C. S. Forester
Article abstract: One of the most popular novelists of the mid-twentieth century, Forester wrote more than fifty books but is best known for his multivolume saga about British naval hero Horatio Hornblower—an immortal figure in modern literature.
Despite C. S. Forester’s enduring popularity as a writer, his life has attracted little scholarly inquiry. Consequently, his own writings—especially his deceptively candid autobiography, Long Before Forty (1967)—have provided most of what is known about him. Unfortunately, much of what he wrote is untrue. He claimed, for example, that his parents were named “Forester.” He was actually the fifth child and third son of an English couple named George Foster Smith and Sarah Medhurst Troughton. Born in Egypt as Cecil Lewis Troughton Smith, he grew up suspecting that his real father was an Egyptian with whom his mother had an adulterous affair. As he came to despise his English parents and ancestors, the idea of being part Egyptian delighted him; however, his fear of public discovery led him to lie about his early history.
Forester’s autobiography—typically vague on names and dates—implies that his father was an important official in the Anglo-Egyptian government. However, his father actually taught in a Cairo school for Egyptian boys, supplementing his income by tutoring sons of wealthy families, who gave him peripheral entry to the highest level of Anglo-Egyptian society. While Forester was an infant, his father was transferred to a prep school in Alexandria—a move that cut him off from Cairo society and his tutoring income. Disgusted by this development, Forester’s mother returned to London with her children, leaving her husband in Egypt alone, except for his annual leaves in England. In contrast to the comfortable picture of family life painted in Long Before Forty, Forester grew up in a chaotic and financially strapped family with a mother sinking into alcoholism. He came to detest his family and later to distrust and disinherit his own children. His dysfunctional family life later profoundly influenced his books—which are notably devoid of healthy, functional families, while laced with adultery, failure, guilt, and unhappy endings. Indeed, even his greatest literary creation, naval hero Horatio Hornblower, finds peace of mind only in death.
After learning to read at a precocious age, Forester cultivated a lifelong habit of reading one book per day, immersing himself in novels, biographies, and histories. Especially interested in military history, he mastered the intricacies of famous battles by reenacting them with model ships and toy soldiers. He later claimed that education was so highly regarded in his family that the children were expected to win academic honors and scholarships—which, in fact, they needed if they were to continue their educations. Forester’s native intelligence and the rigid discipline of his early schooling gave him a solid grounding in basic subjects and imbued him with methodical work habits that he later applied to his writing.
Midway through World War I Forester turned seventeen but was rejected for military service because of a heart problem. Aware that his peers were being slaughtered in grisly trench warfare, Forester seems to have had strong feelings of guilt. His later writings about military heroes were, at least in part, conscious or unconscious attempts to assuage that guilt. His novel Brown on Resolution (1929), for example, pits a lone British sailor against a German warship during World War I. Rescued by Germans from a vessel they have sunk, Brown escapes when their ship anchors for repairs in a sheltered Pacific island inlet. Then, using a stolen rifle to snipe at them from rugged rocks, he delays the ship’s departure long enough for it to be overtaken and sunk by a British warship. Typically reluctant to let his heroes savor victory, Forester has Brown die an unknown hero. Even more poignantly, he reveals Brown to be the son of the British warship’s captain—a father he never knew.
Meanwhile, while the war was still being fought, Forester entered a London medical school, following a path set by his oldest brother, Geoff, who supported him with money he earned while serving as an army doctor. However, Forester never had any real interest in medicine and eventually dropped out to become a writer.
Forester launched his writing career like a shot from an unaimed cannon. Long Before Forty describes his heroic struggle to become a self-supporting writer after leaving his family and moving into an unheated south London flat. He began by calculating how many words filled a novel and wrote furiously until reaching that number. After a friend typed his manuscript, he fired it off to a publisher and immediately started another novel. Before long, he had three manuscripts looking for publishers and wondered if he would starve before his writing produced any income. In reality, he never left his parents’ home and probably never missed a meal. In any case, his second and third manuscripts were eventually bought and published as A Pawn Among Kings (1924) and The Paid Piper (1924).
Cecil Smith became “C. S. Forester” when he sent off his first manuscript. Anxious to distance himself from both his family and the relative anonymity of the name “Smith,” he took a...
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