C. S. Forester

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2238

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.

Early Life

Despite C. S. Forester’s enduring popularity as a writer, his life...

(The entire section contains 2238 words.)

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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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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 new name suggested by his typist, who may have gotten it from a character mentioned in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four (1890).

During this period, Forester’s first publisher commissioned him to write a nonfiction book about Napoleon Bonaparte that launched him on a brief career writing “hack” biographies. Over the next several years, as he wrote those books (which he later disavowed), he reassessed his fiction and learned to take time to work out plots before setting pen to paper. Eventually he developed a rigorous system of writing fixed numbers of words each day without the need for revisions.

In 1926 Payment Deferred became Forester’s first book to win critical and popular attention. Its success transformed him into a public figure and began his lifelong effort to conceal the truth about his family. Ironically, Payment Deferred, a taut drama about a man who kills a visiting relative for his money, has a subtle parallel with Forester’s own life: After his fictional Mr. Marble buries his victim in his yard, he, too, is obsessed with fear of discovery.

From the mid-1920’s through the early 1950’s, Forester published one book almost every year. In addition to novels and the early biographies, he wrote plays, travel books, and children’s books. In 1932 and 1933 he published the first of many novels set in the Napoleonic wars of the early nineteenth century, Death to the French (1932; Rifleman Dodd in U.S. edition) and The Gun (1933). His reputation rose to a new level a few years later with publication of The African Queen (1935), a romantic adventure set in East Africa during World War I, and The General (1936), a penetrating study of a British army officer during the same war.

Forester’s memoirs exaggerate his Hollywood screenwriting experience, but in 1935 he did go to Hollywood to work on a pirate film produced by Arthur Hornblow. When that project was abandoned after only seven weeks, Forester fled California on a Swedish freighter to avoid being served in a paternity suit.

The remote wildness of the Gulf of Fonseca in Central America gave Forester an idea for a story set in the early nineteenth century: He envisioned a megalomaniacal rebel, “El Supremo,” who enlists British naval assistance against Spain—then allied with France against Britain. As Forester continued his voyage, he worked out the plot of The Happy Return (1937; Beat to Quarters in U.S. edition), which introduced Horatio Hornblower as the British naval captain sent to Central America. Forced to fight both the Spanish and the rebels, Hornblower eventually triumphs and returns home, his heroism—characteristically for Forester—little appreciated.

After conceiving what is essentially a single storyline, Forester quickly wrote two sequels. In A Ship of the Line (1938), he put Hornblower in the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean operations. This story climaxes with Hornblower surrendering to the French after losing most of his crew in a desperate battle that cripples four enemy ships. At its end, a miserable Hornblower faces possible execution by Napoleon. In the third story, Flying Colours (1938), Hornblower escapes across France. Along the way, he conducts an adulterous affair with the daughter-in-law of the French aristocrat who helps him. Eventually he returns home to a hero’s welcome, but one spoiled by the guilt he feels when he learns that his long-neglected wife has died.

Forester’s growing success expanded his opportunities for writing and travel. He briefly served as a newspaper correspondent in the Spanish Civil War and was reporting from Prague when Nazi Germany occupied Czechoslovakia in 1938. After Great Britain entered World War II, he took on a quasi-official role as a British propagandist in the United States, where he had access to top military officials. His experience sailing on British and American warships in action led to two novels about the heroism of the Allied navies, The Ship (1943) and The Good Shepherd (1955). The latter’s completion was delayed because his contraction of atherosclerosis in 1943 permanently invalided him. By then he had established permanent residence in Berkeley, California.

As the war ended, Forester reluctantly returned to Hornblower. The Commodore (1945; Commodore Hornblower in U.S. edition) picks up where his earlier books left off, with Hornblower commanding a flotilla sent to Czar Alexander I’s court to help persuade Russia to join Britain against France. By then Forester’s work was regularly being serialized in the lucrative Saturday Evening Post. One year later he published Lord Hornblower, in which the Napoleonic wars finally end. With Britain and France no longer at war, Forester figured he was finally done with Hornblower; in fact, he was actually less than half done. In 1950 he began recounting Hornblower’s early career in Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, following it two years later with Lieutenant Hornblower. He added three other Hornblower novels and was working on Hornblower and the Crisis (1967) when he died in 1966. Through the intervening years he wrote many other books and saw a half dozen of his works made into films, including The African Queen (1951).

In 1926 Forester secretly married Kathleen Belcher, the sister of childhood friends, who bore him two sons. They divorced in 1944; three years later he again married secretly, this time to Dorothy Ellen Foster, a compliant spinster who took care of him after she finished taking care of her own elderly parents. Although Forester’s memoirs portray him as a caring family man, he secretly despised his sons as much as he had his parents. Of an estate worth three-quarters of a million dollars (with substantial royalty income still coming in), he left his sons only nominal sums, even though one son helped nurse him through his last days.

Summary

Although Forester won no major literary awards and his books are not taught in literature courses, his work has left a strong imprint on modern culture. He created one of the rare fictional characters whose name became a household word, and his Hornblower books have been continuously in print for more than sixty years. In 1998 Britain’s Independent Television network adapted the Hornblower saga to a miniseries that is one of the most expensive television productions ever made.

Hornblower’s popularity can be attributed to Forester’s success in creating a mythic hero whose faults and weaknesses make him seem believable, especially in the meticulously crafted historical settings in which Forester placed him. Many later writers have followed Forester’s example by creating military heroes of their own, often placing them in the Napoleonic wars—Patrick O’Brian, for example, has written a highly regarded series about the British naval heroes Aubrey and Maturin. Bernard Cornwell, author of the equally popular Sharpe novels, has called them “shamelessly modeled on Forester’s Hornblower series.” Hornblower’s influence has not been limited to literature. Gene Rodenberry, who created the Star Trek television series, acknowledged that his fictional Captain Kirk was inspired by Hornblower.

Hornblower is the hero that Forester would like to have been. Using a superior intellect, he devised brilliant stratagems; his courage always overcame his natural fear of death; he was too modest and self-effacing to understand his powerful attraction to women; and, perhaps most telling, he never confided his innermost thoughts to anyone.

Bibliography

Forester, C. S. The Hornblower Companion: An Atlas and Personal Commentary on the Writing of the Hornblower Saga. Boston: Little, Brown, 1964. Indispensable handbook to the Hornblower stories, with detailed maps and numerous illustrations by Samuel Bryant. The book also contains Forester’s “Some Personal Notes,” which, though unreliable on details of his life, provides insights into his work.

Forester, C. S. Long Before Forty. Boston: Little, Brown, 1967. Posthumously published autobiography that Forester wrote before his first major literary successes. It is the fullest account of his early life but is generally unreliable. This edition also reprints “Some Personal Notes” from The Hornblower Companion.

The Naval Gazette: The Journal of the C. S. Forester Society (1996-). Quarterly publication with articles and features relating to Forester’s life and work.

Sternlicht, Sanford. C. S. Forester. Boston: Twayne, 1981. This is the only book-length study of Forester yet published. Its discussion of Forester’s life relies almost entirely on Forester’s own unreliable memoirs; however, it offers engagingly written and appreciative discussions of his writings.

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