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|C(ecil) S(cott) Forester (1899-1966) - original name Cecil Lewis Troughton Smith|
British historical novelist, biographer, and journalist, best-known as the creator of Horatio Hornblower, a swashbuckling hero and naval officer in Nelson's time, whose career is told in a series of a dozen books. Hornblower is one of the great mariner characters in literature along with Ulysses, Sinbad, Captain Ahab, and Lord Jim. "I recommend Forester to every literate I know," said Ernest Hemingway once. Forester's other works include popular novels and thrillers.
"He was in command of his own ship, and was being set in the forefront of the battle. This was his golden chance to distinguish himself. That was his good fortune – it would have been maddening bad luck to have been left in harbour. Hornblower could feel the well-remembered thrill of excitement at the thought of seeing action again, of risking reputation – and life – in doing his duty, in gaining glory, and in (what was really the point) justifying himself in his own eyes. Now he was sane again; he could see things in their proper proportion. He was a naval officer first, and a married man only second, and a bad second at that. But – but – that did not make things any easier. He would still have to tear himself free from Maria's arms." (from Hornblower and the Hotspur, 1962)
Cecil Scott Forester was born in Cecil Louis Troughton Smith in Cairo, Egypt. His father, George Smith, was a minor British governmental officer in the Egyptian Ministry of Education. In 1901 his mother, Sarah Troughton Smith, took her five children to Camberwell, London. By the time he went to school at ther age of three, he already read with ease. When he was ten, he regularly read and reread his favorite writers, Jane Austen, Henry James, and H.G. Wells. Forester was educated at Alleyne's School and in 1915 he entered Dulwich College. He then tried to enlist in the army, but failed the physical; from his childhood he had been thin and frail and he wore glasses, though his full mature height was six feet and he boxed at school. Amazed and disappointed by rejection, he questioned the doctors: "They managed to find time between two recruits to tell me that there was no chance of my being accepted for service and that I really should be surprised to be still alive."
Forester studied medicine at Guy's Hospital for a few years. In 1921 he abandoned his studies for writing, taking the pen name Cecil Scott Forester. Without much experience in writing Forester's way to literary fame started slowly. In the early phase of his career he wrote novels and biographies, among others Napoleon and His Court (1924), written in the style of Thomas Babington Macaulay, and Josephine, Napoleon’s Empress (1925), and novels Payment Defered (1926), which gained critical success, and Brown on Resolution (1929). Payment Deferred, set during World War I, was a story about a desperate man who poisons his wealthy nephew for money. The book was made into a play in 1931, which was staged at the St. James Theater, London, and filmed in 1932 with Charles Laughton in the leading role. One Wonderful Week (1927) was filmed in Finland under the title Synnitön lankeemus without giving credits to the novel.
With his first wife, Kathleen Belcher, a sports instructor, Forester went inland voyaging in a dingy through England, France and Germany, the log being published as The Voyage of the Annie Marble (1929), followed by The Annie Marble in Germany (1930) Forester's thriller, Plain Murder (1930) showed his skills as a crime writer. In the socially and psychologically penetrating study an ordinary man discovers that he has a talent for murder. "The essential preliminaries of the plan had been accomplished marvelously well; now – there was roast mutton at home, and Morris was hungry. He did not even pause to leave the children outside a public-house while he went in for an appetizer. He hurried the children back along the side streets, over the main road and up the steep hill again to his home. A man of Morris's calculating and obstinate mind did not feel the stress waiting very much. He ate his dinner with considerable appetite."
With the publication of Death to the French (1932) and The Gun (1933) Forester gained a reputation as a novelist. Both focused on the Peninsula War. Before publishing his most famous book, The African Queen (1935), Forester wrote a thriller entitled The Pursued (1935/2011), about a woman hunting the man who murdered her daughter. The manuscript was lost, but a typescrift surfaced at Christie's in 2002, and the novel finally came out in 2011.
The African Queen depicted the relationship between Rose Sayer, an evangelical English spinster, and Charlie Allnutt, a liquor drinking small-boat captain. Their unlikely love and adventure story was set in German Central Africa during World War I. The story was made into a classic film sixteen years later, starring Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. Though set in Africa, Forester had not traveled there, but relied on his books to help guide him. The General (1936), a World War I novel about the British military mind, reworked the characteristic Forester theme of individual courage. The book was translated into German, and Adolf Hitler, who recommended it to his friends, presented specially bound copies to such Nazi military leaders as Marshals Göring and Keitel.
At the age of 38 Forester produced the first of his tales of the Napoleonic Wars, featuring Horatio Hornblower. The character was born on a Swedish freighter-passenger ship Margaret Johnson bound for England. By the time the ship reached the Azores, his hero began to develop a personality. His first name, Horatio, came from Hamlet, not from Horatio Nelson. Forester followed his protagonist's career from midshipman to admiral. The novels were not written in historical order. Hornblover, the introvert, inhibited hero, devoted to the works of Gibbon, was partly modelled on Lord Nelson. His weaknesses are small, not fatal, as with the heroes of ancient myths – he suffers from seasickness, he is shy, and he gets drunk first time as a commodore. He was accepted immediately by the readers, and when Hornblower had no more battles to win, Forester began to backtrack his career. His adventures were also serialized in the Saturday Evening Post.
Forester's depiction of the splendors of the sea and the heroic life of the sailor was vivid and accurate in nautical details: "It was Sunday morning. The Renown had caught the north-east trades and was plunging across the Atlantic at her best speed, with studding sails set on both sides, the roaring trades driving her along with a steady pitch and heave, her bluff bows now and then rising a smother of spray that supported momentary rainbows. The rigging was piping loud and clear, the treble and the tenor to the baritone and bass of the noises of the ship's fabric as she pitched – a symphony of the sea." (from Lieutenant Hornblower, 1952)
Before Ian Fleming's James Bond, Hornblower was the best know British superhero. Beat to Quarters (1937; U.K. title: The Happy Return), the first book in the series, was inspired by three volumes of a naval journal, The Naval Chronicle, published between 1790 and 1820. The reader meets Lady Barbara Wellesley, Hornblower's second wife, lieutenant Bush appears, too, and later becomes one of the central characters. Hemingway's praise of Forester was on the back jacket of the novel. In Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (1950) the seventeen-year-old Horatio starts his career in Nelson's navy as a midshipman on board H.M.S. Justinian. In Lieutenant Hornblower (1952) he serves under the Queeg-like Captain Sawyer and meets his lifelong friend and shipmate, Lieutenant William Bush, and Maria Mason, whom he marries in Hornblower and the Hotspur (1962). Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies (1957), the tenth volume in the series, was set in the chaotic aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. Rear-Admiral Lord Hornblower in again in the forefront of the action, when a fast ship, flying the American flag and full of Bonapartists, is en route to set him free once more. A Ship of the Line (1939) was awarded the Tait Black Memorial Prize.
Bush is killed in action in Lord Hornblower (1946), The Commodore (1945) opens with Horatio and Barbara married. In Flying Colours (1938) Hornblower has an affair with a French girl and he learns that Maria has died giving birth to a son who survived. The series concluded with the unfinished novel Hornblower and the Crisis (1967), which was published with the short story 'The Last Encounter'. Forester combined in it a sea adventure with a spy story – Hornblower, who is 72, gets possession of confidential dispatches from Napoleon Bonaparte and asked by the Admiralty he agrees to do a dangerous mission – like a 19th-century James Bond. The Hornblower Companion (1964) was a book of anecdotes and maps that provided background for the saga.
Hornblower's adventures hailed the expansive age of the British Empire and continued the tradition of G.A. Henty and other adventure fiction with imperialistic boosting. Later Patrick O'Brian and Bernard Cornwell have treated the same historical period as Forester. In The Captain from Connecticut (1941) Forester tried to introduce an American Hornblower, Captain Joshua Peabody, but the idea did not succeed. The Earthly Paradise (1940) was a fictionalized account of Columbus's third voyage to America.
In 1932 Forester was offered a Hollywood contract. From then until 1939 he spent thirteen weeks of every year in America working intermittently as a screenwriter. A transatlantic man, he loved to sail the luxury ocean lines between the two countries. Forester often adapted his own fiction for the screen, notably in The African Queen and Captain Horation Hornblower (directed by Raoul Walsh, 1951). During the Spanish Civil War Forester worked as an occasional correspondent for The Times. "Everything was in stark and dreadful contrast with the trivial crises and counterfeit emotions in Hollywood, and I returned to England deeply moved and emotionally worn out." When British admirers sent him to Spain on a visit to obtain favourable publicity for the Nationalists, he was shocked by the fanaticism of some the upper class Spaniards. In 1939 Forester reported on the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia.
Forster was a strong supporter of the war against Germany, concluding later that "Hitler's decision to attempt the invasion [of England] was most important in shortening the war and hastening his own destruction." Hemingway was fond of Forester's critique of the British mentality in The General, and claimed that it had inspired Hitler to attack England. Forester took up the theme in 1960 in his three-part serialized essay 'If Hitler Had Invaded England', published in the Daily Mail. In the preface of The Nightmare (1954), a collection of short stories, Forester reminded: "There is no purpose in studying history unless the lessons of the past are to influence present policy, and present policy can only have a basis in lessons of the past."
Like many British writers, Forester worked during World War II for the Information Services. At the beginning of the war, he traveled to America to write propaganda. Forester's literary career stopped for some years in 1943 when he was stricken with arteriosclerosis while on board the U.S.S. Tennessee. He had visited the Bering Sea to research a book on the US Navy during World War II and the disease of the arteries left him permanently crippled. However, he realized that "even though I could only walk a few yards, I could still go to sea. I is never more than a few yards from a wardroom to a bridge..."
The Ship (1943) was based on his mission in HMS Penelope, which he undertook at the invitation of the Admiralty. In his humorous short story, 'The Man in the Yellow Raf', set during World War II, Forester compared discipline in the British and American navies. When young, teen-aged recruits cause trouble on the Boon, the only sentence is extra duty, which doesn't mean a thing. But the British have their rum rations stopped. "So there's no way of getting at the man who's lazy or careless, or who thinks he knows it already. But the British can, with the rum ration. That one drink's nothing, really, to a drinking man. But leading this sort of life you come to look forward to it from day to day, just as a break in the monotony. Take it away, and you've really done something."
The producer San Spiegel and director John Huston bought the rights to The African Queen from Columbia, which had planned to make a film starring Elsa Lanchester and Charles Laughton. Huston started to write the screenplay with James Agee, a poet, novelist and motion-picture critic. Forester had told Huston that he had never been satisfied with the way the novel ended. He had written two different endings; one was used in the American edition, the other in the English. Huston shot the film in England, the Congo, and Uganda. Bogart won a Best Actor Academy Award as the gin-drinking Charlie Allnut, a role he didn't particularly care for. Bogart also hated location work, and spent much of the time drinking scotch with Huston. Katherine Hepburn enjoyed the work, although she felt she was going to die of dysentry. Huston thought that there should be a happy ending, and wrote it with Peter Viertel. So the story doesn't end when Charlie and Rose are captured by the Germans. "By the authority vested in me by Kaiser Wilhelm II, I pronounce you man and wife. Proceed with the execution."
At the end of the war, Forester moved to the Unites States, settling in California because of the better climate. Captain Horatio Hornblower, adapted from Forester's novels by Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts and Aeneas MacKenzie, became one of the 20-odd top money making films of 1951, earning $3 million. It was produced in London at Sir Alexander Korda's extensive Denham Studios. Princess Elizabeth and her sister Princess Margaret visited the set. Sequences taking place at sea were filmed in Villefrance on the Riviera, between Nice and the principality of Monaco. Gregory Peck, who played the title role, said that "I like a hero, particularly sea-going hero, who gets seasick, who gets nervous before every battle, because I think people are like that and I don't really subscribe to the hard-nosed guy who's afraid of nothing." Arthur Knight in Saturday Review praised the director Raoul Walsh: "All the gusto, sweep and color that endeared the Hornblower series to millions of readers has been preserved in... Walsh's rapid and muscular direction..." The wooden Gregory Peck was a perfect cast for Hornblower. After completing the film, Peck was eager to make a sequel.
In 1947, Forester married Dorothy Ellen Foster, a daughter of a shipping magnate. His semi-invalid condition did not stop him from traveling with his wife. While in their Berkeley home he read seven to ten books per week, played bridge, and wrote 1,000 or more words on each day. Forester continued to write after a severe heart attack in 1961, but a stroke in 1964 left him paralyzed. In spite of his popularity, Forester was self-critical of his work. "There have been times when I have stood on the bridge of a battleship, when royalty has actually shaken me by the hand," he confessed in 1958. "I have had a remarkably happy life – I doubt if anyone could have had a happier during the 20th century – but I wonder whether it might not have been happier still if during those moments I had not felt such a fraud."
Forester died in Fullerton, California, on April 2, 1966. Long before Forty, an autobiography up to his 31st year, was published posthumously in 1967. After Forester, the English writer Patrick O'Brian refreshed the genre by accuracy of details and character development. His heroes, Captain Jack Aubrey and his ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin were introduced in Master and Commander (1970). Peter Weir's film, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), starring Russell Crowe, was based on O'Brian's books.