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• Growing up with HH

"I must be like the princess who felt the pea through seven mattresses; each book is a pea."

-- by C. S. Forester

C.S. Forester - image

Growing up with Horatio Hornblower


by George Forester
20 April 1999

George Forester, one of the Founders of eNet Press and its President, gave this talk to his local library in 1999 as the first Hornblower TV mini series was being shown in the USA. This talk has been reproduced here in its entirety.

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for coming and helping me share my memories of my father, Cecil Scott Forester, known to us as CSF. CSF was born in 1899 in Cairo Egypt where his father was a school teacher, schooled and spent his youth in England, and died in 1966 in Fullerton California, after living for many years in Berkeley California where I grew up. He wrote over 120 works: novels, short stories, articles, films, plays. He is best known for the eleven Horatio Hornblower novels, and, because Humphrey Bogart and Kathrine Hepburn acted so wonderfully, The African Queen.


Hornblower, for me, did not begin until 1940. We came over from England in February 1940. It was such a horrendous break for me, being evacuated to the countryside then back to London, escaping the Blitz, leaving with just a suitcase, that I remember very little before 1940. I had my 7th birthday just after we landed. I remember being able to read on the ship we came on, the HMS Britannic, because it was a big ship and on each deck was a layout telling you where you were, and I was frequently having to refer to it - I remember people helping me with some of the new words. The first three Hornblower novels Beat to Quarters, Flying Colors, and Ship of the Line had been published in 1937 and 1938; I was still a little young to read them then. And when I started school in Berkeley Calif the teaching method was different than in England and I stopped reading. It wasn't until a year later that I retaught myself to read (with my mother's help). So it was quite a time before I read the first three, and I believe it was just before Commodore Hornblower was published in 1945, when I was 12, that I read the first three.

We always had lots of books in our house. My father was always receiving ones from publishers to praise, if he could, for the dust jacket. My father could read about somewhere like 4000 words a minute, so a novel was read in an hour, and he often read 2 or 3 novels a day. My father was self taught, and a lot of his knowledge initially was acquired randomly. He read the Encyclopedia Britannica for bedside reading, and he claimed, in the 50's, that he had read it through completely 3 times. He had a photographic memory, and a wonderful facility for creating plots in which all the little items were interesting, necessary, and fitted unobtrusively together. My idea of his youth is that he spent quite a bit of time in the British Museum library keeping warm and dry, and accidentally read bits and pieces of British Naval History. And he played a lot of contract bridge, in just the same way that Hornblower did playing whist as a half-pay lieutenant. For a number of years, when CSF was 19 or 20, and literally a starving poet, he had an arrangement at a private bridge club - if he would play with anyone who needed a fourth, then he could play for free. It was gambling, and it was his sole source of income, so he became a very good bridge player. He also endeavored to get free meals from spinsters or widows he met at the bridge club.

In The Hornblower Companion, (which contains excellent maps of Hornblower's adventures and sketches by artist Samuel H. Bryant,) CSF reminisces about the various Hornblower novels. This book also contains an autobiographical sketch in which CSF indicates that the name Hornblower was a conscious effort to create a memorable name. However, my brother John, who has done quite a bit of research on our father's background, believes the following: CSF was returning from Hollywood. We understand that he fled a pending paternity suit. He caught the first ship leaving the harbor, which turned out to be a slow freighter through the Panama canal with lots of stops. In Hollywood, he had been working with Arthur Hornblow, and his best friend was Niven Busch (who wrote Duel in the Sun). Also, there was an attractive female on board the Panama bound ship. He had written a very poor history of Nelson, of Trafalgar fame, Lord Nelson (one of those hack histories published in a series). Now, Nelson's first name was Horatio. So we have Horatio Hornblower, Lieutenant Bush, and Lady Barbara, all on the west coast of Central America. And, if you've read Beat to Quarters recently, you'll remember El Supremo - I imagine he symbolized the dreaded paternity suit. We must remember that a good writer takes everything he can from his environment.

My father was an inveterate liar - often a fascinating man - and it took many of us most of our lives to figure out that lots of what he said about himself was fabrication. And particularly some of what he says in The Hornblower Companion, and most of what he said in Long Before Forty needs to be taken with a large portion of salt.

However, I often remember my father talking about the work of writing, and how his ideas grew, as barnacles grow on underwater pilings. I must admit, that one of my inherited traits, perhaps, is this same phenomena - ideas and concepts form and swirl around and then seem to pop out almost complete. Apart from the barnacles, ie, something to write about, he had discovered that the only way to write, he said, was to set his backside to the top of a chair with paper and pen in front of him at a table. He also said that the only way to learn to write was to write - again and again and again.

We, as children, were very familiar with Dad's working, as he worked at home and couldn't be disturbed, even with children's laughter outside his window. His writing day began between 6 and 7 am. He would plan out all the details for that day's work. He had breakfast in bed at exactly 8 am (I made it and took it in.) He got up, bathed or showered, and read his mail (he must have exerted pressure on the postmaster to get his mail to him no later than 8:45, where ever we lived) and got his secretary to work, either with mail first, or the current manuscript. Then he started to write (usually about 10 am). He wrote until his allotted 1000 words were complete. That usually took about one and a half to 2 hours. He very rarely rewrote anything - looking at his manuscripts, which were written in pen on legal sized lined yellow pads, one finds very small changes. And when he corrected galleys, he never had any writer's corrections, just typos. Around noon, if the thousand words were completed, he would check in with his secretary, review letters she had written for him, and perhaps dictate a letter or two. Then lunch would come at exactly 12:30. When he was home (for much of my childhood, Dad was away at the war, or giving talks on the chicken salad circuit), I frequently walked home from school for lunch.

After lunch, he'd take a short walk, return for a nap for an hour, read some, play tennis perhaps, and then at 4 pm (exactly) we'd have Tea. Cakes and hot tea with milk and sugar. Later, when I was in high school, he and I would play Piquet for half an hour before dinner, or he would play Patience (Solitaire to us). He also taught me to play bridge, in case I was ever destitute like he was. Sometimes, very occasionally, the 1000 words didn't get finished by lunch time, but he would not alter his rule - and then it would be a very tense lunch, and anxious afternoon, until the 1000 words were finished.

Well, to get back to my experiences and remembrances. In the summer of 1940, CSF was again working in Hollywood, and preparing to work on the movie Captain Horatio Hornblower (which didn't get produced at that time, not till 11 years later). My mother, brother and I got to live in a beach house near Santa Monica. I remember going to the studios and seeing the model ships in the big tank they were preparing for the movie. These ships were about 25 or 30 feet long, complete in every detail. Two men lay down hidden inside the hulls and worked the sails and rigging - the ships sailed beautifully. I has always amazed me how in these tanks it was not the ships (I had seen many exact replica ship models in my young life) but how the waves were reproduced to scale so well - the ocean is very believable. I noticed again in this week's TV series, how natural and real the waves appear with the models in the tank. On these trips to the studio we also made friends with the man who was creating the dinosaurs for the movie Fantasia. The dinosaurs were about 2 feet high, and wonderful models. On our trips to the studio, I was always more interested in the dinosaurs than in the ships.

My next remembrance of Hornblower is seeing a beautiful pair of 150 year old pistols on the coffee table, in a velvet lined case. We never had guns in the house, and these were only on a visit I believe. But these old pistols used percussion caps (like cap pistols), and my father was fascinated by their workmanship and beauty. They turned up as a gift to Hornblower from Lady Barbara in Commodore Hornblower.

There has been some discussion in the critical press about the kinds of characters CSF develops. These characters have been called The Man Alone. CSF himself was a very self contained person. He had almost no friends - though numerous acquaintances. As a small boy he was constantly bullied; he read avidly; and he won scholarships to school. He had a very sharp mind, but, unfortunately, a withered emotional life. But he felt things, he analyzed his feelings, he could imagine, and he read lots - from which he gained most of his insight into life. So The Man Alone was a character relatively easy for him to develop - he almost fell into it. There were others before Hornblower: Mr. Marble, in Payment Deferred, was the first Man Alone; Rifleman Dodd; The General; both Allnutt and Rose Sayer in The African Queen. Hornblower was the arch typical Man Alone, and he became popular because his character was exactly right for the part of a naval captain in the circumstances of war at a time when communication was slow. Almost every novel of CSF's has as a main character the Man Alone - but it was with Hornblower and the Napoleonic wars that the character reached, shall we say, perfection.

And one other characteristic of the Hornblower novels affected me as a child, and that was the concept of Duty. Duty is a concept commonly found among Englishmen of the middle and upper classes, at least prior to 1960. In America we have patriotism, which does not control behavior nearly as much as Duty does. Hornblower always has his Duty, his Duty to his King, to his senior officer, to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, to his country. This Duty allows him to be forced into brave and resolute actions, and even into some distasteful ones. Well, duty was not a strange concept to CSF - he used it all the time to try and figure out how he should behave. He thought it our duty as children to do this, to think that, to behave this way - and this was a very foreign idea to us growing up in America, where we had no connections to anything English except our Father and Mother. So the concept of Duty created in me a real aversion to authority and authority figures - just the opposite of what happened to Hornblower. But since Hornblower is a figment of imagination, his world could be turned so that Duty became a benign and useful tool.

During the years from 1940 to 1950, when I left home, CSF was a very prolific writer. Everyone knew about him, and in Berkeley Calif where I was growing up, it seemed that everyone read his stories avidly. During this time, there was a battle between Collier's magazine and the Saturday Evening Post. This was when these weekly magazines were the TV of the 40's. Once, the Saturday Evening Post wouldn't pay enough, so CSF sold to Collier's. The shift to Collier's readership was over 100,000. SEP always paid after that. In one memorable SEP issue, CSF had 3 works running; an article, a serial, and a short story.

When CSF was home during the war (just in and out), we often discussed, over dinner, how the war was going. There wasn't time for Hornblower then, only time to defeat the European horror. The idea of defeating a European tyrant was almost an obsession with my father - he had been a correspondent in Czechoslovakia at the Putz and in Spain during the Civil War. Before and during the Second World War he had exerted all his effort to convince the American people to fight on the side of the British. When the war was over there were very strong feelings still in our house. It was almost inevitable that Hornblower should again rise and fight the European tyrant, so Commodore Hornblower, and then the next year, Lord Hornblower, were written. By this time, I was an avid CSF fan - as a reader, I have always enjoyed CSF's writing. Good stories, in my opinion the best plots with every detail from start to finish worked out, and believable characters. Excitement, action, and an intellectual stimulus. Dad used to say that it was an example of bad writing when an author had to kill off a character, and the only time I think he made a mistake was killing off Captain Bush in Lord Hornblower.

After Lord Hornblower, there came a hiatus. CSF hoped Hornblower wouldn't again intrude into his life as characters are wont to do. I also think many characteristics of Hornblower were patterned after my father, and yet Hornblower represented a kind of person my father would have liked to be and wasn't. Dad was happy Hornblower had become a Lord and more or less ended his career. But CSF wanted a new character, hopefully a moneymaking one. So he created a new character which he hoped might replace Hornblower - the African chief Loa in The Sky and the Forest. But there just wasn't the same verisimilitude and the public said, "We want Hornblower!"

During my high school years, both Midshipman and Lieutenant were written, coming out in the Saturday Evening Post and then in book form. He kept following his rule of 1000 words a day - I was lucky as a child with vacations, because Dad came along, following his life's rigid schedule, and wrote his 1000 words every day, 7 days a week. Many parts of these two Hornblowers were written at Fallen Leaf Lake , near Lake Tahoe, and on the Mendocino coast.

Dad hoped my brother and I would like the stories, and we really did - we always enjoyed his writing and not just because he was our father. I felt then that what he heard from us was not, to him, a good indication of the public's feelings. After I had left home in 1951, never to return, we had a more adult relationship. He knew how I felt about him, and by this time he respected my judgment and wanted my critical opinion. So I always got a prepublication copy of everything from him and he desperately wanted to hear what I had to say. So I read Hornblower and the Atropos, Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies, and Hornblower and the Hotspur, and finally The Hornblower Companion came out. I had always pestered Dad about how I sure would like maps in the books; his response being: The publishers don't want to pay extra for an artist when their art won't sell more books. I think he was delighted to have The Hornblower Companion, though I remember it was real work for him to reread and comment upon each main episode in Hornblower's career; during its preparation, I was living near Dad, and saw him frequently enough to feel his irksomeness at having to do a task he really wanted done but didn't himself want to do.

Dad had very strong feelings about tyranny - he hated it. During the Second World War, and ever since, his stories about soldiers and war actions were told in such a way that war was only acceptable if its purpose was to oppose tyranny. In the early 50's, he came across a bundle of German war documents which were frightening in their inhumanity. He was able to create human stories around some of the facts he found in these documents and wrote The Nightmare, which has given me the most insight of any of my reading into the horrors of Nazism. Dad used whatever vehicles he could to convey the importance of fighting tyranny in all its forms. Hornblower's adventures were one way of popularizing aversion to tyranny.

During this time, my life was full to the brim - children, college, new work - and I remember few details of CSF - except he liked to take his grandchildren on the merry-go-round in Tilden Park, he worked his 6 months every year, and traveled the rest. When his second wife published Hornblower During the Crisis, after his death, I had to buy it myself. Since then, about every 15 years, I read all the eleven Hornblower novels, in Horatio's sequence, and find I always enjoy them as if for the first time. The excitement, the strategy, the intellectual challenge, even the character. As I grow older, it is getting to be fun for me to remember, and to keep enjoying this great writer's work. And it's especially gratifying when one of my daughters gives me a Hornblower volume and says: "Dad, you should read this, it's a really good story."

Thank you I'll attempt to answer any questions you may have.