rather the few miles of the English Channel, of conquering Forester's beloved country. Now Forester turned with relish to Hornblower's part in the defeat, if not in the death, of the villain who had longed for his blood.

During the last days of Napoleon's reign, the city of Bordeaux had defected from the emperor's cause. Forester thought it might be an interesting task for his Man Alone to be involved in the defection of a French city, to have to run it, supply it, defend it, as many an Allied commander had done or was still doing in Europe, Asia, and Africa. After all, some, like General Douglas MacArthur, had whole nations to administer.

Now Forester decided to complicate the relationship between Horatio and Barbara. By having them go their separate ways from Paris after Hornblower meets Marie once more, Forester is able to start up the romance between Hornblower and Marie again and to create a situation in which Hornblower is trapped in France during Napoleon's brief return to power before the Battle of Waterloo. Lord Hornblower turned out to be the most carefully crafted and precisely motivated of the Hornblower novels, the one which satisfied Forester the most. It builds to great suspense and ends only a minute or so after Hornblower has been reprieved from certain death.

Soon after completing Lord Hornblower and believing he was finished with the naval hero, Forester suffered a severe and near fatal heart attack. He was only given an even chance to live. Once more Forester turned to the Hornblower Saga for therapy. He decided to write on the young Hornblower's beginning, with his entry into the Royal Navy as a midshipman. Remembering his even chance to live or die, Forester created a depressed young man willing to take an even chance in a duel, either to rid himself of a tormentor or be killed and thus end an unbearable existence. It was also pleasant to imagine Lord Hornblower as a young man, eighteen years old, navigating French prizes, skirmishing with Spanish galleys, eventually taken prisoner, and conveniently learning Spanish in preparation for previously written adventures aboard the Lydia. Hornblower seemed to confer some of his youth on his creator, who rallied and recovered. Thus, Midshipman Hornblower was written as a labor of therapy and love.

It was only natural for Forester to begin to fill in further gaps in the Saga between Midshipman Hornblower's career and Captain Hornblower's adventures. Lieutenant Hornblower followed the midshipman's story. Forester had found a copy of a British militia artillery manual of 1860 and he became very interested in the use of heated shot by coast artillery against wooden ships. He wanted to put that information into a novel. Forester could also pay homage to Hornblower's doughty friend Bush, sadly dispatched in Lord Hornblower, by letting the good lieutenant, his shot-away foot temporarily restored, tell this story. Now Forester could also explain Hornblower's rather improbable marriage to Maria. Hornblower is then promoted, loses the promotion because of peace, is in despair, and then regains the promotion with the renewal of war with France. He is a commander, but the readers will not see Hornblower acting in that rank until much later.

Now Forester skips from 1803 to 1805 and he will have to back and fill later on. But in Hornblower and the Atropos he can link up with The Happy Return. Hornblower is to be a very junior captain, too junior to have commanded a ship of the line, alas, at Trafalgar, but of just the right seniority to be given charge of the water section of the funeral arrangements for Nelson. Forester can also use his knowledge of the inland waterways of England. He had spent much time on the English canals and rivers in a motorboat. Now he could combine this knowledge with his interest in exploring further the relationship between Hornblower and Maria, whom he had killed off in Flying Colours. And then the two children had to die. The little happiness they had brought Horatio was over and Forester could feel quite satisfied that although Hornblower had been given much happiness with Barbara and his third child, Richard, he had earned his family bliss with his early unhappiness and suffering.

After Hornblower and the Atropos, Forester had the opportunity to sail in the West Indies. In those lovely, warm waters he got to thinking about Hornblower again. His hero was not one to remain happy for long, and it was time to consider his career after the end of the Napoleonic wars. Perhaps, given the long, peacetime wait between commands, Hornblower at Smallbridge would begin to brood over Barbara's first marriage. Did she love Leighton, or his memory, more than she loved him? Better to promote him to rear admiral and to send him to sea again. The West Indies kept the shrunken Royal Navy busy enough in the 1820s. There was a great deal of fighting going on in Central and South America, the slave trade was under attack from the Royal Navy, piracy needed suppression, and finally there was the odd fact located that some of Napoleon's Old Guard had seized a piece of Texas from Mexico and had tried unsuccessfully to colonize it. Perhaps they could be inveigled into an attempt to free their old master on St. Helena and return him to the throne of France? Of course his nemesis, Horatio Hornblower, would just happen to be Commander-in-Chief of the West Indies Squadron and the one to thwart such a sinister design. Most important of all for the Hornblower Saga is the fact that Forester used Hornblower in the West Indies to finally cement the bond between Hornblower and Barbara. Forester brings the development of that relationship to fruition and culmination in the great storm scene. Their love is on firm ground forever. The next and last appearance of Lady Barbara is as a contented old woman in “The Last Encounter.”

Forester had finished with Hornblower's active service with Hornblower in the West Indies and he had to back and fill once more. Fortunately, there was a significant gap in Hornblower's early career to be filled in. Hornblower had not been seen in the rank of commander and the period from 1803 to 1805 should have found him in a sea command distinguishing himself enough to obtain the rank of captain and command of the Atropos. Hornblower and the Hotspur resulted. The incident of the forfeited prize money actually occurred in 1804, and the Hotspur's seakeeping blockade off France was based on the actions of small ships of the Royal Navy during that very period. Hornblower was at his best in single-ship, Man Alone situations. Commanding the Hotspur brought out the finest in Hornblower and, indeed, the best in Forester. Although episodal, Hornblower and the Hotspur is perhaps the most tightly knit and believable of the Saga.

But if time could be played back and rerun for Hornblower it could not be for Forester. The novelist decided to write “The Last Encounter” as a wrap-up story and put it away until after his death. Then, almost as an afterthought, Forester went to work on a long Hornblower novel once more. At last Forester would deal with the one precise time in the naval history of the Napoleonic Wars he had assiduously avoided: Trafalgar. Hornblower, who already had been made to attend Nelson's coffin in Hornblower and the Atropos, surely would have had at least something to do with England's greatest naval victory. A few months in 1805 remained available for some action by Hornblower and Forester decided to have his hero bring about the decisive action at Trafalgar by espionage work, since he apparently could not have been at the battle, due to the lack of enough chronological time to develop a command situation between Hotspur and Atropos. So Forester died with Hornblower in action in Hornblower and the Crisis and on his way to force the French to fight Nelson. Thus he is still in transit, with Maria and their first son and Bush alive; and with the joys of Lady Barbara yet unknown.


The Hornblower Saga masterfully evokes a time, the Napoleonic Wars; a milieu, the life of a British naval officer of the epoch; and a place, the British world of the Romantic period. Forester takes his readers on a world tour during what was, in fact, a world war. We freeze in the Arctic and swelter in the Caribbean; we smell the stenches of rotting corpses, gunpowder, filthy bodies, excrement in the holds, and opulent food at imperial courts. Bullets and cannon shot miss us by inches; the sea is ever waiting to swallow us. Death comes suddenly and violently to our friends at our sides. But, like Hornblower, we survive shot and sharpened sword point, the worst the angry ocean can do, the perfidy of our enemies and even despair over the death of those we love. Always there is Forester's ultimate skill: he makes us believe we are there.

The effect was achieved because Forester mastered the quintessential skill of the historical novelist; the mixing of fact and fiction, of real personages and fictional characters, of actual events and plausible events which seem as if they could have happened at a circumscribed time and in a real place. Furthermore, and of great importance, there was Forester's intuitive realization that the historical novelist's success is directly proportional to his ability as a background painter. The historical panorama must appear unseamed and flawless to sustain the “suspension of disbelief.”

The Hornblower novels are, for the most part, heavily plotted on carefully constructed outlines. The reader's attention is quickly captured, and even when the novel is episodically constructed for serialization the storyline and the character interest carry through. Young readers today, picking up a paperback Hornblower, very frequently find themselves searching out additional titles until they have read the entire Saga, for above all the Hornblower books bring great pleasure to every class of readers.

Forester created a superb, ever-developing protagonist. When Hornblower first appears in Flying Colours he is something of a supersailor. His navigation is miraculous and he is able to defeat the ship of the line Natividad not once but twice. Something of a caricature, he is short-tempered and given to making odd sounds rather than communicating with people. Hornblower was created and first flourished in the period just before and during World War II, a time when many people in the world were looking for great heroes, perhaps almost comic book superheroes, as the war against the unmitigated evil of totalitarianism took shape. It was a time when men and women would most admire the military leader for his martial virtues. Generals and admirals were the most applauded of men: Montgomery, Eisenhower, MacArthur, Zhukov, Halsey, Nimitz, Patton, and even Rommel.

As time passed and the end of the war brought a waning of enthusiasm for the military man, Hornblower changed, became more human, more fallible. Midshipman Hornblower and Lieutenant Hornblower could make and did make errors; Commander Hornblower in Hornblower and the Hotspur is at his most complex, and in his most interesting person. Hornblower is a man living in a more disillusioned world.

With Hornblower in the West Indies, Forester was able to capture the British sense of having become a declining world sea power, so that the admiral has only a few small ships for his squadron and, like an old and almost toothless lion, uses cunning instead of strength. Wits would have to serve for power, even at the risk of honor. Thus, intuitively, perhaps, Forester made his hero serve the popular needs of his time and his audience by molding Hornblower into a reflection of the British, and even perhaps the American self-image.

Finally, Hornblower was a hero cut out for the mass audience. He illustrated the Romantic notion of advancement through merit. It was perhaps Forester's most manipulative alteration of probability to have a poor physician's son rise not only to high rank in the caste-ridden Royal Navy of the Napoleonic period, but even to marry into the first rank of nobility, something which even Nelson had not done. It was very gratifying for the millions who read the Saga to believe, however, that a humbly born man of integrity and ability, modest, and highly self-critical, loyal almost to a fault, could overcome such dangers and adversities as Hornblower did, could survive shot and prison fever, captivity, and a dictator's enmity to rise to the top of his profession and achieve his nation's esteem and the love of a brilliant, beautiful, influential, and rich woman.

If Hornblower and the Hotspur, with its brooding and suffering hero doing the grimmest duty of war, is Forester's best Hornblower novel, then Hornblower in the West Indies, except for the emotional recommitments of Horatio and Barbara at the end, is Forester's weakest, due not only to its jarringly episodal nature, but also to its strained improbabilities, especially the unmotivated and unprepared escape of Hornblower's secretary from Cockpit Country in Jamaica. But no Hornblower novel is a great art novel. It is as a total effort, the historical novelist recreating an epoch on a grand scale, that the importance of Forester's work here can best be understood and appreciated. Like Shakespeare with his historical octology of the Wars of the Roses from their first cause in Richard II to their conclusion in Richard III, Forester came to his subject without an overall plan. It was an idea which grew on him, and he, like the great playwright, would back and fill to finish placing an historical vision on paper. This is not to compare Forester with Shakespeare, of course, but only to point out that an epic may develop almost as if it had a mind of its own, or perhaps because there was created an indomitable character who won a stranglehold over his creator and would not die. This character, Horatio Hornblower, was both a masterful tactician and a superb strategist; an outstanding naval leader; and diplomat who could see the grand plans of early nineteenth-century Europe even as he led men into battle on sea and land; a benevolent commander; a legendary officer who though firm with his subordinates was nevertheless loved; a nervous man; a self-doubting man; a poor lover, perhaps; a worse husband, sometimes unfaithful; in sum, a hero of great scale, who, however could be identified with by millions of ordinary mortals living long after Horatio Hornblower's time.

Thus the adventures of Horatio Hornblower from Midshipman Hornblower to “The Last Encounter” form a body of literature that will most probably outlast not only Forester's best work, like The General, but most of the art novels of the author's time. Succeeding generations shall not weary of a well-written story. They will come to know that within the covers of a Hornblower book a wind is forever rising, a dark sea beginning to boil, and a few brave men commanded by an intrepid if dour leader are setting out under oars in a wooden longboat toward a hostile shore in service to a good cause. The sand appears beneath the keel, the trees above the beach take shape, there is the glittering reflection of steel in the woods, and then—but who knows—but that in the end, beyond the daring adventure, all will be well. That certainty, along with the rich consistency of character and Forester's narrative skills, may prove that there is a place in popular reading for novels which do not rely on crass sentimentality, soft-core pornography, or unmitigated violence in order to give pleasure, to offer insight into human behavior, and to evoke simultaneously the immediateness and the distance of the past.


  1. The Hornblower Companion, p. 107.

  2. John K. Hutchens, “On an Author,” New York Herald Tribune, March 30, 1952, p. 2.

  3. Hornblower and the Atropos, in The Young Hornblower (London: Michael Joseph, 1964), p. 428.

  4. The Hornblower Companion, pp. 171-72.

  5. The naval historian C. Northcote Parkinson, using the events of Forester's Hornblower Saga as a basis, wrote a “documented biography” of The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower (1970). Parkinson has Hornblower die in 1857 and Lady Barbara die in 1861.

  6. The Autobiography of a Seaman, Two Volumes (London: R. Bentley, 1860).

  7. Thomas, Lord Cochrane, Two Volumes (London: R. Bentley, 1869).

  8. For a new biography of Cochrane, see Donald Thomas, Cochrane: Britannia's Last Sea-King (New York: Viking, 1979).

  9. The Hornblower Companion, p. 111.

  10. Ibid., p. 114.

  11. Ibid., p. 124.

Sanford V. Sternlicht (essay date 1981)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6441

SOURCE: Sternlicht, Sanford V. “Postwar Allegory and Philosophy: 1947-1954.” In C. S. Forester and the Hornblower Saga, pp. 128-41. Syracuse, N. Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, a revised reprint of the 1981 edition of Sternlicht's book, Sternlicht discusses the strengths and shortcomings of two philosophically oriented novels which were not part of the Hornblower series.]

As a world-renowned popular novelist with a following in the millions, and with his Hornblower novels serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, the most widely read family magazine in America, Forester could have stuck to the Hornblower Saga and continued to make a great deal of money and satisfy his readership without writing anything else. Instead, while producing three Hornblower novels in the 1947-1954 period, Forester wrote his two most philosophical novels: The Sky and the Forest (1948) and Randall and the River of Time (1950). He also published a book for adolescents—The Barbary Pirates (1953)—and under the title of The Nightmare (1954), a collection of short stories, of mixed quality, previously published in periodicals and all taking place during World War II.

The Sky and the Forest and Randall and the River of Time stand as fine achievements of a mature novelist who can work successfully in another genre besides the historical novel. It was time for Forester, more directly than ever before, to express his views on the inherent nature of man and the individual human being's relationship to time and the great historical events. The Sky and the Forest and Randall and the River of Time are very different novels in setting, intention, and scope; they bear witness to Forester's versatility, especially when one considers that they were written at the same time as Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, Lieutenant Hornblower, and Hornblower and the Atropos.


With The Sky and the Forest, Forester returns to Central Africa, the scene of The African Queen. Instead of an Adam-Eve allegory set against a landscape improbably devoid of almost all other human inhabitants, this time Forester chose to allegorize the human condition in terms of man's cruelty, greed, and lust for power, in a jungle teeming with human and animal life to be harvested and spent by slavers and colonizers, where human life is the easiest and best source of animal protein for human consumption, and where people are fatted for slaughter. As in The African Queen, nature is also an adversary, but whereas in The African Queen the jungle is conquered by the blind determination of Rose and Charlie, in The Sky and the Forest nature wins by imposing its savage Darwinian Determinism on both “civilized” and “primitive” men as they make their initial contacts with one another. Perhaps the intervention of World War II between the writing of the two African novels and the coming of the Nuclear Age darkened Forester's view of the human potential to both endure adversity and preserve humanity, integrity, conscience, and love. If The African Queen is a book about hope, The Sky and the Forest is a triumph of despair.

The time is the mid-nineteenth century, when the African slave trade, having reached its peak, is beginning to decline and is primarily in the hands of Arabs from the North. Simultaneously the mysteries of the steaming jungle of Equatorial Africa were unfolding to European explorers and exploiters. In probing the savage mind, Forester selects a jungle king-god, who rules a village situated near a great river. He has total power over his village, its clearing, and the nearby river bank. Although only twenty-five years old, Loa has more than forty wives, the first of whom is Musini, with whom he has had his eldest child, his son Lanu, who is about ten years old when the story begins.

Initially, due to the nature of the forest and the heavy hand of tradition, Loa's rule is limited and lethargic. It encompasses a small population and a square mile or two of clearings, village, river bank, and jungle. It is a domain shared with pigmies who look upon Loa's people as food, and they are similarly perceived by their antagonists.

As a god, Loa relates to his brother, Sun, and his sister, Moon. The latter is coaxed back into the sky by appropriate ritual at monthly intervals. The people live, except for a very occasional ritual human slaughter for fresh meat, peacefully and indolently as their ancestors had for untold centuries, until Arabs and their black mercenaries arrive to capture slaves and steal ivory. The invaders have guns and an efficient organization. The village is destroyed, the old and very young are murdered, and the able-bodied are chained and whipped into submission. Loa, one moment a god, is suddenly less than human, a yoked, beaten slave being marched through the jungle into servitude.

However, Musini and Lanu escaped the slave raid and follow the slave march in order to effect an escape for Loa, too. Their loyalty to him represents an advance in human nature, for The Sky and the Forest is a book about change: change in the interpersonal relationships of members of a tribal community which had remained unchanged for centuries; change in the political aspect of African intertribal relations; and change in the economics of colonialism from the relatively inefficient Arab skimming of slaves and ivory to the highly technological European approach to black Africa as a place to be exploited over the long term for cash crops and ores. Forester knew his African history:

For a thousand years at least, perhaps for many thousand years, the forest and its people had lain in torpor and peace. There had been food for all who could survive disease and cannibalism; there had been room enough for all, there had been materials enough to satisfy every simple need, and there had been no urge, either economic or temperamental, to wander or to expand. There prevailed an equilibrium which was long enduring even though it bore within itself the potentialities of instability, and it was the Arab invasions, pushing southwards from the fringes of the Sahara, westwards from the valley of the Nile and from the coast opposite Zanzibar, which first destroyed the equilibrium of the life in the deep central recess of the forest. On the Atlantic coast, where the great rivers met the sea, the disturbance began somewhat earlier as a result of the activities of Europeans. Hawkins on the Guinea Coast first bought from local chieftains the victims who otherwise would have gone to serve the chieftain's ancestors, and sold them at a vast profit on the other side of the Atlantic. More slaves, and more white men arrived, seeking gold and ivory and slaves, and willing to pay for them with commodities of inestimable desirability like spirits and brass and gunpowder; and the demand raised a turmoil far inland, for where local supplies were exhausted the local chiefs soon learned to make expeditions into the interior in search of more. Soon there was no more gold; the supply of ivory died away to the annual production when the accumulated reserves of ages were dissipated; but the forest still bred slaves, and slaves were sought at the cost of the ruin and the depopulation of the coastal belt.

But no effect was evident in the deep interior of the forest. The cataracts on all the rivers, where they fall from the central plateau, the vast extent of the forest, and, above all, the desolation of the intermediate zone, hindered for a long time the penetration of the deep interior either by the native chiefs of the coastal fringe or their white accomplices. The Napoleonic wars delayed the inevitable penetration, and when they ended the diminution and eventual suppression of the slave trade delayed it yet again. Towards the coast the strains and stresses of the slave-raiding wars had brought about the formation of powerful kingdoms—especially in the areas whither Mohammedan influence had penetrated from the Sahara—which subsequently had to be destroyed by the Europeans to gain for themselves free passage beyond them. The Hausa empire, Dahomey, Ashanti, and innumerable other native states, rose and later fell, built upon a foundation of barbarism cemented by European and Moslem influences. In the same way the intrusion of the Arabs from the east set the central part of the forest in a turmoil, so that war raged and no man's life was safe in his own town; and these developments occurred at the moment when Arab influence ebbed away as a result of events elsewhere, leaving the central forest disturbed and yet not further disturbed; as if the highest wave had swept the beach and none of its successors ever reached as high.1

Loa, Musini, and Lanu embark on an epic journey through the jungle to return to what is left of their village. The trip is fraught with dangers and new experiences and Loa is tempered, like the iron in his ax, from a dull, unthinking savage to a highly intelligent and calculating leader able to reorganize his village and to conquer much of the territory around him so that he creates a near-empire only to be thwarted by the cannon and rifles of the Europeans, which destroy his new kingdom and end his life and the lives of his wives and children:

… The rifle of the kneeling escort had followed Loa's movements, and the bullet struck Loa in the side as he poised on one foot with the ax above his head. From side to side the heavy bullet tore through him, from below upwards, expanding as it went. It struck below the ribs on his right side. It pierced his liver, it tore his heart to shreds, and, emerging, it shattered his left arm above the elbow. So Loa died in that very moment, the ax dropping behind him as he fell over with a crash. The rifleman tore open the breech, slid in another cartridge, and slammed the breechlock home. The skinny old woman saw Loa fall, and looked down at his body for one heartbroken moment. She uttered a shrill scream, and then raised her spider arms. It was as if she were going to attack … with her fingernails; perhaps that was in her mind, but there could be no certainty about it, for the rifleman pulled the trigger again, and the skinny old woman fell dying beside the body of her Lord.2

Loa represents the basic human potential for the organization of control over resources and collective society, fulfilled by adversity, cruelty, and natural selection. His growth and destruction are foreshadowed by Forester's example of the life and death of a clearing in the forest, struggled over by the elements of nature but doomed to return to the primal state:

But where there was a clearing the scene changed. If a big tree paid the penalty for its very success by being selected to be struck by lightning, or if it had died of old age, or if a forest fire had killed trees over a larger area—and more especially where man had cut down trees for his own purposes—light and air could penetrate to earth level; and the lowly plants had their opportunity, which they grasped with feverish abandon. The clearing became a battleground of vegetation, a free-for-all wherein every green thing competed for the sunlight; until in a short time, measured in days rather than in weeks, the earth was covered shoulder-high by a tangle of vegetation through which no man could force his way without cutting a pat with an ax or sword. For months, for years, the lowly plants had their way, dominating the clearing; but steadily the sapling trees forces their way through, to climb above and to pre-empt for themselves the vital light. It would be a long struggle, but as the years passed the trees would assert their mastery more and more forcibly; the undergrowth would die away, the fallen trees would rot to powder, and in the end the clearing would be indistinguishable from the rest of the forest, silent and dark.3

Loa is a learner. He learns that fish may be eaten, that baggage may be carried in canoes on the river, that fierce cruelty can keep a community in obedient terror, that power may be successfully delegated to trusted sons, and that through military strategy a leader may conquer and thrive, even bringing prosperity, peace, order, and a crude justice to an area. Always, however, in Forester's jungle-universe, there looms a Nemesis, another force building eventually to surplant the present order. Change is not only constant, it is accelerating.

Lastly, Loa is Forester's Everyman. He is vain, ignorant, selfish, cruel, superstitious, and lazy. Yet he can rise to noble stature in defense of his home; he can adapt to changing conditions of life; and he can recognize his own impermanence and mortality, meeting death with courage and dignity.

Forester's narrative skills continue to expand in The Sky and the Forest. The story is presented almost entirely through the eyes of Loa, and the reader quickly identifies with the primitive mind in the primal situation. As the savage mind is penetrated, the savage continent is exposed. The tale rings with historical and anthropological authenticity while the vast forest is a fit cosmos for an allegory of man. “The one note of disenchantment is near the end when Forester, unaccountably, shifts his point of view from the world of Loa to the world of the European invader. The reader's hypnosis is snapped, but Forester's narrative sorcery is too assured even for so abrupt an interruption to be fatal.”4

Forester's study of the Congo must be compared to Joesph Conrad's much earlier Heart of Darkness (1899).5 Both Forester and Conrad set out to investigate the nature of evil. For both men, the evil resulting from the loosening of civilization's restraints, as personified by Kurtz in Heart of Darkness and an English soldier of fortune named Talbot in The Sky and the Forest, is worse than the natural evil that stems from primitive ignorance, savagery, and need. The latter is hardly evil at all, but merely a manifestation of the struggle for survival. The civilized world should know better, but in fact it is every bit as cruel and savage as the primitive world. Indeed, its butchery is merely more efficient and sophisticated. Without restraint Western man is the ultimate predator for both Conrad and Forester. Heart of Darkness may focus more profoundly on the mystery of human frailty and iniquity, but both books explore and compare the dark realm of the nineteenth-century Congo and the dark realm of the modern heart. Both Heart of Darkness and The Sky and the Forest achieve poetic qualities: intensity, visual and figurative metaphor, allegorical value, and profundity beyond the literal scope of the language used.


Randall and the River of Time (1950) is Forester's most philosophical novel. In it, Forester portrays collective human existence manifestly as a flowing stream of history, with individual persons caught up in the torrent, tossed about, shunted from mainstream to eddy seemingly by chance, and always unaware that they have no control over their own destinies. Metaphorically, history is a series of currents composed of humanity and institutions such as the army, the law, school, church, and family. It is ever changing. The flotsam in the stream continually, like a kaleidoscope, change relationships, while time inexorably pulls everything and everyone onward. Chance is both operative and inoperative. It is operative because, from the human level of perception, chance encounters and random choice determine one's position in the stream of life, even life or death; but yet there exists the possibility of a superior observation post from which a more discerning intelligence is able to see the patterns of flow that engulf human life and constitute human destiny.

Early in the novel, Forester indicates that the future of his hero, Charles Randall, depends not only upon chance but also the nature of his character which dictates his choices:

He was a peaceful little eddy of the great river at the moment. A floating fragment circling in an eddy may come out at some point of the circumference, and be hurried down the rapids to emerge in the pool below at a point quite different, and having followed a course quite different, from what would be the case if it emerged from the eddy at another place only an inch or two away. The whole subsequent course of that fragment may be profoundly affected by that small difference—by what appears to be the mere chance that dictates where it shall escape from the eddy. Naturally it is not mere chance. A mind possessed of enough knowledge and calculating ability could predict where the fragment would emerge from the eddy at the moment it entered. In the same way it was not mere chance that dictated Randall's future. That future hinged on whether, as he rose from the table, he should take Mrs. Speake in his arms or not, and that, in the same way, depended upon the sort of man Randall was, on what sort of upbringing he had had, what his previous experience had been, what tradition lay behind him.

If Randall had taken Mrs. Speake into his arms at that moment he would not have gone home that evening, probably not that night, and he would not have met Graham at his father's house, and his whole life would have been very different, so different that it is hard to imagine what would have happened to him. But the chances that had left Randall inexperienced, the chances that had made him that particular kind of man at that particular moment—and those chances are frightening in their complexity, even when no account is taken of those chances which had made Mrs. Speake just the woman she was at just that moment—all those chances dictated the present one.6

As in The Sky and the Forest, Forester's view of human destiny is highly deterministic. Randall, like Loa, is prisoner both of the limitations of his culture and the force of history of which he is a mere molecule in flux.

In Randall and the River of Time, Forester returns to earlier settings. As in The General and The African Queen, the time is World War I and immediately afterwards. As in so many of the early novels, most of the setting is in the London of Forester's youth.

The story begins in 1917. Charles Randall, son of a schoolmaster and member of a large middle-class family living in a London suburb, is nineteen and an infantry lieutenant in the British Army in France. His days seem numbered. Rather, one might think of his life in terms of minutes, not days, as the Western Front continues to take its ghastly toll of young life. Randall, interestingly enough, is just about the age Forester was in 1917 and he is fighting in the role Forester had the good fortune to miss and the perversity to regret.

Randall comes home on leave, where he meets a twenty-six-year-old married woman, Muriel Speake, whose husband is a captain at the front. They almost have an affair, but Randall is too young and innocent to pursue Muriel, whom, anyway, he believes to be virtuous and true to her absent husband. She is, but less out of virtue than the fact that almost all able-bodied young men are at the front. He also meets, while on leave, a family friend named Graham who is in the business of securing patents for inventions. They talk about a military flare which has proved unsatisfactory in combat. Randall explains why and is coaxed by Graham into thinking of an improvement. Graham, a kindly old gentleman, who has lost both his sons in the war, takes a liking to Randall. The improvement is sold to the government and Randall is now an “inventor.” Graham obtained for him a generous sum of money for his efforts. On the same leave, Randall and Muriel learn that Captain Speake has been killed. Randall, a naturally solicitous and decent youth, tries to help Muriel in her bereavement. Thus the leave from the front provides the “chance” that will prove to be both a source of financial success for Randall and a source of personal tragedy.

Returning to his battalion in France, Randall is called back to England to observe the tests of his improved flare. This chance saves him from the great German breakthrough of 1918, which wipes out his entire division. While in England, Muriel, who has been writing to him, realizes that he has a future as an inventor. She is a conniving, cynical woman who is entirely concerned for her own welfare. She manipulates Randall into proposing marriage to her and they are quickly married just before he leaves for the war again. Now a captain, he fortunately survives the last year of the conflict.

Demobilized, Randall seems an unattractive youth to the more experienced Muriel, who finds life with a university science student very dull. Unbeknownst to Randall, Muriel takes a lover, a one-legged ex-army captain named Massey. She becomes pregnant and leads Randall to believe that he is the father. Randall begins to work on a new invention for Graham and, coming home unexpectedly early one afternoon, finds Massey and Muriel in bed. There is confusion and Randall pushes Massey through a window to his death. Randall is charged with manslaughter and, after a lengthy and particularly well drawn trial scene, is acquitted despite Muriel's false and vicious testimony. Graham convinces Randall to leave for America to start a new life, and it seems apparent from the original dust jacket that Forester planned at least one sequel to the book, taking up Randall's story in the New World. Of course, he did not continue the story after all, one which might have been intended, from evidence in Randall and the River of Time, to chronicle Anglo-American life between the wars.

Randall and the River of Time is “a clear, well-managed story. …”7 Randall is a likable innocent. He has been thrust into the mainstream of history at far too young an age and thus in his late teens he is trained to be a superb killer rather than educated to be an adjusted, contributing member of society. One of the most savage ironies of the book is that both Captain Randall and Captain Massey have killed dozens of men in war, yet when one almost accidentally kills the other, in a most clumsy and nearly comic manner, the entire society focuses on the event of the death of a naked, one-legged, ex-cricketer lover, ostensibly to see justice done, but really out of prurient interest. The system is sound. Randall is fairly acquitted. The institution of British law is part of the river of time and it runs true. The perspective of the novel is seen as if from an observation plane flying slowly over the movement of humanity, allowing the observer to sight and follow one specimen, typical yet individual, as indeed all human examples must be. Thus Randall is a fully developed, fully realized fictional protagonist, whereas one of the book's few weaknesses is that only Randall is a complete character. All other persons in the work have elements of caricature: the barrister in wig, the gruff general, the ineffectual schoolmaster father, and so on. Muriel comes closer to realization but she is made so mean and grasping by nature and circumstance that ultimately there is little that either Forester or the reader can do with her.

The anonymous reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement faulted Forester for not emphasizing the psychological aspect of Randall and Muriel's relationship.8 He missed the point. There is no such relationship between them. She, an experienced woman, married for security and out of a maternal interest in a handsome boy in uniform seemingly about to die in combat. He was her pawn, her victim. After his return to civilian life and the drabness of ill-fitting civilian clothes, they ceased to have anything to talk about. She could even carry on a love affair under Randall's unseeing eyes and within earshot of the undistracted student. Randall in the tragedy of his generation has not been educated to think but trained to obey orders. He can be an inventor cleverly carrying out Graham's request to invent a pea sorter, but never a scientist working inductively and creatively.

Forester remains the master of battle description. Early in the book he paints a scene of a German raid on a British trench position:

It was still dark, and the rain was falling briskly. A duckboard reared up under his foot so that he slipped into the detestable mud; he recovered himself with a curse and stumbled on to identify himself when challenged as he entered the bay. And then it happened—the appalling noise, the vivid flashes, shouts in the darkness, the sharp crashing explosions of grenades—subsequent ones muffled, indicating that bombs were going off after being pitched into a dugout. Rifleshots; machine guns raving, flares going up all along the line. It was only a matter of seconds before the artillery caught the alarm as the gunners ran to their guns; up and down the line could be heard the din as if a thousand doors were being slammed, and shells were flying overhead and bursting in volcanoes of mud. The Germans had raided No. 11 post. That much was evident instantly. No one could tell at the moment whether it was the beginning of a general attack or not, which was why the flares were going up, and why nervous machine gunners were traversing their fire back and forth along the line. Before the question could be decided Randall and the company commander were gathering men for a counter-attack, Randall shaking off his sleepy stupidity as he listened to his captain's orders bellowed through the din; his heart was pounding with excitement as he looked round him in the light of the flares at the mud-daubed men crowding into the bay. Then he started off down the trench, revolver in hand, bayonet man and bomber preceding him, back to the junction, up the other communication trench. The din was still going on up and down the line, shaking the earth; but ahead of them, as they went round one traverse and another, there was silence. Not silence round the next bend; groans. Dead men and wounded men, lying in the bottom of the trench, and fainter groans, a chorus of faint groans, coming up from the mouth of the dugout beyond. A flare which went up near enough to light their path—paler than usual in the growing light—showed them a dead German lying with his face on the firing step, and the raindrops glistened in the flare as they fell. There were only dead and wounded in the post; the garrison had been wiped out.9

In his power to depict World War I battle scenes Forester here as in The General rivals the abilities of such World War I writers as Robert Graves, Erich Maria Remarque, and Siegfried Sassoon, men who, unlike Forester, had been in battle. Captain Randall, now all of twenty years old, is an excellent company commander. Forester shows us the final breakthrough of the war through the eyes of this battle hardened veteran:

Excited men, tired men, untrained men, paid little attention to the orders; falling on their stomachs they opened fire without adjusting their sights and emptied their magazines as fast as they could work bolt and trigger. Even the Lewis guns' better-trained crews were carried away with excitement, while the conditions for taking aim, with the valley dropping away below them, were difficult. All the lead that went winging across the valley seemed to be misdirected. The battery struggled on while from the willows by the stream came the slower beat of German machine guns and the air above Randall's head was filled with the shriek of bullets. The Lewis gun beside Randall jammed, and the cursing gunner trying to clear the jam fell forward shot through the chest. Randall left it to run to where a dozen riflemen without an officer were lying firing wildly across the valley. He plumped down among them; the furrow in which they lay gave excellent cover.

“Cease fire, men!” he said, twisting his neck left and to right and repeating his words until he won obedience.

“Get your sights for nine hundred yards. Make sure of that, now. You, Winter—that's not nine hundred on your sights. That's better. Now reload, all of you. Now take careful aim at that battery. When I say ‘Fire!’ start shooting, slowly. Make sure you take aim for every shot. Now, everyone ready? Fire!”

It was death that the rifles began to spit now across the valley—most of them at least. Randall saw that Private Jones was hopeless as a marksman.

“Give me your rifle, Jones.”

Randall aimed carefully, squeezed the trigger, aimed and fired again. Men and horses across the valley were dropping; one gun, its team presumably disorganized by a wounded horse, swung clear round. A Lewis gun crew managed to steady themselves long enough to put in a long and accurate burst, so that horses and men fell like wheat under a scythe. Now everyone was paying stricter attention to his duty. Now the battery was wiped out. Every man and every horse was dead, and the guns stood helpless on the hillside. Now that that target had been satisfactorily disposed of attention could be paid to the covering rear guard down in the willows, and plans made for rooting them out. But over there on the left there were British troops already across the stream; with their flank turned those fellows must retreat or die or surrender. There goes one lot making a dash for it. Don't let them get away! See them all fall, caught in a machine-gun burst—that last one lying on his belly with his short legs kicking. There's another one! Get 'im! Hold your fire, here's one lot surrendering. My God! Did you see that? The group that had made its appearance, coming forward with its hands up, had been caught in a blast from another German machine gun, every man falling dead, rightful victims of their fellow countrymen's wrath. That meant that the other guns down there would fight it out to the last.

“Sergeant Thwaites, see if you can get your section along down that gully there. Hibberd! They've got one gun in the bend right ahead, one finger left of that white tree. Give 'em a long burst. Come on, man, we don't want to be here all day.”10

In The General Forester implied the mindlessness of the brutality of World War I and the possibility that the war was avoidable and all in vain. In Randall and the River of Time, Forester states his unmitigated revulsion for the war that took the lives of most of his comrades and practically destroyed the civilization in which he had grown up:

Heretics had been tortured by the Inquisition; red men had devised methods of making their captives scream in agony. In the years to come the Nazis were to try to outdo these achievements in the cruelties of their prison camps. A furious and desperate war was to open twenty-one years after the close of its predecessor, with slaughter and heroism and misery. But at no time in the history of misery was there such suffering as a purely fortuitous combination of circumstances brought to a million human beings in 1917. The Marquis de Sade might dream of tortures, but not his insane imagination could compass the torments which chance dealt out to the devoted infantry of the nations at war. For a special reason the freezing dungeons of the Inquisition, the iron cages of Louis XI, were not to be compared with the wet and the cold and the slime of the water-logged trenches in Flanders, where men stood night and day knee-deep in icy mud, or took their rest, head bowed, sitting on a firing step hardly more solid. There was a reason why the degradation of Buchenwald was not as deep as the degradation of the brutish filth of the Salient.

For the men who fought in those trenches had the additional torment of the suspicion that remedy lay in their own hands, that if only they could think of the right way to deal with the problem they could nullify the stupidity of the peoples and the generals who were driving them to hideous death. It was not by the easy method of self-murder, and it would be something less obvious than mass mutiny, although allied to it. They were in the grip of something implacable and yet not necessarily inevitable; in the disillusionment of 1917 they feared that they were giving up their lives, their sanity, and their dignity for something which later on, when they were all mad, crippled, or dead, would be found to be nothing; it was this feeling that doubled their regrets and halved their infantile pleasures.11

In the end, however, the forces of history are as inevitable and irresistible as a great flood. Randall and all men and women are rushed along to their individual destinies, a molecular part of the collective destiny of a people in their own time:

The river of time was whirling him along. Chance eddies had flung him here; chance eddies had flung him there. The broad river had a myriad of channels, and now an eddy was parting him from the other flotsam with which he had been circling and was pushing him far over into another channel altogether. There he might circle, there he might come into contact with other flotsam, but always he would be hurried along, down the smooth reaches, over the cataracts, until at last he would be cast ashore and the river would hurry along without him.12

The Times Literary Supplement reviewer's ultimate comment on Randall and the River of Time was that “it is difficult to avoid the feeling that Mr. Forester is more at home with Captain Hornblower.”13 He was wrong again. Forester was much more “at home” with Randall, who could have been a companion of his youth, who indeed could, except for “chance,” have been Forester himself.

During the 1947-1954 period, Forester achieved the high point of his fame, a pinnacle he would hold until his death in 1966. His Hornblower was a household name. All his other works were continually compared to the Hornblower books. Everywhere Forester went, his own name was recognized until he and his wife had to travel incognito to avoid autograph-seekers. He made a great deal of money and now was quite comfortably set for life. He was turning out about one book per year with a waiting audience in the millions looking forward to serialization of the Hornblower Saga as Charles Dickens's readers had done a century before and the same millions awaiting the bound copies of his various novels. Yet it was in this period of his life and work that Forester, now quite aware of the frailty of his health, turned to more philosophical writing in The Sky and the Forest and Randall and the River of Time. After this period Forester would devote the remainder of his literary career to Hornblower, to history, and to action writing. Philosophy, Weltanschauung, and deeper thought were abandoned, perhaps because Forester felt ill-suited to the role of philosophical novelist, perhaps because although the reviews were generally quite favorable for The Sky and the Forest and Randall and the River of Time, the critics, except for the British who were rather negative, did not treat these books as seriously as Forester probably felt they should have and both American and British reviewers constantly compared the non-Hornblower novels to the Saga. It was an unfair if understandable practice. They were simply unable to see Forester in any role except that of historical novelist.

Forester's philosophical novels are not great works of literature. He wrote them as a middle-aged man who had seen, understood, and written about much war and economic upheaval, and he wrote them after a lifelong study of history. His thought and his work led him to a philosophy of history that was partially historical determinism, partly economic determinism, and partly natural selection. Loa, representing primitive man, and Randall representing modern civilized man, are both presented as chess pieces in the great, unending game of human destiny referred to retrospectively as history. They feel from time to time that they have the power of decision, but in reality the choices they make are predetermined by their culture, their character, and their history. Furthermore, at any given time in their brief lives, great forces are at work such as Colonialism, Imperialism, Fascism, Communism, Evangelical Christianity, and many others. They roll over mankind. They overlap and interlace. Men and women, great and small, are caught in the currents of history, never fully realizing what is happening to them.

It's a pessimistic philosophy. The only optimistic note is that from time to time men and women rise above circumstance, as if they were thrusting head and shoulders out of the river for a brief moment, to perform acts of courage or generosity or intelligence or creativity or love. These acts are surprising because they occur so seldom and are so difficult to do. If life on the surface was very rich for Forester in this period of his work, his mind, nevertheless, was dwelling on the darker side of human experience. Life for Forester was merely a part of the continuum of the existence of the universe. It was not, however, progressive, and the future would seem to offer little hope that mankind would be able to deal more successfully with his ever more complex environment than he dealt with his simpler immediate or remote past.


  1. The Sky and the Forest (Boston: Little, Brown, 1948), p. 313.

  2. Ibid., pp. 265-67.

  3. Ibid., pp. 15-16.

  4. Miles Edwin Greene, “A Tale of Imperialism in the Congo,” New York Times Book Review, August 15, 1948, p. 5.

  5. See Hollis Alpert, “Chief of the Congo,” Saturday Review, August 14, 1948, pp. 19-20.

  6. Randall and the River of Time (Boston: Little, Brown, 1950), pp. 24-25.

  7. Walter Havighurst, “Young Man without Water Wings,” Saturday Review, December 16, 1950, p. 12.

  8. Times Literary Supplement, January 19, 1951, p. 33.

  9. Randall and the River of Time, pp. 6-7.

  10. Ibid., pp. 170-71.

  11. Ibid., pp. 92-93.

  12. Ibid., p. 341.

  13. Times Literary Supplement, January 19, 1951, p. 33.

James R. Fultz (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4986

SOURCE: Fultz, James R. “A Classic Case of Collaboration: The African Queen.Literature Film Quarterly 10, no. 1 (1982): 13-24.

[In the following essay, Fultz discusses the collaboration between James Agee and John Huston on the film version of The African Queen and also delineates differences between the film and Forester's novel.]

After John Huston abandoned plans to film James Agee's adaptation of “The Blue Hotel,” he asked Agee to write a script of The African Queen. This was in 1950, a year in which Agee's life was pretty much taken over by the director whose dazzling cinematic sense he had admired in The Battle of San Pietro and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The two men became friends early in that year when Agee wrote an article entitled “Undirectable Director.” He wrote that, while most films were stillborn in the scripting stage, Huston's work had “a unique tension and vitality” because he made the story “seem to happen for the first and last time at the moment of recording. It is almost magically hard to get this to happen.”1

Ironically, it would seem that this spontaneity of style so admired by Agee the critic would be made still harder to achieve by Agee the script-writer, whose practice was to usurp the director's role in spelling out the most detailed instructions. Nevertheless, Agee and Huston were to collaborate successfully on The African Queen. Both were enthusiastic about bringing to the screen C. S. Forester's 1935 novel about a proper English lady missionary and an alcoholic Cockney river-boat captain who, early in World War I, sail down an African river with the idea of sinking with home-made torpedoes a German gunboat, on patrol in a lower lake. In the fall of 1950, after a summer of working on the script, Agee joined Huston in California. There, he continued to doctor the script while his host finished filming The Red Badge of Courage. Agee worked on the set during the days, wrote far into the nights, and played tennis with Huston early in the mornings. The strain of overwork and physical abuse led to three heart attacks in as many days in January 1951. It was one of the great disappointments of his life that he was not able to accompany Huston and his crew to Africa for the filming of The African Queen a month later; by that time, the script was all but finished.2

It is difficult to say exactly what in the published version of the script is Agee's, since he collaborated with Huston and several others, as it turned out. Peter Viertel went to Africa to polish the dialogue and work on the ending, and John Collier also had a hand in it,3 but neither Viertel nor Collier received screen credit. Agee once indicated, in a letter to David Bradley, that, of the 160-page first draft, the first 100 pages were his “and brought it through almost exactly half the story. The last 60, except a few scenes and interpolations, were Huston's; but the playing-time worked out that his 60 and my 100 amounted to about the same.”4 Agee's contribution to the second half of the script is suggested by a 110-page fragmentary rough draft in his cramped handwriting. This draft shows that he rewrote certain scenes and snatches of scenes a number of times, but it is not clear that the credit belongs wholly to him, or that the scenes form his entire contribution to the second half. In the most detailed scene, the African Queen, trapped by mud and weeds, is set afloat by torrential rains.5 This scene appears in the published script,6 but is truncated and changed in the film. Along with the other scenes, it will be discussed in a later section on additions, deletions, and modifications from novel to script to film.

Certainly the first half of the published script is much more detailed than the second half in its description of character, setting, light, sound, and movement. Two parallel scenes, one occurring in the first half, the other in the second, suggest the difference in the working methods of Agee and Huston. The earlier scene, a trial run through river rapids, is not in Forester's novel; clearly it is Agee's creation. At this early stage of their journey downstream, Charlie Allnutt, the captain of the thirty-foot mail-boat The African Queen, hopes to dissuade Rose Sayer (who has thrown in with him since the Germans burned the village and caused the death of her missionary brother) from continuing the journey against impossible odds. He thinks that after she gets her first taste of rapid-shooting she will see the folly of her plan to get to the Germans. Agee takes almost four hundred words to describe a scene that will last “about thirty seconds” on film (p. 146). In the delicate registering of mental states and in the complex interplay of characters with each other and with their rapidly shifting environment, Agee shows the visual imagination of a novelist or of a director-on-paper who is in absolute control of every finely-shaded detail even in the recording of violent action. The later scene of rapid-shooting, written by Huston, merely shows The African Queen “bucking like a bronco” and “plunging down a narrow ribbon of water between vertical faces of rock” (p. 218). Although it is climactic, this scene is much less sharply detailed than the earlier one; it is generalized poetry. In fact, Huston has copied more or less verbatim from Forester's novel; even the figures of speech are borrowed.7 While Agee's scene is more fully realized in the reading than in the filming, Huston's lines serve merely to indicate the stage of action. The director knows that in the actual shooting of this scene he will only roughly follow the script.

The script and film mainly follow C. S. Forester's continuity. Agee and Huston even retain Forester's mythical geography. In the novel, the river, called the Ulanga at its north end and the Bora at its south, runs into a lake, presumably Lake Victoria. (In fact, the rivers of East Africa do not run north-south into the great lakes but away from them into the sea.) The script-writers do foreshorten the second half of the novel; that half takes up only the last third of the script. They combine the events described by Forester in three chapters (pp. 95-135) into one scene of continuously rising climaxes (pp. 209-211). In his rough-draft notes, Agee indicates a causal link between Rose and Charlie's sailing around the German fortress Shona, under fire; their descending the roaring cataract; and their going into a sexual embrace after mooring at a natural pier close in to the cataract. In Agee's view, they are literally impelled into each other's arms, exhilarated as they are by fearful external physical forces; their lovemaking comes unexpectedly but necessarily as a release of tension, for the film audience as well as for them. He believes the scene should be “one steady wave of movement, always intensifying, bringing us through from Shona to the clinch” (MS, p. 35). The scene, in the script and on film, mainly follows Agee's design, but Huston, drawing upon Forester (p. 220), and that pause somewhat dissipates or at least changes the quality of the tension before the fade-out clinch.

In his rough draft, Agee notes that these “purely physical climaxes” occur mid-way in the story, and that the problem is “to make each episode thereafter step above these climaxes, rather than fall away from them” (MS, p. 139). The script-writers solve the problem by foreshortening another, still later, part of the novel. In this part, Rose and Charlie suffer hardships in trying to steer through a forest of reeds, a treacherous lily pool, and a mangrove swamp, in that order (pp. 170-232). These are three further stages in their journey. But since Forester deliberately obscures the features of this nightmarish place, the obstacles to navigation seem repetitious, and the recurrent efforts and frustrations of the protagonists seem endless. So the scriptwriters sharpen the contours of the novel by placing the major crisis among the reeds (pp. 238-243), and not in the mangrove swamp, as in the novel (pp. 225-229). In developing this crisis, they draw a few details from the subsequent lily-pool and mangrove scenes, and throw out the rest. When rains free the African Queen from its trap in the reeds, it floats directly onto the lake patrolled by the enemy ship, and the final crisis is a clear prospect.

The 1935 novel ends with the sinking of the African Queen and the apparent drowning of Rose and Charlie on the stormy night they sail out to torpedo the Louisa. But in the second edition, published in 1940 by Random House, Forester restored the ending he had intended originally; it had been lopped off by his first editors at Little, Brown, and Company.8 Up to a point, Agee and Huston follow the ending of the 1940 edition, in which Rose and Charlie survive the sinking of the African Queen to be taken prisoners by German officers aboard the Louisa. Past that point, the film-makers offer their own highly romantic ending, which will be discussed below in the section on additions from novel to script to film.

The most important additions, clearly Agee's, are the first three scenes. Following the script, the film gets down much of his description of a barely converted native flock at worship. The “tight-featured and tight-haired” Rose pounds on a reedy organ as her “rock-featured” and balding brother, a missionary, just as emphatically leads a cacophonous choir. Appearing at the church door, the indolent, guileless, rather seedy mailboatman, Charlie Allnutt, is a picture in contrast, an unwitting harbinger of destruction and dispersal. He brings news of a war that will destroy Brother, and Rose's way of life as well; and the lighted cigar he carelessly tosses into the churchyard disperses some members of Brother's congregation, just as later the lighted torches of the German soldiers will disperse them for good. (All the same, there is comical irony in the timing of Charlie's appearance, just as the choir sings stridently, “Death of death, and hell's destruction, land me safe on Canaan's side”—pp. 151-155.) And, ironically, Rose's “deliverer,” in the unlikely person of Charlie Allnutt, is already on the scene, as he is not at the beginning of Forester's novel.

The celebrated scene that follows shows the so-called natural (and rather graceless) man bothered by a growling stomach at tea, but no more bothered than his hosts, those very British upholders of the social proprieties. Allnutt's stomach-rumblings keep punctuating the reverend's pompous chitchat about ecclesiastical promotions and dear old England (p. 159). The scene sets whatever is natural and vital and unseemly because spontaneous and alive against whatever is artificial and merely conventional and essentially dead; it establishes thematic oppositions which run throughout the film and, indeed, throughout Forester's novel. For once, Huston is intent on filming every detail as written—every evasive glance, ambiguous noise, and anticipatory covering action in a comedy of social errors. The third scene, the German raid, ends at the point Forester's novel begins, with the village devastated, Brother's life work ruined, his heart broken and death imminent. Because Brother's presence is stronger in the script and film than it is in the novel, Rose's motive in avenging his death and striking a blow for England is given greater emotional resonance.

Agee's additions show vividly Rose's special class and situation as a rather dry spinster of some refinement; her subservience and deference to her brother, and their correct but somewhat patronizing attitude toward Allnutt, who is lower on the social scale. Much of this background information or exposition is scattered throughout the novel, in the form of Rose's thoughts or author's narration. Although Huston follows Agee's lines closely, these early scenes are still very much their director's. For example, the camera angles, showing Rose in the position of consort, reveal her subjection to her lordly brother as well as or better than any dialogue. The tight framing of the three at the tea table, and the perfect balance in their placement, suggest the bourgeois rigidity and closedness of brother and sister, and also Charlie Allnutt's social discomfort and sense of suffocation. The raid on the village is choreographed in simple, purposeful circular movements. Brother's higher purpose is paralyzed; he watches, a still center. Huston's composition of these shots is eloquent.

The film contains quite a bit of dialogue that does not appear in the published script. One important addition, probably Huston's, is Rose's prayer when the African Queen is stuck in the reeds. Their hope and energy spent, Rose and Charlie seem doomed to die like trapped animals. Photographed from a high angle, she kneels to pray: “Dear Lord, we've come to the end of our journey. In a little while we'll stand before you. I pray for you to be merciful. Judge us not for our weakness but for our love, and open the doors of Heaven for Charlie and me.” Then the camera rises higher still to show the lake just beyond; a view unavailable to them in the reeds. In such ways, the omniscient camera points up a kind of cosmic irony. During the night, the rains come to set the boat afloat, as if in answer to Rose's prayer. Agee's rough draft shows that he had a hand in this scene. At length, he describes the lovers prostrate and possibly dead on the deck, and the progress of the rain. He instructs the camera to pan up the swollen river; the suggestion is that all of nature is collaborating to free the African Queen (MS, p. 3). Agee's elaborate scene appears in the published script (pp. 239-243), but not much of it is used in the film. Huston's insertion of Rose's prayer suggests the role of Providence more pointedly, if not more cinematically.

Other dialogue added to the film carries an element of comedy not in the novel or the script. According to Huston, this comedy grew out of the teaming of Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, who “were just funny together.”9 At first, Hepburn, prim and controlled, sounds like Mrs. Roosevelt (Huston had instructed her to act like the former First Lady).10 She sips a cup of tea on the African Queen as if she were in some Victorian parlor. Bogart as the garrulous Charlie is respectful, but at the same time is tempted to “pull her leg.” Later, after love has “loosened” her considerably, she laughs uproariously as Charlie mimics the monkeys and hippopotamuses on the shore. Huston adds some conventional romantic stuff. Before the first kiss, Rose and Charlie act as love-struck as teenagers: she daydreams while working the pump, he daydreams while fueling the furnace. In a quiet moment, Charlie says, “Here we are going down the river like Antony and Cleopatra on their barge.” At one point, the actors sound as if they were satirizing, ever so slightly, the characters at their core. This occurs when Charlie, now Rose's slave, says he would like to return someday to the scene of their first lovemaking. “Not that I ain't for going on down the river. The sooner we blow up the Louisa, the better,” he adds, singing a new song.

Then you think we can do it.
Of course we can do it.
I've had misgivings. I was beginning to think a while back that I was mistaken. I had a moment of weakness.
Oh, if you're feelin' weak a day or two here won't make any difference.
(Sighing). We'll go on. Thank heaven for your strength.
How's that, Miss—I mean, Rosie. (Laughing).

Forester's Rose never had a moment of misgivings. No doubt such single-minded earnestness is difficult to play straight on the screen. At this point, the stars give a faintly tongue-in-cheek tone that does not help film-goers to forget that they are seeing Hepburn and Bogart instead of Rose and Charlie. Both were cast against type, but they could go only so far in violating their public's expectations of them. Hepburn had specialized in tongue-in-cheek comedy, and Bogart could not be seen too seriously as weak and vacillating. The modifications in characterization from novel to script to film will be considered later on. The point is that Agee, in this his most commercial script, collaborated with both the director, himself an auteur, and the star performers, who brought to it their own requirements.

It is hard to know who should be credited, or blamed, for the added plot twists at the end of the film; the reviewers called them wildly implausible. The German officers' interrogation of Rose and Charlie is, in part, created by Agee (pp. 256-258) from a few paragraphs of narration in Forester's 1940 edition (p. 283). From this point on, the script and film part ways with the novel. Forester has the German captain release Rose and Charlie because he secretly admires their navigational feat and does not wish to hang two such unimportant people, both of them ill, and one of them a woman besides. In a parley, he hands them over to English officers, who have just arrived on the lake in speedy, armed motorboats with the intention of sinking the Louisa (they will do so next day—pp. 281-292). The German officers in the script are more one-dimensional, less civil. They prepare to hang Rose and Charlie, but first the captain marries them, at Charlie's request. This sop to popular sentiment is not in the published script; it was probably Huston's, or Peter Viertel's, idea. Just as they are ready to “proceed with the execution,” the Louisa is rammed by the wreckage of the African Queen, now a floating mine. Freed by the explosion, and swimming for shore at the end, bride and groom realize that they have quite unexpectedly accomplished their mission (p. 259). The novel (1940 edition) ends on a more forlorn note. The English officers who receive Rose and Charlie do not know what to do with them, either. Rather than billet two such inconsequential people, the commander arranges for Charlie to enlist in a South African unit and for Rose to sail back to England. But, rather than leave Charlie, who has become like an old shoe to her, Rose proposes marriage and accompanies him to South Africa, presumably to be an Army wife. “Whether or not they lived happily ever after is not easily decided,” Forester writes (p. 308).

Except in the structural changes in the second half, noted above, the deletions involved in adapting the novel to film are not substantial. Agee and Huston use much of Forester's dialogue. The novel is pleasant but sometimes pedestrian in its authorial intrusions and interior monologues, especially in its recurrent statement that Rose is fully alive for the first time. This can simply be shown on the screen.

Most interesting, and not generally known, are the scenes which appear in Agee's rough draft but not in the published script or film. In seeing the journey down the river as symbolic of the act of love (MS, p. 31), Agee showed a literary kind of thinking that Huston had little patience with.11 In one note, Agee writes, “The water in this story is very Victorian-novel, very sympathetic to the people, and productive of and mirroring of their actions, moods, and development.” He also thought that the sound of water, varied but never broken, should be the “binder of sequences, more than anything visual” (MS, pp. 31-32). But this thinking, for all its lovely possibilities, does not take form, or make itself felt, in the film. Among Agee-like scenes not used is one in which Rose is bitten by a snake and bandaged by Charlie, a scene that gives a vivid sense of her nausea, and another in which she secretly sacrifices her share of quinine to Charlie during their malaria attacks (MS, pp. 74-75). (It is odd that both published script and film ignore their malaria.)

Most striking are Agee's anti-war scenes, not an echo of which got past the rough-draft stage. When Rose first spots the Louisa, Agee has her say, “We can't sink her! So tiny and pretty and white. She's like a toy” (MS, p. 81). After they are captured by the Germans, Agee arranges a few moments between them on ship's deck. Rose is miserable and perplexed because God brought them so close to the fulfillment of their mission. Charlie shows a new side as guardian and comforter:

Now Rosie. I know it's a puzzle, but He must know what He's done better'n we do.
He must. But I wish I knew why. (Passionately) If only they weren't so kind to us.
Well, no more you oughta! [The sense is unclear.]
But they're enemies.
Sure they are. But they're people too, Rosie. … Hate the war, Rosie, an' fight yer best, I'd say, but don't never go hatin' people—neither side.
But that's pacificism.
That's what it is?
How could anyone ever kill, who felt that way?
I don't see how but I know how. (Rose silently questioning.) 'Cause war's kill or be killed. That's how. To save yourself, or those on your side, or your country, or somethin' you believe in.
But that's very terrible.
Sure it is but there's one thing worse: foolin' yourself into hatin' people so's you'll feel alright killn' 'em.
You think more clearly than I do, but. …

(MS, pp. 98, 100).

In such rough shape, this preaching is at the cartoon-strip level, but it does show the very different direction Agee thought of taking at the end.

Following this conversation, Rose and Charlie spot the torpedo-laden piece of the African Queen floating directly toward the Louisa. Both are awed into silence; both know what is up. In notes, Agee stresses Charlie's moral uncertainty as to whether to permit the blow-up; he defers that decision to Rose, who is essentially his “conscience.” Rose feels

incredulity, recognition, awe, thankfulness; all her faith in God recrystallizes with a rush: but now she is morally richer and more complex than at any time before: she's beyond the innocence of simple hatred, and must take on the full responsibility and awareness of making war or repairing from it. … There is a story element here, too, of this feeling: I will allow the boat to be blown up because God obviously wants it and also I know it must be done (for all the good reasons people who hate war nevertheless wage it); but in that case I'm not so sure I want to live and even if I do, I think I owe my life.

Agee shows her frozen to the rail, mesmerized by the sight of the ever-nearer torpedoes. For the first time, Charlie takes complete control and wrenches her away. The explosion and sea-dunking follow. On the fade-out, Rose and Charlie ride the cork life-ring from the African Queen. She saves the life of a German officer (MS, pp. 105-109). In this rough draft, Agee presents moral ambiguities that are not in the film.

The most important modifications from novel to script to film are in characterization. Charlie Allnutt is changed from a Cockney to a Canadian by the film-makers, who probably thought the Cockney dialect would be tiresome and unintelligible to mass audiences. Looking unkempt, Humphrey Bogart is still more prepossessing than Forester's shrimp of a man. In the novel, Rose Sayer is a big-breasted, buxom woman with a horse face; hardly the same physical type as Katharine Hepburn. To the end, she is formidable and fanatical in her attempt to “strike a blow for England.” Even her love for Charlie, which is real enough, is so inextricably bound up with her patriotism that her feelings for him are dead for awhile after their, but mainly her, defeat by the Germans. In all versions, love gives a softer dimension to the woman, and a stronger one to the man, who, for her, acts heroically in spite of himself. The novel differs from the film version to the degree it is edged with Rose's consciousness of a sexual superiority that requires her to protect the ego of her man. In love, she rationalizes Charlie's weakness. Then, more unconsciously, she gets him to do her will by crediting him with the strength of her will. She is the captain of more than just his ship. As Forester writes, “That uxorious individual had no will of his own left now” (p. 186).

Some of this gets into the film, but there they seem more nearly equal as partners in a perilous adventure. Early in the script, Agee makes Rose (at the tiller) aware that Charlie is “as important to navigation as she is” when Charlie says, “If you steer wrong we're goners; if I let the engine die, we're goners too.” Rose nods and takes on “a sense of interdependence” (p. 184). The novel makes no special point of this. In the script, Charlie is masterful when he teaches Rose how to steer; Agee devotes three pages of dialogue (pp. 181-183) to the lesson which Forester passes over in a few lines of narration (p. 45). Charlie is still more forceful in the film, especially when he comes to Rose's rescue in steering the rapids. Bogart plays a less dominant, less assured sort than usual, but, as a leading man with an established image, he is not asked to whimper like a puppy caught in the cold rain or pray through chattering teeth at the first sight of Shona or do such sniveling things as Charlie does in the novel (pp. 61, 114). For his part, Agee tries to give Forester's characters greater complexity, as suggested above in the description of Rose's spiritual confusion and ambivalence toward the Germans. But in the novel and the film, Rose rarely experiences a moment of self-doubt, and never religious doubt. On film, the characters are simpler than Agee might have wished. Bogart and Hepburn give brilliantly detailed portrayals, but mainly of the surfaces and not of the depths of characters whose implausible actions seem to require a light touch.

Agee understood that some situations which are acceptable in a romantic adventure novel can seem laughably implausible on the screen, and therefore must be played as comedy. In his rough draft, he notes that the sailing past Shona under heavy gunfire “should be handled as very dangerous farce” (MS, p. 39). Several months before the filming, he wrote in a letter to his friend Father Flye that he was treating the work “fundamentally as high comedy with deeply ribald undertones, and trying to blend extraordinary things—poetry, mysticism, realism, romance, tragedy—with the comedy. …”12

When The African Queen was released by United Artists early in 1952, most of the reviewers accepted the implausibilities of the plot because the film was well-written, directed, and acted in a spirit of fun. Bosley Crowther called it a “well-disguised spoof.” He added, “Considering the nature of the yarn, it is hard to conceive its presentation in any other way—that is in the realistic channels of the motion-picture screen.”13 Philip T. Hartung wrote, “You don't have to believe all the hardships through which they go. But you do have to believe in Charlie and Rose.” He did.14

So did film-goers who lined up at the box office. So did the industry, which voted Bogart an Academy Award for Best Actor. Agee and Huston were nominated for Best Screenplay. The African Queen was Agee's first feature-length fiction script to be produced. From now until the end of his life, his major energies would be devoted to film work.


  1. James Agee, “Undirectable Director,” Life (September 18, 1950); rep. Agee On Film, Volume One, Reviews and Comments by James Agee (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1969), pp. 320-331.

  2. Mia Agee and Gerald Locklin, “Faint Lines in a Drawing of Jim,” Remembering James Agee, ed. David Madden (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1974), p. 160.

  3. William F. Nolan, John Huston, King Rebel (Los Angeles: Sherbourne Press, 1965), p. 100; Pauline Kael, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1965), p. 229.

  4. Letter to David Bradley, June 26, 1953, quoted in Alfred T. Barson, A Way of Seeing, A Critical Study of James Agee (Cambridge: University of Massachusetts Press, 1972), p. 170.

  5. James Agee, The African Queen, Autograph Manuscript/Working Draft/Notes, December, 1950, Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, pp. 15-17, 20, 71, 72, 76-78. Page numbers of subsequent references to this source, indicated as “MS,” will appear in parentheses in the body of the text.

  6. James Agee, The African Queen in Agee On Film, Volume Two, Five Film Scripts by James Agee (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1969), pp. 238-243. Page numbers of subsequent references to this source will appear in parentheses in the text.

  7. C. S. Forester, The African Queen, 2nd ed. with a New Foreword by the Author (New York: Random House, 1940), p. 116. Page numbers of subsequent references to this source will appear in parentheses in the text.

  8. Forester's Foreword to the 1940 edition, n.p.

  9. John Huston, “The African Queen,” Theatre Arts (February 1952), 92.

  10. Eric Sherman, Directing the Film, Film Directors on their Art (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1976), pp. 166-167.

  11. Lillian Ross, Picture (New York: Rinehart & Co., 1952), pp. 146-147. In regard to this river journey-sexual intercourse symbolism, Ross reports a conversation between Huston and Agee. Huston said, “Oh, Christ, Jim. Tell me something I can understand. This isn't like a novel. This is a screenplay. You've got to demonstrate everything, Jim. People on the screen are gods and goddesses. We know all about them. Their habits. Their caprices. But we can't touch them. They're not real. They stand for something, rather than being something. They're symbols. You can't have symbolism within symbolism, Jim.”

  12. Letter to Father Flye, early December, 1950, in Letters of James Agee to Father Flye, 2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971), p. 185.

  13. Bosley Crowther, rev. The New York Times, February 21, 1952, p. 24.

  14. Phillip T. Hartung, “Long Live the Queen,” The Commonweal 55 (March 14, 1952), 566.

John Forester (essay date autumn 1997)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5699

SOURCE: Forester, John. “Father's Tales.” American Scholar 66 (autumn 1997): 533-45.

[In the following essay, Forester's son reminisces about his father's often self-absorbed behavior.]

My father, author of Captain Horatio Hornblower and other novels, was a storyteller, and I started reading his books when I was seven. He spent part of most mornings at the desk in his study, a ground-floor room that looked onto the front garden of our house in suburban London, and when he was in there all the household had to be quiet. No vacuuming, no loud shouting, not while Father was working. However, one morning I found him writing in three books spread out on the dining room table, each one held open by other books resting on the margins of the pages. He was marking the books with his pen, a desecration I had never seen him commit before. In our house, you never made marks in books; they were too precious, and many belonged to the library. As he turned the pages of the books, they turned their pages back themselves.

“What are you doing, Father? Can I hold these?”

“I'm correcting them. I have to mark them exactly alike. Here, hold this one while I correct that one.”

“What made them wrong?”

“These are the books you see me write at my desk. The printer has made these proofs and sent them back to me so I can see if he has done it correctly. I have to mark the mistakes and send him a copy back so he can correct the type.”

I looked at the word he was correcting. He underlined the word Lydia.

“Do you want a line under it?”

“No. That tells the printer to use italics, letters slanted like these.” He pointed out Natividad on the same page.

“That's funny writing. Why is it like that?”

“These are the names of ships, and they are always written in either italics or capital letters. I like italics better.”

“Is this a book about ships?”

“Yes, it is. Here, don't lose that page until I have finished.” There were not many mistakes. When he had finished, I asked if I could read one.

“Not one of these. These are too precious now. But I have one more copy you may read.” He picked up the three copies and took them to his study. From his desk he handed me a fourth just like them. “Now run along. I have other work to do.”

That morning I opened the first pages, reading about a sea captain taking his bath, looking at his tummy in the mirror because he was starting to get fat, tapping the weevils out of his breakfast hardtack, and impatiently trying to finish his breakfast slowly because the lookout has hailed “Land Ho!” and he doesn't want his men to see him in a hurry. Now I realize that I was probably the first of millions of Hornblower fans, but that morning there was nothing unusual about my father writing stories for other men to print so many other people could read them. The book took me a week or so to read, and I was left wondering a little why Captain Hornblower was so angry at his happy return.

Some time later I saw my father getting ready to work at his desk and I asked him if he was writing another story about Captain Hornblower. “Yes, I am,” he replied.

“Please hurry up and finish it. I liked the first one so much.”

I noticed that one of our bookshelves had a row of books with my father's name, C. S. Forester, on the back, and I took to reading about Rifleman Dodd, General Curzon, the Gun, Mr. Marble, and Rose and Allnutt. I even risked boredom by starting Mr. Brown's essay about resolute behavior, to discover how Leading Seaman Brown's devotion to duty ensured the sinking of a German cruiser in the Great War.

I knew that Cecil Forester was not my father's birth name; he had been born a Smith, the name of his father. When he started writing he thought that Smith “would not attract notice on the spine of a book,” and ended up by using Forester for both professional and social affairs.

My father knew all about ships and the sea and boats and boat handling. Before I was born, my mother and father had toured France and Germany in an outboard motor boat, and now they owned toltebootes or folding canoes (kayaks to Americans) in which they paddled English, French, and Austrian rivers. In the autumn of 1938, Hitler proposed to carve up Czechoslovakia and my father was sent to Prague, officially as a correspondent and unofficially to tell the Czechs that Britain would stand by them. Britain did not, and my father, ashamed, slunk out of Prague “like a beaten dog with his tail between his legs.” In recompense to me, whose holiday plans had also been disrupted, he took me for a weekend in a camping punt on the Thames, just before my ninth birthday. This trip is my deepest memory of him.

We hired a camping punt and paddled it upriver from Teddington lock through sights new to me. The water probably was shallow enough for poling, but I was far too small to use a punt pole. The upper river has that singular English charm, both rural and civilized at once. Cows graze in carefully tended fields right down to the water's edge, for the water level varies only by inches throughout the year. The string of bungalows near the lock slowly crept behind as we paddled gently upriver through the sunshine. Father showed me how to grasp the paddle.

“Look, John, pull steadily without a jerk, and at the end of the stroke turn the blade like so, so it acts as a steering oar for a second. That way you counteract the turning effect of paddling on one side. Do it just often enough to keep the bow lined up with that tall tree at the next bend. That's our steering point for this reach.”

“What's a reach, Father?”

“Each section of the river between bends is a reach. It's as long as you can hold a straight course. When we enter the bend by that tree we'll leave this reach.”

“Look, Father, see the string of whirlpools my paddle leaves in the water.”

“Yes, those are the only marks you should leave. They show that you have pushed against the water with each stroke. Every other ripple or swirl is a mark of wasted effort. See how smoothly my paddle goes through the water on the return stroke. Not a sound, not a ripple, and no drag at all. Can you do as well?”

Quietly the banks slid by. We heard music behind, and were overtaken by a steamer full of passengers gazing at us.

“See that flag, John? That's her house flag. It tells you she's owned by Salters. She's going up to Oxford, to come back tomorrow.”

Motorboats passed by both upriver and down.

“You don't have to worry about them. You're under oars, they're under power and have to stay clear. Just don't do anything unexpected at the last minute. The rule is: ‘Hold your course and speed.’”

One cruiser passed too close and too fast, her wash beating against the flat sides of the punt and a cupful of water came aboard.

“Pull up the cushions, John. Use the cloth to mop up before it spreads. She was going much too fast. It's no danger to us, just a nuisance if they catch you while cooking dinner, but it washes down the banks all along the river. The Thames Conservancy Board will be after him about it.”

In the late afternoon, we moored to a pair of willows along the bank, and let down the canvas camping cover on the shore side. While mooring the punt, Father showed me how to make a clove hitch with the mooring line around the branch of a willow tree. At some other time he had shown me how to make a reef (square) knot. These two were the only knots that he ever knew; they were the extent of his knowledge of marlinspike seamanship.

Father showed me how to start the Primus stove and prepare dinner. I did not at the time realize that warming an opened tin of beans in a saucepan of boiling water was hardly the way to make a hearty meal for active sailors, but it was as much as Cecil was capable of.

We ate slowly, watching the sun come down among the trees of the opposite bank. A pair of glittering flashes appeared upriver from us. I pointed.

“That's a rowing boat coming down. The sun is flashing on his varnished oarblades as he feathers them. He's coming down fast, too. Probably trying to be home before dark.”

I could see the rower long before I could see his boat. As he rowed closer, I could see a powerful young man balanced on a long narrow hull barely above the water, his oars pivoted on frames extending from each side of the hull. As he passed us, he turned his head to catch a quick glimpse of the river ahead, and I saw his open mouth, heaving chest, and the glitter of sweat on his forehead.

“Watch his blades in the water. See that they hardly pull through the water at all, while his pull on the sculls pushes the rowlocks forward, and with them the shell.”

“Is he racing?”

“No, not here, now. He may be practicing for the Diamond Sculls, the most famous race in the world for single sculls. Some want to win that more than anything else in the world. There was an American, of Irish family, who was a noted oarsman. He wanted to race, but his entry wasn't accepted because he'd been a bricklayer in his youth. You can't race if you've been a manual laborer. It gives you an unfair advantage. So he raised his son to win the Diamond Sculls just because he couldn't do it himself.” (Cecil knew the story of John B. Kelly of Philadelphia, who brought up his son, John B. Kelly, Jr., to compete in the races from which he had been excluded, and who was the father of Grace Kelly.)

The oarsman round the bend, the sun below the trees, we unrolled our sleeping bags on the cushions that covered the bottom of the punt, pulled down the remaining sections of the cover, and went to sleep. The return trip the next day was a harder pull against the wind with a few showers of rain. Father took up the quant and poled us along for a little, but most of the water was too deep. We returned the punt at dusk and hungrily set off homeward.

Just as in that weekend on the Thames, Father knew everything and was always willing to share his knowledge. Some of his more discerning acquaintances scathingly described this as “Cecil's Infallibility.”

I had spent the Augusts of 1938 and 1939 in Berlin. The first summer was in the house of my father's German publisher on the Kleine Wannsee, where I was derided by the other children as a foolish Englishman who did not worship Hitler. The second was with a friend of my mother's, a teacher in Zehlendorf. My father arrived unexpectedly.

“The international situation is very tense,” he announced. “Pack your clothes.”

I packed, forgetting my blazer, and Father and I sped to the train station. It was a hot August night as the train crept across Germany toward Holland. My father did not permit me to leave the coach to find the station bathroom, which I increasingly needed, until we crossed the frontier into safety.

The next week, war came. In a month, my father was sent to America, to write things that would help keep American public opinion favorable to Britain, and in five months my mother, my brother George, and I, with our Danish au pair girl, Ruth, were able to follow. My father's work was partly in New York with British Information Services and partly in Hollywood, but he told my mother to “go to San Francisco and rent a house; it's the nicest city on the West Coast.” We ended up high in the Berkeley hills across the Bay from San Francisco, and Berkeley remained my father's official residence for the rest of his life. Particularly before America entered the war, he came and went as his duties required.

In the summer of 1941, my father produced an amateur story simultaneous with writing his professional ones. Poo-Poo and the Dragons was designed to encourage George to eat better. George had a low-grade unsuspected allergy to eggs, which made him puny, irritable, obscurely ill, and uninterested in food. Father then decided to tell a story at lunchtime as long as George ate. When George stopped eating, the story stopped. This story grew famous in the neighborhood, and soon not only George and I but Tom Lewis and John and Bill Underhill were regular visitors for lunch, all of us encouraging George to eat so we could hear more of the story. Like any successful serial writer, Father managed to foreshadow a crucial event just at the critical time, which was not at the end of the day's installment but just as George would be wondering whether or not to ask for a second helping.

Father's day, as had been his usual plan for years, began with breakfast in bed at eight exactly, continued with the newspaper, letters if the postman had arrived, and thoughts about his professional story. At nine-thirty he rose, shaved, and dressed, with the day's writing in his head, and from ten to twelve he wrote out that story. At ten past twelve, when we returned from school, Father came straight down to the dining room prepared to eat lunch while continuing his amateur story of Poo-Poo without any apparent effort or pause.

He played for time every once in a while, giving his characters outrageous names and using them to test our attention while he thought out the next incident. Poo-Poo had a real name, Harold Heavyside Brown, which we all had to remember and repeat when asked, but everybody called him Poo-Poo. One day he went walking and found a lost dragon, named Horatio, who later acquired a mate, Ermentrude, and child, Marmaduke. “You know that eggs have to be kept warm to hatch, don't you? Well, dragon's eggs have to be kept red hot by the father dragon breathing fire upon them. It was rather like having a blast furnace in the back garden, and when the baby dragon hatched out, Horatio roared in joy, making a noise like all the lawnmowers on earth, never oiled, being run at once. That noise brought the policeman.

“As Mr. Brown said this, the policeman scratched his head and said … And what was the policeman's name?”

“The policeman's name was Patrick MacGillicuddy,” we chorused.

“He said, ‘I know there's no regulation that specifically prohibits keeping dragons, but I do have one here (he opened his notebook that contained all the laws and regulations) that prohibits keeping dangerous animals.’”

“‘Would you call that a dangerous animal?’ asked Mr. Brown, pointing to Ermentrude, who was proudly rocking Marmaduke's perambulator back and forth and singing to herself, blowing little puffs of steam and smoke with every note.”

“‘Well … er,’ said Officer MacGillicuddy.”

“‘Well, er, indeed,’ said Mr. Brown … And what do you remember about Mr. Brown?”

“Mr. Brown was a very clever man!” was our immediate reply.

The fact that we knew very well that “the very clever man” was C. S. Forester we could never hold against him. He was charming about it, and, confound it all, he was indeed a very clever man.

After finishing the Poo-Poo stories, Father took to running a quiz contest at mealtimes, giving peanuts or raisins as prizes for every correct answer.

“You know that many flexible fabrics are woven of fibers. In thirty seconds I want you, John, to give me …” here he looked at his watch, then rushed out the rest of the question: “one from each of the major kingdoms, or classes of material, the sources and uses of four different fibers used in fabrics.”

He demanded full and complete answers. For this question he would reward a peanut only for the complete answer: “Wool, from sheep, an animal product used for sweaters. Cotton, from cotton plants, vegetable, used for sheets. Nylon, man-made from oil, used for stockings. And … and. …” Here time began to run out swiftly. “And asbestos, a mineral that's mined, for rescue suits and insulation.”

At the time I thought he knew everything of importance. He told me then his fictional tale that, when he was very small, he would collect all the library cards his brothers and sisters had, to obtain the maximum number of books at one time, and repeat that performance every week. I remember seeing him average between one and two books a day, plus an hour or so of the Encyclopaedia Britannica as a soporific at bedtime. He claimed to be the only man in the world who had read the Britannica through more than once; he said he'd read it through three times. Much of what he read he retained for years in an unsystematic fashion, recalling abstruse facts at will, whatever the subject of discussion, except when it was music or philosophy. Music he never talked about except to say that he never read anything about it, but about philosophy he quoted the old chestnut: “Philosophy is a blind man in a darkened room seeking a black cat that isn't there.” He didn't say so, but he also did not understand the mathematics that was in the scientific articles. However, his ability to recall odd facts, or what he stated as facts, about the most abstruse of subjects led his listeners to believe that he was a well-educated man.

About this time Father first told me of his opinions concerning Hollywood society's extravagancies and materialistic way of life. He told me that there they spend everything they earn, that when a man earning a thousand a week suddenly finds his option isn't taken up, he's seen next Friday trying to sell his wife's fur coat. He called it conspicuous consumption, spending just to show you have it to spend. Those words introduced me to the concept of conspicuous consumption in funeral customs, and the money spent on coffins and flowers.

“It's ridiculous. More than that, it's almost extortion and I expect it's very profitable. The English workingman used to be extremely proud of his ability to pay his way and avoid the poorhouse, and he'd stint and save even in his old age to leave enough money for a brassmounted coffin [one with fancy polished handles]. That's where the slang phrase ‘with knobs on’ came from. I don't really hold with inheritance, but believe that a man should be buried with his last dollar. To stint and save in life for a fancy funeral, however, is nothing but perverted vanity.”

In the house library was a copy of Thorstein Veblen's devastatingly critical Theory of the Leisure Class, which had introduced the phrase ‘conspicuous consumption’ to sociology. Father recommended Veblen's book as an interesting exposition and support of the ideas he had just expressed to me. As an eleven-year-old's introduction to economics and sociology, that's quite an experience. I was already a foreign observer of American customs, and after the experience of reading that book, I never became quite acclimatized.

The line of conversation about funeral customs naturally led to a consideration of death. “Death comes to us all, not very considerately, perhaps, but inevitably. Remember, John, that I have been a medical student; I have seen men die. For many it comes as a release; for others, it steals upon them unawares. In either case, it is not an event one should place great importance on. Remember … [was I likely to forget after the third retelling?] that when Charles II lay dying, he still maintained his charm and consideration. His courtiers waited about his deathbed, as they must to be able to report honestly the circumstances and time of their King's death. Knowing that they had been in attendance a long time, Charles remarked to them, ‘I'm sorry, gentlemen, to be such a plaguey long time dying.’”

Father also told me Suetonius's story of the Roman emperor Vespasian, who, as he lay dying, referring to the custom of deifying past emperors, remarked to his courtiers, “Gentlemen, I fancy I am becoming a god.”

Through this period I became aware that my father was a famous man. He was obviously very well regarded by the British government. High-ranking military and, particularly, naval officers visited our house for both social and professional reasons. His works appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, the prime mass-market magazine in America, like network television today. Some were accounts of recent naval or military actions, some were fictions derived from such, while others were historical fictions, but all had relevance to the urgent task of keeping American public opinion favorable to Britain by telling the truth about the war. People whom I had barely met expressed admiration for his books and stories and asked me about him, to which I returned pleasant acknowledgments with admirable modesty. He knew secrets and participated in keeping them secret, as he told me after the war. One was the existence of the first radar set small enough to be carried by a night fighter plane; another was about the proximity fuse for anti-aircraft shells. Once, when I was burning the garden leaves in the incinerator, my father pulled a sheaf of correspondence out of his pocket, deposited it in the incinerator, and made sure it was burned.

“I am often sent secret material that I have to be sure cannot get into the wrong hands,” he said in explanation.

He became partially crippled in 1943, his walking limited to two city blocks and one staircase a day. In 1945 my parents divorced; George and I stayed with Father. He was the embodiment of the enlightenment, standing for truth, reason, and competence in every aspect of life. He could justify the reasons for his every action, and he expected the same from us. Only once did he hit me. The question was the proper time for returning from school dances. He thought they stopped an hour earlier than they did and insisted on an early return, despite my protest.

“Do you question my authority?”

“Of course I don't, but I don't have to believe that you are correct.” Slam, right across the cheek. At another time, he thought that I was lying, although I wasn't, and he browbeat me into tears over that. I didn't fuss about these actions; justice sometimes makes mistakes, and he seemed the embodiment of justice and reason.

While he was praised as an author, he didn't agree with schoolteachers. When I brought school essays home to ask why my teacher had blue-penciled so much, he thought the teacher was mistaken. Who was I to believe—a world-famous author or someone who couldn't get ten column inches in the local Gas Jet?

As soon after the war as new arrangements could be made, Father sent me for my final year of high school to a well-known eastern preparatory school, to get me ready for Harvard. “St. George's is run on the English model and you are behind. You will be there for at least two years, and if you don't work hard it will be three.” I accepted that if St. George's was run on the English model I would be behind, because I had been more than two years ahead of California schools when I arrived at the age of ten. Both my brother and I went to St. George's. I discovered how hard it was to be cooped up without girls, and when I discovered that I would graduate in a year because I was not behind, I hated the place. Besides, I wanted to be a physicist and I lived in Berkeley, adjacent to a world-famous department of physics. Back in Berkeley in June, I walked down to the University of California's admissions office, was admitted, and wrote to Harvard saying that I preferred U.C. Berkeley. The next day I told my father as he was having his breakfast in bed while the morning serenade of U.C.'s campanile bells drifted in the window. I expected an explosion, but the act was done. His face and voice expressed his anger.

“I suppose that it never occurred to you that this means that George cannot continue at St. George's?” My puzzlement showed. “You can hardly expect me to have one son on one coast and the other on the other coast on different vacation schedules!” Even I knew that Harvard and St. George's didn't have the same vacation schedules. That remained a puzzler for many years.

At St. George's I had been taught college-level English by Norris Hoyt, the finest teacher I have known, who criticized my writing to perfection and encouraged the study of literature as the broadest description of living through the ages. At Berkeley, I kept both physics and English going for two years, but after a deep disappointment in love and much soul searching, I graduated in English.

During those years, I had to re-evaluate my father's work, lest I be misled by personal prejudice. The professors largely sneered at his books, but I concluded that while he was not a great novelist he was an excellent craftsman who inserted into his stories every item that was necessary for the plot without alerting the reader to what had been done. While there is constant suspense, the resolution of his plots then seems inevitable; he was a first-rate storyteller. In comparison, other novelists far better received by academics seemed poor craftsmen and, in many cases, purveyors of intellectual fantasies under the claim of truth. I enjoyed both realism and fantasy when conveyed by excellent craftsmanship; I disliked intellectual fantasies parading as truth, and even more when conveyed by poor writing. Because my attitude disagreed with the New Criticism then, and even more with what has come of it now, I concluded that I was not cut out to be a professor of English.

My father recognized his own standing, as he wrote to his mistress and literary advisor, Frances Phillips, after reading half a dozen novels by Orwell.

“I've been quite drunk over them. And smug. I've been able to tell myself that I can write novels better than Orwell could—N.B. that doesn't mean the same as saying that I can write better novels. Some of his technique isn't so good, especially when he's handling plants for conversation. He has the clarity of mind, and so on, but he hasn't the low cunning.”

I felt then that my relationship with him had matured, that I understood his character, his profession, his way of life, and that few further changes would occur in our relationship. So far as my side of the relationship was concerned, that is what happened.

In 1964, when he was sixty-four and I was thirty-four, my father suffered an incapacitating stroke. The man who lived by words, spoken and written, could no longer find the words to express his thoughts. In 1966, he died. Very quickly, new facts changed my picture of him. His second wife passed his clothes on to me. In the pocket of a tweed jacket, just like the one from which I had seen him pull letters to burn in the incinerator, I found two love letters from different women in England, responding enthusiastically to his requests to visit with each of them during the annual trip to England that he had planned before his stroke. Both letters were addressed to the Hawaiian hotel where he and his wife had been vacationing. His will disclosed far more financial assets, of far different types, than he had, of his own choice, taken his time to carefully inform me of in years past. The very same terms that awarded a pittance to my brother and to me awarded an equal amount to a lady and her son, the lady probably one of those whose letters I possessed. There was a string of bequests, each nominal considering the size of the estate, some to English people, more women than men, of whom I had little knowledge, but others to several couples who had been my college friends. In the only case into which I felt able to inquire, my father and his second wife had invited that couple on a Hawaiian vacation on the excuse that I and my wife could not come, and my father's relations with the wife had been one of the causes of the divorce in that family. Some months later, an English friend sent me a newspaper review of my father's recently published autobiography, Long Before Forty, the first I had ever heard of that.

My parents had met when my mother was nine and my father was twelve, and she had kept all of his letters despite his instruction to burn them soon after receipt. My father's eldest brother had written an unpublished family history “because my brother Cecil is a far better novelist than historian.” Years later, another series of my father's letters surfaced, these to another mistress and also literary advisor, Frances Phillips, the editor of William Morrow & Co. I became involved in an investigation that I pursued intermittently for thirty years.

Comparison of my father's contemporaneous letters with his brother's history showed that Long Before Forty was an elaborate disguise, written when he was thirty for publication after his death. The same sources showed that the stories that he had told me about himself and his family had a large admixture of lies. He despised his parents and feared that his children would be as bad as he thought his parents had been. As he expressed it in a letter to Frances:

It's a good thing I didn't have three sons—I suppose the third one would be a chronic invalid or something; that's one thing we can say about the first two and that is that even though they have neither brains nor morals they enjoy good health and I hope they fry in hell. Not that I wish them any harm. I think it would have been better both for them and for everybody else if when they were small they had had their faces immersed in a few inches of water for just a few minutes.

One series of letters told of the events that had destroyed his social reputation in Berkeley, entirely unknown to me at the time. His reputation explained the antagonism of the parents of the Berkeley girl whom I had expected to marry when I graduated from U.C., the antagonism that had forced us apart.

Two of his letters explained his peculiar reaction when I had informed him that I would be attending U.C. Berkeley instead of Harvard. His letters said that, although he had custody of George and me and owned a house for us to live in, he didn't like that. Once George and I had become settled after our first year in boarding school, he planned to sell the house and spend his time traveling, writing, and visiting his lady friends. By enrolling at Berkeley and declining Harvard I knew that I had prevented any acceptance by Harvard, but of course I had had no idea that I had thereby upset his planned new life. He could not be seen to abandon me when we lived within walking distance of the U.C. campus, and therefore there was no point, as far as he was concerned, in having George continue at St. George's.

He despised me until, fortuitously, at the age of thirty-three I became an assistant professor in the California State University system while still working at my normal job. That was recognition that he could not deny, particularly since, in his penniless youth, he had tried for a similar position with no success.

Quite clearly, both my father's social and professional lives had been made by storytelling. Professionally that had brought fame and fortune. Socially, that storytelling had been carefully crafted to serve his own ends, regardless of the effect on others. His autobiography was his record of the falsehoods that he had already told to conceal his past.

What causes a person to descend to such depths? My father was raised under circumstances that could lead a sensitive child to believe that he was the result of an adulterous relationship. I hypothesized that that is what he sometimes feared—the shame that such a discovery would bring. But, I hypothesized, he may sometimes have hoped for this, because that belief allowed him to fantasize about how much better his real father, and hence he himself, was than the man who was his mother's husband. That hypothesis explained much of my father's character and life, but there was no hard evidence that his biological father was indeed a prominent Egyptian instead of an English school-teacher.

In November 1995, I met again, for the first time in years, the daughter of one of my college friends. When I mentioned the hypothesis to her, she replied, “Of course,” and described a scene when she had been thirteen. Cecil used to tell her stories that he obviously did not want others to hear, because he stopped whenever anyone else came within hearing. At one point he told her that he had Egyptian blood. He pointed to his easily tanned skin, his brown eyes, neither characteristic of his ostensible family, and, turning to show his profile, he pointed to his distinctively beaky nose, saying, “Isn't that the profile you see on statues of the pharaohs?”

M. S. Mason (review date 2 April 1999)

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SOURCE: Mason, M. S. “‘Hornblower’ Strikes Blow for the Good Guys.” Christian Science Monitor (2 April 1999): 18.

[In the following review, Mason discusses the 1999 A & E Hornblower series and reports on an interview with the star, Ioan Gruffudd.]

It's rare these days to find old-fashioned virtues tacked on to young male characters in the movies or television—virtues like honor, moral courage, and chivalrous defense of the vulnerable. Yet those things are still attractive, even self-evidently desirable, especially when attached to a dashing young hero like Horatio Hornblower.

The A&E network's four-part miniseries (April 4, 11, 18, and 25, airing 8 to 10 p.m.) is based on C. S. Forester's rousing nautical story Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (1950). The novel was based on a series in “The Naval Chronicle,” a monthly magazine published from 1790 to 1820.

The Welsh star of the TV miniseries is Ioan Gruffudd (pronounced yo-IN Griffiths), a young actor who will also appear next month as Pip in Dickens's Great Expectations (Masterpiece Theatre, PBS).

Already, this bright new talent is getting to polish his acting skills—it's a nice stretch from Horatio to Pip. Few actors of age could pull off the heroic goodness Horatio demands without seeming self-consciously precious.

“I admire [Hornblower's] compassion and his loyalty and his dignity,” says Mr. Gruffudd, reached by phone in Prague, the Czech Republic, where he is shooting another film for the BBC. “Even in moments when he has to go against these feelings—when as an officer in the navy he is carrying out an order.”

Horatio Hornblower is everything an 18th-century hero ought to be. In the first installment, he comes aboard his first ship, an untried boy of 17 who is bullied by an older midshipman while he learns the ship's pecking order. Goaded into a duel, he is conked on the head by an older, more experienced shipmate who takes Horatio's place in the fight. The death of his friend reveals Horatio's depth of character, and the viewer soon learns what the young man is made of.

Gruffudd does identify with Horatio. As a 10-year-old in his parents' Cardiff, Wales, garden, he and his brother dueled like junior swashbucklers.

“My brother and I both had a stick that would turn into rifles or swords when we played in the garden. We lived in our own world of goblins and dragons,” Gruffudd says. “I was brought up with Welsh folklore that had mythical characters. We had to save princesses. And then there were [American] westerns.”

Playing the role of Horatio Hornblower was “a boy's own dream—to act out all those kinds of fantasies. … It's so gripping and the [power of the series] is Hornblower himself. He is brave, but he is a flawed character, too.

“In those situations when he has to compromise his own feelings to carry out an order, I think that interests people [because] he is such a very young man. He's quite clever and quite bright. There is a lot of intelligence here.”

Gruffudd sees some of Horatio's qualities in himself, but only to a certain extent. “I personally don't think I can identify with the violent side. He is a naval officer fighting a war. But I don't think I could bring myself to kill anyone.”

Despite a “natural instinct” for the role, and the absolute conviction that he could do it, Gruffudd found it challenging. In fact, he was so excited that he did most of his own stunts, climbing up in the ship's rigging, diving into the sea, and taking a few falls.

“None of them was life threatening. But it adds to the overall feeling of reality if the audience can see the actor do the stunt, and not the back of the stuntman's head,” he says.

The action takes place during the late 18th century, when France was at war with Britain. Horatio has the chance to act as captain, sailing a captured French vessel home to England.

In Part 2, he rescues his own ship, Indefatigable, from the ravages of a fire ship aiming to ram it. Part 3 has him captured by Spanish allies of his French enemies, from whom he must escape. And in Part 4, he falls in love with a beautiful French schoolmistress when he is stationed in a captured French village.

In all these adventures he behaves with courage and ingenuity. And always, he is an admirable gentleman whose sense of duty sometimes overrules his gentler inclinations.

Gruffudd points out that Horatio's goodness makes a nice change for television viewers. “He's a good character. People today are so attracted to bad characters, to the bad guys. … I think at the end of the 20th century, it's difficult to hold onto those gentlemanly beliefs. But it's romantic, and I think people do hold on to them.

“Our role models, like presidents and prime ministers [haven't been very good lately]. The bad is always in the limelight, and there's not much room for the good things in the media.”

John D. Grainger (essay date October 1999)

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SOURCE: Grainger, John D. “Who Was Hornblower?” History Today 49, no. 10 (October 1999): 32-3.

[In the following essay, Grainger explores probable models for the character Horatio Hornblower.]

C. S. Forester's fictional sailor of the Napoleonic Wars, Captain Horatio Hornblower, was an immediate success when he first appeared in 1937, in The Happy Return. Sequels continued his story as he found love, promotion and worldly success. The books are still in print, and have been newly adapted into television films.

A recent biography of Admiral Sir James Gordon has claimed that he provides the ‘matrix’ for Hornblower's career (Bryan Perrett, The Real Hornblower, 1998). It appears, however, that the author's clinching argument for his theory is that Hornblower's absence from a particular campaign (on the Potomac in 1812) is proof of its correctness. It is perhaps better to consider Hornblower's fictional career more widely and look at Forester's methods and sources.

Forester was a skilled amateur sailor, experienced both at sea and in inland waters, and the books have stretches of jargon-laden, yet fully convincing, passages. For example, Hornblower and the Hotspur is set in the blockade of Brest just after the outbreak of war in 1803, and is a highly effective re-creation of life aboard a sloop in one of the most difficult operations of the naval war, a picture of dangerous inshore navigation, winter, gales, hunger, danger and thirst.

Forester did his research well: the detail is convincing, the appearance of historical characters is never out of place. Hornblower is made brother-in-law of the Duke of Wellington, and of the Marquess Wellesley, the Foreign Secretary, but the former never, and the latter only once, appears in the stories. Forester used historical situations, but without disconcerting the reader by his hero's intrusion into well-known events.

Forester was once asked by a historian about his sources for his account of the siege of Riga in The Commodore, and in reply claimed to have invented everything himself. But there is too much detail for such a disclaimer to convince.

Part of his method is to choose relatively unfamiliar events. Of the great battles of the wars Hornblower is present only at St Vincent, and even then he was captured before the action started. In the Russian campaign, Forester avoids the well-trodden path of the Grand Armée. Riga was a side-show. At the end he permits Hornblower to persuade the Prussians to change sides, an actual historical event. But he puts the event in an informal context, before the Convention of Tauroggen which formalised the Prussians' desertion only after five days of negotiations.

It is the character of Hornblower, uncertain, introspective, horribly self-conscious, intelligent, inventive, which carries the reader along. Forester evolved the character on a slow sea voyage, during which he also explored the Gulf of Fonseca in Central America in a small boat, which became the setting for much of The Happy Return. But many of his hero's exploits were based on actual events, and these reveal just which historical characters went to make up the stories. One of these men is well known; the other is less famous, but more interesting.

Thomas Cochrane, later Earl of Dundonald, was notoriously unconventional. Court-martialed more than once for disobeying orders, he must have been a terror to have under command. The irascible Admiral St Vincent complained that the whole family were ‘mad, romantic, money-getting, and not truth-telling’; Admiral Keith, a fellow Scot, called Cochrane ‘wrong-headed, violent and proud’. In 1809, after his disobedience at the battle of the Basque Roads brought victory, he was placed on half pay for four years. In 1814, after less than a year's re-employment, he was at last dismissed from the service after conviction for a share-selling fraud, of which he was probably innocent.

The lower ranks saw things differently. The sea-going novelist Captain Marryat remarked that he ‘never knew any one so careful of the lives of his ship's company’, and Captain Brenton, the Navy's historian, emphasised his care for planning his enterprises so as to ensure ‘little loss’, and pointed to his personal reconnaissances in small boats. This was a trait also in Hornblower, who, even as a Commodore, scrambled onto a sea-lashed log boom to judge its strength. Yet Hornblower was also depicted as self-consciously fearful of making a fool of himself, not a quality obvious in Cochrane. Cochrane later commanded the Brazilian, Chilean and Greek navies, and wrote copiously of himself and his exploits in his Autobiography, not deeds which we would expect of Hornblower.

Some of Cochrane's exploits became Hornblower's. At Rosas in north-east Spain, Cochrane carried out a spectacular raid; at Rosas, Hornblower fought one ship against four and was captured after seriously damaging the enemy. During this raid Cochrane bombarded a French artillery train from the sea; Hornblower bombarded a French regiment, including a detachment of artillery, from the sea. Forester, though, added murmurs of protest from his crew as they shot at the mules—a distinctively twentieth-century touch.

Forester was a man of his time; his books are contemporary, even when set in the past. In The Commodore (written during the Second World War and published in 1945), Hornblower is in the Baltic. He has a Finnish clerk, and Finland had been conquered by Russia, which itself is about to be attacked by Napoleon. Hornblower realises how fortunate it was that Britain had not come to the aid of Finland in its agony; and the modern audience would be expected to recall the Winter War of 1940, equate Napoleon with Hitler and recall that Churchill had allied with Stalin against Germany, declaring that, if Hitler invaded Hell, he would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil. Forester's next book, Lord Hornblower, was conceived amid the collapse of the Nazi empire, and is set in the period of the fall of Napoleon.

An episode of The Commodore gives the clue to the other sailor some of whose exploits became Hornblower's. Hornblower entertains Tsar Alexander, incognito, on his ship. Hornblower glows with pride at the abilities of his free-born English sailors, while resenting that they have to perform as entertainers for an autocrat. Then the Tsar is given a meal fit for an English sailor: pea soup, rum and weevilly biscuits.

This is based on an incident in the career of Captain Sir Home Riggs Popham, who entertained Tsar Paul, Alexander's father, on his ship in 1799. Popham was in Russia on a diplomatic mission and so pleased the Tsar that he knighted him. Popham gave the Tsar a meal on board his ship, but he would never have provided weevilly biscuits. It would have been a sumptuous dinner served on the best silver.

Again Hornblower was quite distinct from the sailor involved in the original event. Popham was an insinuating man, avid for riches, litigious, a chancer, a ‘dasher’, in contemporary slang. He presumed on the bare acquaintance of the powerful for his own ends, exploiting others without scruple. He was also a superb navigator, a careful surveyor, an ingenious commander, and notable in treating his men well. In war, he preferred guile to gore, and captured more ships by this means than most captains ever did by force.

Some of these characteristics can be seen in Hornblower. In the first scene of The Happy Return, he makes a precise landfall to the admiration of his lieutenants, after a voyage out of sight of land from Cape Horn to Central America. Hornblower was avid for wealth, but more scrupulous than Popham, around whom hung a suspicion of corruption, and who tarnished his reputation by taking service with the Ostend Company, an Austrian interloper in the East India trade.

The episode of Popham with the Tsar does not appear in many history books: Forester's research is again demonstrated. It had been done years before. In preparation for a canal voyage, he had bought three bound volumes of the Naval Chronicle, a journal published between 1790-1820, with many details of naval warfare and people. Popham appears frequently in those books. He had a knack of performing notable exploits in unusual places. He had the ear of the Duke of York, the Army's commander-in-chief, corresponded prolifically with the secretary of war, Henry Dundas, and had access to prime minister William Pitt. He was inventive, suggesting ingenious ways of combatting the threat of a French invasion in 1803-05; and he perfected the system of naval signalling by multiple flags which is still used. He commanded the expedition to retake the Cape of Good Hope in 1806; from there he went, without authorisation, to capture Buenos Aires, an adventure which took place at the time Hornblower was in the Pacific to provoke a war for independence in Spanish Central America.

Popham faced a court martial when he returned from South America; Hornblower faced a court martial on his return from France. Both were acquitted. The two careers were only two years apart by this time, despite a difference of seventeen years between their dates of birth; but, as Forester admitted in his Hornblower Companion, Hornblower's promotion was unusually speedy.

The parallels between Popham's career and that of Hornblower are clear, and in the end they became nearly identical. Popham was commander-in-chief of the West Indies station in 1820-22, the very post Hornblower had at the time. But Popham died in 1822; Hornblower lived another thirty-five years.

To press these equivalences too far, however, devalues the fiction. Take the episode with the Tsar. It was peculiar enough in itself; Forester transformed it into an episode of comedy and irony. He achieves several things: he reduced the importance of the meeting, for it would be ludicrous to portray such an episode as decisive in the achievement of an Anglo-Russian alliance; he fits it neatly into his story; and he shows how a novelist can use his imagination upon an historical event to adapt it to his own purposes.

There is no obvious direct historical parallel for the Hornblower character. Royal Naval captains were rarely introspective Hornblower types. Hornblower is an original. Yet his exploits were culled from those volumes of the Naval Chronicle which Forester had read. The whole, the character and the transformed events, must be taken as products of a novelist's imagination, mixed with personal experience and contemporary allusions. Compared with that, detecting a particular career as a ‘matrix’ for Hornblower's is neither important nor convincing.

Max Hastings (essay date 18 December 1999)

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SOURCE: Hastings, Max. “The Man Who Ruled the Waves.” Spectator 283, no. 8941-42 (18 December 1999): 32.

[In the following essay, Hastings marks the centenary of Forester's birth with a retrospective of the author's works.]

‘It was not long after dawn that Captain Hornblower came up on the quarterdeck of the Lydia.’ Thus, in February 1937, C. S. Forester launched upon the billows one of the most famous figures in historical fiction with the first words of his novel The Happy Return. His highly-strung and much-loved mariner sailed on thereafter through the ten bestsellers which succeeded the first.

Today, Forester's reputation is in eclipse, overtaken in his own element by Patrick O'Brian, who is perceived—with some justice—as a writer of greater depth and staying power (though dear John Keegan remains passionately loyal to Hornblower, complaining that ‘nothing ever happens in O'Brian's books’). The recent television series based upon the Hornblower oeuvre lacked conviction. It is unusual to meet anyone under, say, 40 who has read The Gun or Death to the French.

But I noticed in the flyleaf of one of the books the other day that 1999 is Forester's centenary year. Before it passes I wanted to pay a debt of pleasure to the author on behalf of all his old fans, to recall the manner in which he gave a generation so much entertainment, and to suggest that he should still be revered as a great storyteller, even if a new wave of literary critics would argue that he does not deserve commemoration as a significant novelist.

Cecil Scott Forester was born into the professional middle classes, educated at Dulwich College, and began training as a doctor before he discovered his vocation as a writer of fiction. ‘Incredibly lean and lantern-jawed and earnest’, as he described himself, he spent a winter writing furiously by day and playing bridge professionally by night, eating well when the cards came his way, ‘and remarkably poorly when they did not’. Yet he suffered no long struggle for recognition. His first novel, Payment Deferred, an ingenious tale of murder and retribution, was published and became a bestseller when he was 27. It was later filmed, starring Charles Laughton. Forester was launched on a 40-year career of almost unbroken success, becoming one of the best-known novelists of his day, whose books were translated into a score of languages.

From the beginning history and military experience fascinated him, and came to dominate many of his books. He achieved a considerable mastery of the culture and manners of the early 19th century. He wrote extensively about the Peninsular War and, with an eye on his big American market, the experiences of the US navy. Always a passionate amateur sailor, he learned much about the sea by sailing his own boats, and as a passenger on merchant ships, then fashionable refuges for writers in search of tranquillity for their business.

He was an exceptionally astute observer of the ways of the English petit-bourgeoisie, among whom he found some of his most sympathetic characters. I have always loved his tale of Albert Brown, the illegitimate product of a coupling between a grocer's daughter and a Royal Navy captain in the 1890s, who joins the Navy as a not very bright boy seaman, and is taken prisoner by a German raiding cruiser in the Pacific in 1914, the sole unwounded survivor of his ship.

The German vessel is obliged to take refuge beside an uninhabited volcanic island for repairs. Brown escapes and, over three days and at the cost of his own life, so delays the German ship's departure that a British squadron is able to sink it with all hands. Beyond the brilliant narrative and descriptive passages, the wry essence of Brown on Resolution is that the world never knows what the dead hero has done. It is this element which saves the story from mawkishness. The book touches a central point about heroism and warfare: decorations can only be awarded to those whose deeds are seen by others. Yet the highest form of sacrifice is that which goes unobserved. Forester never saw action in his life, but his sympathy for the nuances of military life is remarkable.

In 1936 he turned this to exceptional account in The General, which remained his own favourite book, and mine too. I recommend it to anyone with no previous knowledge of the first world war who wishes to catch the dreadful flavour of the conflict. ‘Nowadays Lieutenant-General Sir Herbert Curzon, KCMG, CB, DSO, is just one of Bournemouth's seven generals,’ he began, and went on to tell the life-story of a typical wooden-headed British officer whose virtues and limitations combined to sustain the nightmare of the Western Front.

I reckon I know the history of the first world war, the vernacular of life and death in the trenches, pretty well. I cannot fault any detail of Forester's account, or of his treatment of the way soldiers think and talk, the fashion in which their disasters come to pass. His portrait was flawed in only one important respect. In the novel, he likens the behaviour of British commanders planning their battles to savages frustrated in seeking to withdraw a screw from a piece of wood by the exercise of ever greater force and leverage.

They failed to understand, he wrote, that by the use of intelligence and craft, twisting the screw would achieve their purpose. Yet in truth, even among those of us who recoil from the insensitivity of Haig and his counterparts, I know scarcely any military historian who supposes today that the deadlock of the Flanders trenches could have been broken by such a simple formula as Forester's figure of speech implies. That significant reservation apart, The General, deceptively simple in construction and outlook, still seems superbly crafted and convincing.

Forester himself described the origins of the Hornblower saga, on a day in 1927 when he bought three dog-eared bound volumes of the old Naval Chronicle, trade newspaper of the Royal Navy throughout the Nelson era, in a secondhand bookshop. He took them to read on a long voyage in his own small boat. Nine years later he fled from an unhappy scriptwriting engagement with Irving Thalberg in Hollywood on a cargo boat bound for Central America. By the time he docked back in England, he had decided enough to see his publisher Michael Joseph and tell him, ‘I'm thinking of writing a novel about a naval captain in 1808.’ Joseph could scarcely say anything save, ‘Splendid.’ Forester added, ‘I think I'll call him Hornblower.’

The Happy Return presented Hornblower as a frigate captain dispatched to support a Central American revolution against Spanish rule, who is appalled to discover, after capturing a Spanish 50-gun ship and turning it over to the rebels, that Spain has meanwhile become England's ally. He is obliged to fight the Natividad a second time—while conducting an unconsummated love affair with Lady Barbara Wellesley, a sister of the Iron Duke whom Forester invented because he adored Wellington.

This first book, one of Forester's best, pictured Hornblower in mid-career. Those which followed faithfully built upon the portrait and the life the novelist had invented for 1808, to trace both the captain's earlier life and his later adventures. Hornblower was poor, of course, and while young married a wife he pitied but did not love (she was later killed off in childbirth, that last resort of any novelist stuck with an unwanted specimen of pre-20th-century womanhood).

Hornblower's high intelligence and professional skill were matched by a shyness and sensitivity which set him apart from his fellow-officers and induced long passages of melancholy. At sea, his ingenuity, boldness and luck never failed. Setbacks and disappointments in his threadbare personal life were always offset by triumph in action. Winston Churchill was a devoted Hornblower fan. One of his staff painted a moving portrait of the prime minister, in the darkest days of 1940, relieving despondency by burying himself in the pages of Forester, whose hero always found a way out.

Hornblower advanced through the ranks with greater speed and assurance than Patrick O'Brian's Captain Jack Aubrey: after a dramatic escape from France in 1811 in Flying Colours, he was knighted, made a colonel of marines and married Lady Barbara. In 1812 he became a commodore commanding a squadron in the Baltic, and in 1814 was raised to the peerage, heaven help us, for a series of amazing feats. By 1821, still only in his forties, implausibly he was flying his flag as admiral in the West Indies. O'Brian is more persuasive, both about the sluggish manner of his hero's advancement and in his profound sense of the pace of a floating society at the mercy of the wind.

Yet, for all that, the Hornblower books have always been popular boys' adventures; Forester's powers of description raised them to a standard which transcends a hundredfold the wretched creations of most bestselling thriller writers in modern times. Hornblower, with his morbid weakness for introspection, his austere tastes, the guilt that accompanied his infidelities, his social unease among the grandees to whose tables success and marriage had brought him, remains a great invention.

In Forester's lifetime, the captain made him rich and famous. The author described how ‘on a dozen different frontiers I could arrive with my baggage and present myself to a customs officer, and, with my name noted, the officers would say “Not—?”, and I would answer “Yes,” and my baggage would be instantly chalked … Hornblower was a kind of perpetual travelling companion.’

Forester remained a modest man, increasingly crippled as he grew older by the consequences of a stroke in his fifties, who was nonetheless fully aware of his remarkable powers of pleasing the public. A friend of my father's, I met him once in his old age—not very old, for he died when he was only 66—Latterly, he lived mostly in California for its climate, but continued regularly to visit London and to relish its theatres and restaurants.

A consummate professional, his stories reflected an uninhibited joy in the triumphs of England and empire, tempered by an affectionate scepticism about their weaknesses, which delighted his own generation, but bears no resonance for the young today. The African Queen, for instance, is acknowledged as a classic movie, but is much too little read as a superbly droll story. ‘For me,’ Forester wrote, ‘there is no other way of writing a novel than to begin at the beginning and continue to the end, and that is not quite the statement of the obvious it might appear.’

Today, it is indeed an unfashionably simplistic approach for a novelist who wishes to become a contender for any literary prize. A modern Forester would no more be a runner for such baubles than would Patrick O'Brian. The notion of a novel as a story is thought appropriate only for the lower slopes of creativity. So be it, among Booker judges. For myself, I shall continue to reread Hornblower every few years as long as I am above ground. I invite every like spirit to raise a glass to his creator's memory in this, his 100th vintage year.

M. S. Mason (review date 6 April 2001)

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SOURCE: Mason, M. S. “‘Horatio’ Storms the Seas Again.” Christian Science Monitor (6 April 2001): 18.

[In the following review, Mason offers a positive assessment of the second series of television adaptations of the Hornblower stories.]

Horatio Hornblower is back in another ripping, high-seas yarn. It is a delight to see that the sequel to the original television miniseries (first aired on A&E in April of 1999) is richer, more complex, and more exciting than the first. It is just as delightful to note how young Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd (pronounced “Yowan Griffith”) has grown into the role, offering us a refined, manly, and experienced hero of the high seas.

The films are based on the books of C. S. Forester, a series that many young boys of another generation looked forward to with glee. The books follow the adventures of a talented, daring young man as he moves up through the ranks of the British Navy at the turn of the 19th century.

In the new miniseries, Part One: The Mutiny (beginning Sunday on A&E, 8-10 p.m.), a more mature Lieutenant Hornblower ships out with one of Admiral Nelson's star heroes, Captain Sawyer (played with sterling verity by David Warner). But however great a man he once was, Sawyer is mentally unfit to command the ship. Hornblower and his friends realize that every man's life aboard is endangered by the captain's recklessness. When Sawyer is seriously injured in a mysterious accident, the question is, was he pushed or did he fall?

In Part Two: Retribution (airing Sunday, April 15), Hornblower is on trial for mutiny and his mentor, Captain Pellew, is his judge. As the complicated story unfolds in flashbacks, the relationships among the men under duress evolve in likely, yet heroic fashion. Nothing is as simple as the first boyish installment of the story proposes. Amid injustice and madness, integrity, honor, and nobility blossom. No one is merely what he seems in this story.

“He's a bit more calculating,” said Mr. Gruffudd of his Hornblower character in a recent phone interview. “But always for the good of the ship. Horatio understands the way the system works now. He appreciates that he could be hanged for mutiny.

“Still, he acts upon his principles—he knows he must act for the good of the ship, and so he's braver and he's wiser than he was [in the first series]. I like the hint that Horatio may have pushed the captain. It's never clear in the novel. But he never acts for personal gain.”

Gruffudd says that part of the appeal of the character for him lies in Horatio's sense of honor. “He sees the consequences of all his actions—he doesn't just jump into his decisions, he works out every scenario. … I believe honor exists. I have met people who are honorable. I try to live that way. But it is more difficult now since so many things constantly try to persuade us to look after No. 1. …”

The dilemma Horatio finds himself in resembles those found in “The Mutiny on the Bounty” and “The Caine Mutiny.” “I think those codes of honor, courage, and comradeship are universal,” says director Andrew Grieve. “They are still as relevant as they ever were. It's just that they are not explored as much as they once were. And people are very much more cynical these days. If you set something in the 19th century, you can express them with impunity—[viewers] aren't going to say, ‘Oh, come on, people don't behave that way.’ They want to accept it, they want to believe it because that's the way people basically are. The majority of people have a lot of decency and goodness in them.”

One of the themes so important to the Hornblower series is ‘what makes a leader.’ We are given a glimpse of Sawyer's previous greatness and Hornblower's weakness. But where courage, a great spirit, integrity, fairness, and inventive intelligence surface in one individual, there is a leader. That's why Horatio Hornblower sails on.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 183


Breit, Harvey. “Talk with C. S. Forester.” New York Times Book Review (6 July 1952): 4.

Offers an interview with Forester.

McGregor, Tom. The Making of C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower. New York: HarperEntertainment, 1999, 124 p.

Provides a reader's companion to the A & E television series based on Mr. Midshipman Hornblower.

Perrett, Bryan. The Real Hornblower: The Life of Admiral of the Fleet Sir James Alexander Gordon, GCB. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1997, 160 p.

Studies a possible model for Forester's Hornblower character.

Pope, Steve. Hornblower's Navy: Life at Sea in the Age of Nelson. New York: Welcome Rain, 1999, 112 p.

Presents a description of life in the Napoleonic-era British navy.

Wertheimer, Ron. “Authentic Hornblower: Where Grim Meets Ghastly.” New York Times (2 April 1999): E31.

Reviews the 1999 Hornblower television series.

Additional coverage of Forester's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 83; Contemporary Authors: Obituary, Vol 25-28R; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 191; Literature Resource Center; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Something About the Author, Vol. 13; and Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers.

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