C. S. Forester is an author who transcends fashion. 100 years after his birth the ITV serialization of the Hornblower series won new recruits to the enthralling tales of naval warfare in the Napoleonic wars. Fans know that Hornblower was only a small part of C.S. Forester’s output of 35 novels, 2 plays, 5 biographies, 3 children’s books and histories and more.
Abridged from ‘A Very Short Biography of C. S. Forester’ by John Forester
C. S. Forester, born in August, 1899, was the fifth and last child of George Foster Smith and Sarah Medhurst Troughton. George Smith was an English school teacher in Cairo, Egypt, in a school set up by the British protectorate to give upper-class Egyptian boys a taste of English schooling. When Cecil was three, the family broke up, Sarah and the children returning to London so the children could attend English schools, while George remained teaching in Egypt, returning for one month a year. During his childhood Cecil developed a line of stories that made him out to be better than he was and got people to act as he desired. He adopted George and Florence Belcher, whose sons were his schoolmates, as surrogate parents. He was accepted at Guy’s Medical School, using money that Geoff sent from his pay as an Army doctor in World War I, but lazed away his time instead of attending. It was not until he was aged 27 did he earn enough from his first writings to live on.
His first novel, A Pawn Among Kings, recalled his days playing Napoleonic war games. It is about a fictional woman who causes Napoleon’s recognized mistakes by upsetting his judgment at crucial moments. His first successful novel was Payment Deferred, a story “of grim horror almost unrelieved,” about a man who is hanged for a murder he didn’t commit because exonerating himself would prove the murder that he had committed. On the success of Payment Deferred, Cecil secretly married Kathleen Belcher, in whose parents’ house he had spent much time. He wrote a series of novels with military and naval themes, include Brown on Resolution, Death to the French, The Gun, The African Queen, and The General. He had, from the first, used the pen name of CS Forester. Now nobody who met CSF even knew he was Cecil Smith, although those who had known Cecil Smith knew he was the famous novelist CSF. He was called to Hollywood to write a pirate film, working under Arthur Hornblow, in association with Niven Busch. However, before they had finished the script, another studio released Captain Blood, starring Errol Flynn, and using the same historical incidents that they had counted on. Rather than seeking another position, hounded by the prospect of a paternity suit from a fading opera singer, Cecil jumped aboard a freighted bound for home. Another passenger was the photographer Barbara Sutro. In the voyage, he took a one-day cruise around the Gulf of Fonseca in the ship’s motor lifeboat, and by the end of the voyage he had a new novel worked out, The Happy Return, with its characters Hornblower, Bush, and Lady Barbara. Hornblower, with all his human indecisiveness and cross-grainedness, was Cecil as he wished he had the courage to be, and Cecil wrote about Hornblower again and again.
At the start of World War II Cecil persuaded the British government to let him come to America to write propaganda (news, film, short stories, and novels) to help keep America on Britain’s side. His work brought him recognition by admirals, generals, and Prime ministers. His official home was Berkeley, California, for the rest of his working life. In 1943, he became partially crippled with arteriosclerosis in his legs.
He and Kathleen were divorced in 1945. In 1947 he married, again secretly, another lady from the group of his youth, Dorothy Foster. In August, 1964 he had a disabling stroke, and he died in April, 1966. Cecil and Kathleen had two sons, John born in 1929, George in 1933. Cecil wrote an early autobiography, Long Before Forty but his most complete and complex story was his own life.
Hereunder, you can see C. S. Forester with Princess Margaret at the World Premiere of Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. (1951) [short version]