Holding it together

Influences of patriotism and Empire on C S Forester, man and writer

C S Forester wrote The African Queen in 1935, in London.

[ILLUSTRATION 1; First German Edition of Forester’s ‘General’]

[ILLUSTRATION 1; First German Edition of Forester’s ‘General’]

His next book was The General and shortly afterwards he commenced the Hornblower series. What do these all have in common? – ‘the man alone’ of course – Charlie Allnutt, General Curzon, and Horatio Hornblower: military action – the battle on Lake Tanganyika, World War 1, the Napoleonic wars; and a fatal woman – Rose, Emily (and Miss Cissy Barnes), and Maria & Barbara.

But there’s a further link. While writing these books he was a regular visitor to USA where he lived from 1938 until his demise. John Forester in his biography ‘Novelist and Storyteller’ says “At the beginning of 1941, with America still to enter the war, Forester had gone to New York where he was employed by the British Information Service, on whose behalf he undertook a lecture tour of the country….

Much of Forester’s wartime work during 1941 was liaising with the American radio networks and supplying them with information and news angled with a pro-British slant. A large segment of the American public were determined that they not come to Europe’s aid, again. Isolationists were all for keeping America out of the war at all costs. CS Forester was one of those to try and make them alter their opinion….

‘Forever and a Day’

[ILLUSTRATION 2; Cover of ‘Forever and a Day’ DVD, with CSF in the listing]

[ILLUSTRATION 2; Cover of ‘Forever and a Day’ DVD, with CSF in the listing]

Forester spent time labouring in Hollywood, a period which was largely unsatisfactory. Only one film of any real merit bore a C.S. Forester screen credit with his name. In 1943, a star-studded propaganda vehicle called Forever and a Day was released. The film told the story of a London house from the 18th Century to the Blitz. Among the performers were Merle Oberon, Buster Keaton, Charles Laughton, Ray Milland and Anna Neagle. No less than twenty one writers were credited with the script, among them C.S. Forester”.

‘Citadel’ magazine.

[ILLUSTRATION 3; Front cover of magazine published in wartime Egypt]

[ILLUSTRATION 3; Front cover of magazine published in wartime Egypt]

A few months later, the magazine ‘Citadel’ was published in Cairo – price 1 piastre or 1 ½ Palestine piastres. It contains a short story by Forester: ‘Warm a Ship Up’. CSF uses two of his themes in this tale of a British sea captain protecting a convoy from USA to England during World War 2 – the captain alone, and the Atlantic in WW2. ‘The Citadel’ contains advertisements too – for books: ‘The British System of Government’ in the Czech language; ‘The British Empire’ in Greek and Polish; and in Christmas Classics by The Londoner, there’s an account by Miss Fuchsover (yes). What then was CSF doing, writing for a magazine published in an unstable Egypt, in 1944?

‘Eagle Squadron’

 [ILLUSTRATION 4; cover for the film Eagle Squadron]

[ILLUSTRATION 4; cover for the film Eagle Squadron]

In his book ‘Beware the British Serpent: the role of British writers of propaganda in the United States 1939-1945’ Robert Calder says of Eagle Squadron, a film made in 1942 for which CSF wrote the story [the hero by the way is one Chuck Brewer. No relation I am sorry to say]… Forester, by then working for the British Information Service had earlier written a screenplay based on his Hornblower novels which had definite propaganda overtones. On 20 May he wrote to Angus Fletch saying ‘For the last fourteen weeks I have been at work for Warner Brothers in Hollywood making a screenplay for my novel ‘Captain Horatio Hornblower’. The novel itself had a slightly satirical and even faintly pacific flavour, which of course I was prepared to eliminate in the script. I succeeded in doing this’…. Much of the pressure on Forester to produce a script ‘with a very pro-British flavour’ came from Warner Bros who hoped that the British government would be moved to allow them to take out of the country any revenues they earned in Britain”.

One may also relate the ‘pro-British flavour’ referred to above to the 1935 film-version of Brown on Resolution; the film is re-titled ‘Forever England’ (also I believe at one stage, Born for Glory).

The British Information Service

The British Information Services (BIS) was the information department of the British Consulate in New York, an overseas post of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, London. There was also an offices of the BIS in Los Angeles. The BIS aimed ‘to answer the questions most frequently asked in the United States about Britain and provide up-to-date government comment on current events where Britain has a role to play’.

One must ask how the BIS – a pro-American body – was permitting its staff to write for a pro-British Empire magazine such as Citadel. In ‘Special Relationships: America in Peace and War’, John Wheeler-Bennett describes BIS as a Bertie Wooster world — the New York of the Stork Club and the Ziegfeld Follies and the London of clubland; it persists into a wartime social whirl that can still talk of “cutting” a German diplomat “in public” and of the “kindness” of the Ritz”. So the BIS may have been indulging itself in a last fling of British Empire greatness; and in addition Forester was something of a money-grubber – it was quite probably his agent who found an outlet for Warm a Ship Up and CSF wouldn’t say no to an honorarium.

Patriotism

[ILLUSTRATION 5: Katherine Hepburn ‘The Making of the African Queen’ rear cover]

[ILLUSTRATION 5: Katherine Hepburn ‘The Making of the African Queen’ rear cover]

Why did the BIS retain Forester’s services? In African Queen when Rosie first realises the gravity of the German invasion she reflects that ‘The Empire was in danger. She felt within her a boiling flood of patriotism’.  In The General we hear that Curzon’s ‘…patriotism was a real and living force… instinctive deference …towards great names and old lineage’. The Empire outside the Caribbean was still spawning at the time of Hornblower’s Napoleonic wars but the series is, again, imbued with the patriotic armed struggle – remember how, in ‘Ship of the Line’, Lady Barbara in an aside to Hornblower ‘… murmured… “England needs all her best captains at present” ’.

The writer of this article was born in 1946, in London. Many of the teachers at my preparatory school in Harrow were ex-Indian-army or- civil service. In a book I purchased in 1963 the publisher incidentally lists its corporate branches: ‘Victoria, Australia; Kingston (Jamaica),; Lahore; Nairobi; Johannesburg; Salisbury; Longmans of Nigeria Ltd; Longmans of Ghana Ltd; Longmans (Far East) Ltd, Hong Kong; Longmans of Malaya Ltd; Orient Longmans Ltd (Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, Delhi, Hyderabad, Dacca); Longmans Canada Ltd (137 Bond Street, Toronto)’.

Long before Forty

It was into this nation of Empire that CSF had been born in 1899, in the capital of the Khedivate of Egypt. Egypt had been dominated by Empires – Ottoman and French – but came under British control in 1882 following the Anglo-Egyptian War (triggered by the disparity of pay between Egyptians and their British colleagues). At the outset of his autobiographical Long Before Forty, CSF recalls how when first moving to London as a little boy he persisted in addressing the house decorators in Camberwell in Arabic. He lists his ‘standard authors’ when he was 7 years old as G A Henty (author of ‘With Clive in India’; ‘The Young Colonists: A Tale of the Zulu and Boer Wars’; ‘For Name and Fame: To Cabul with Roberts’; ‘The Bravest of the Brave, or, With Peterborough in Spain’ and ‘A Final Reckoning: A Tale of Bush Life in Australia’); Ballantyne (‘The Fugitives or the Tyrant Queen of Madagascar’; ‘The Coral Island’; ‘The Hudson’s Bay Company’; ‘the Rover of the Andes’; ‘the Island Queen’) and Collingwood (‘Roman Britain and the English Settlements’).

The Legacy of Empire

In 2017 our C S Forester Society met at the Old Admiralty office. Just down the road lie Churchill’s War Rooms where he drafted the words ‘If the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say “This was their finest hour.” ’After the meeting as we walked along the south side of Whitehall and Parliament Street to Westminster, I noted the statues one passes: Field Marshall George Duke of Cambridge 1839-1904, Commander-in-Chief of the British Armed Forces: Spencer Cavendish, 1833-1908, who became eighth Duke of Devonshire; Earl Haig 1861-1928 commander during the Battle of the Somme, the battle with the highest casualties in British military history; Field Marshal Viscount Slim 1891-1970 (KG, GCB, GCMG, GCVO, GBE, DSO, MC, KStJ), British military commander and Governor-General of Australia; Viscount Field Marshall Alanbrooke 1888-1963 Chief of General Staff; Viscount Montgomery of Alamein 1887-1976 Chief of the Imperial General Staff.

[ILLUSTRATION 6; Philips world globe circa 1925]

[ILLUSTRATION 6; Philips world globe circa 1925]

Note well, the dates of these Great Men; all 19th century-born, all fighters for Empire. This was the world into which a 20th century Londoner – CSF in Dulwich, me in Harrow – lived his formative childhood years. The world globe in our sitting-room at home was decorated with our Empire possessions all coloured red. We were told at school, how you could walk from the northernmost point of Africa to the southernmost without leaving British soil. When CSF is studying at Guy’s Hospital he recalls ‘My father was still in Egypt engaged in quieting that distressful country after the rebellion which a short-sighted policy of disgarrisonment had provoked’.

This living legacy of Empire stays with Forester all his life. Writing in Berkeley, California in 1964 he looks back on his years in America and says how he had been ‘preoccupied with the fall of Empires – Hornblower… when the French Empire was falling … Hornblower had seen in the last days of the [French] Empire’.

The Victorious Century

Professor at Princeton and Oxford and President of the Royal Academy, Sir David Cannadine this year published his inestimable ‘Victorious Century: The United Kingdom 1800-1906’*. He observes that the UK was the only country in Europe to have the same borders at the start of the 19th Century as at its end: ‘This was a country which saw itself at the summit of the world’. The telling Preface map-illustrations illustrate the scattered and sparse British empire of 1815 contrasting with the satisfying sprawl of ownership and control, a hundred years on. ‘This was an era of national greatness, global reach and imperial aggrandisement… the Victorians created and accumulated wealth in unprecedented abundance, as their heavy industries dominated the world and as they invested prodigious sums overseas.’

The Britain in which CSF spent his childhood, adolescent and first professional years was the creature of this Victorious Century. ‘Two recently united islands situated off the coast of mainland Europe briefly achieved industrial supremacy and imperial pre-eminence, and as a result came to wield for much of the nineteenth century a wholly disproportionate influence over the affairs and the territories of the world’.

Holding it together

CSF was holding it together. In the Great Britain in which he grew up, the right to supremacy and to the extension of domination was assured. The natural right of Europeans to acquire territory was a ‘given’ – indeed, something to be proud of: when I was a teacher in Westphalia in 1970 my Head of Department proudly told me of German South West Africa and ‘how they still speak German there’ (as indeed they do); when I had lived in the Berry in France, Monsieur le Comte watched the developing war in Vietnam and commented dryly ‘L’Indochine. c’est français’; the favoured restaurant for entertaining overseas clients at my first employment in Mayfair in the 1970s, was The Empress in Grafton Street; at my local railway station stands a print of John Betjeman’s poem from 1954 “Gas light on frosty evergreens, electric on Empire wood”. ‘Empire’ pervaded the formation of a young Englishman’s attitudes in the early and mid- twentieth century. In African Queen, Rosie experiences ‘a little wave of emotion… at leaving… the mission station… her brother’s grave, her home’ ; but then she is fortified by the thought that ‘the Empire needs help’. In The General, CSF offers an example of conflict between patriotism and duty, and Aunt-Kate-in-Brixton; it is significant which side CSF’s eponymous hero takes. CSF’s account of Hornblower’s attachment to Lady Barbara Wellesley is punctuated by references to her family’s military successes; in a convoluted way, when Hebe catches the two lovers together Hornblower finds it ‘a dreadful thing for a captain to be caught in a ship actually in commission. It was contrary to the Articles of War’; thus, duty to one’s country and its systems comes before personal affections.

[ILLUSTRATION 7: First Editions Happy Return (UK) and Beat to Quarters (US)]

[ILLUSTRATION 7: First Editions Happy Return (UK) and Beat to Quarters (US)]

I have always felt that as Bond or George Smiley are to spy stories, so Hornblower is to sea stories. The first Hornblower mass-circulation paperbacks appeared in the 1950s, the first John le Carré/ George Smiley stories in the 1960s. Bagehot’s Notebook in The Economist magazine of 9 September 2017 commenting on le Carré’s latest publication, observed that Britain’s best spy novelists were ‘so good precisely because they use the genre to explore what it is that makes Britain British: the obsession with secrecy, the nature of the establishment, the agonies of imperial decline and the complicated tug of patriotism’. Rosie, General Curzon and Hornblower all act in a spontaneous assumption of patriotic devotion. Forester’s creations shows us the man alone, the femme fatale and the vigour of conflict. We also see the influence of the Empire nation in which C S Forester grew up and which he would continue to serve after leaving England.

Lawrie Brewer, July 2018

 

*The Penguin History of Britain; General Editor David Cannadine; Volume VIII Victorious Century published 2017

 

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