In accounts of the literature of the First World War, the name of C.S.Forester does not normally loom large; which is maybe surprising, since between 1929 and 1936 he wrote three very successful novels about the War :
- 1929 Brown on Resolution (about the contribution a lone sailor makes to the destruction of a German warship)
- 1935 The African Queen (about the War in East Africa, well-known from the Bogart/Hepburn/Huston film).
- 1936 The General (the life story of an unimaginative ‛donkey’ general; he means well, but his devotion to traditional methods of waging war costs the lives of many of his men. Basil Liddell-Hart, whose criticisms of the generals it echoes, would describe it as a ‛superb military character study’. Hitler was also reputed to be a fan of the book.).
There was also another novel, Two and Twenty, with a war setting, a play, U 37,set on a German submarine, and a book about Nurse Cavell. I don’t know any of these.)
Forester was born in 1899, and apparently tried to enlist in 1917, but failed his medical. Later, it seems, he may sometimes have claimed to have served in the War. From what I’ve gathered, Forester was at least as much a fantasist in real life as that other chronicler of fictional sailors, Patrick O’Brian. Apparently his autobiography (Long Before Forty) is not to be trusted.
I got myself a copy of Brown on Resolution at Wild and Homeless Books in Bridport a couple of weeks back. It’s an extremely gripping book, but rather strange.
The first half tells of an affair between a naval officer (Lieut.-Commander R. E. S. Saville-Samarez) and Agatha Brown, a previously respectable young woman whom he meets on a train. They enjoy an idyllic interlude together, and, being a gentleman, he offers to marry her. She refuses, for his sake, and he leaves. When, later, she finds she is pregnant, she does not go chasing after him, but, having independent means, poses as a widow and brings up her son alone, with the strong ambition that he should go to sea.
The family finances do not permit Albert Brown to become an officer, but he joins the navy, and when the action speeds forward to the War years he is a leading seaman on the Charybdis, in the Pacific.
His ship is sunk by the German Ziethen and Albert Brown is taken prisoner. When the ship stops to repair its side beside Resolution Island in the Galapagos, he escapes, with a stolen Mauser rifle, swims to the island, and, from hiding, begins a one-man attack on the ship and its crew. This section of the book is very well done; the detailed description of intense physical action is reminiscent of Buchan’s spy novels – but written by someone who had never been to the Galapagos, and had never served on a naval ship. Already, at this stage of his career he was able to incorporate technical research ito his fiction as skilfully as he later would in his Hornblower series.
After decimating the German ship’s crew, and having delayed its departure by several crucial days, Brown dies, wounded and exhausted on the island. The story switches back to Saville-Samarez, now captain of the Leopard, a Dreadnought. He is looking for German ships, and his instincts take him to the Galapagos, where he destroys the Ziethen. He has no inkling that his success would not have happened without the heroic efforts of his son; he does not even know that he has a son.
Brown on Resolution is a gripping story, well told, and had much success, being filmed twice, in 1935 and (as Sailor of the King) in 1953. But is it just a yarn, or is the story supposed to be telling us something?
The most obvious meaning is patriotic. Albert Brown, we are frequently told in the course of the novel, is not exceptional. He is merely the product of his breeding and his training. A British heritage and a British training has made him the man he is – an Englishman who can single-handed deal with several dozen Germans. This is the sort of message that might have been carried by an adventure yarn during the actual War years (and very different from the tone of the most notable ‛war books’ of 1929, when disillusion and futility held sway).
The shape of the fable is intriguing, though. Brown is the unknown sailor. His own father does not know him. His heroic actions will forever be unrecognised (if only because all the surviving Germans on the Ziethen are killed when a massive shell from the Leopard hits it amidships). The last sentences of the book tell us that Sumarez gained fame as ‛the man who sank the Ziethen . But nobody was to know to whom the destruction of that ship was really due.’
Brown’s death is the salvation of others, and the cause of glory to his father. He is almost a Christ-figure, laying down his life for a country that has not really, in his twenty-two years, given him very much, except for a sense of duty.
Is the likeliest interpretation that Brown is a figure through whom Forester (born Smith, actually) fantasises what he might have done had he not been rejected for military service? Maybe that story of unknown paternity is telling. Later in life, apparently, Forester made up an unlikely tale that his official father (with whom he did not get on) was not his real parent. That, he claimed, was a distinguished Egyptian. ‛I’m not who you think I am,’ is a common adolescent fantasy, as is ‛I seem ordinary, but you’d never guess what I could really do…’
I suspect that it’s out of fantasies like these (plus some impressive research) that Forester created his novel. And clearly they are fantasies that struck a chord with many readers. The book is gripping, and once you’ve started it, I defy you to put it down.