C.S. Forester: The African Queen

Forester, C.S. (2006 [1935]), The African Queen, Phoenix
ISBN 978-0-7538-2079-7

DSC_1534 In my review of Cop Hater I mentioned being puzzled and intrigued by that book’s inclusion on a list of indispensable or classic books. One other book on the list similarly intrigued me. It was The African Queen by C.S. Forester. I have seen the movie based on the novel, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, directed by John Huston, multiple times. I was not, for some reason, aware that it was based on a novel. Similarly, I am aware of C.S. Forester’s work, but only of the most famous and enduring part of it, the Hornblower series of novels. It was profoundly puzzling to me that this early Forester novel, that I supposed was mainly known for inspiring a classic movie, turned up on a list of essential novels. So I sat down to read it. And even after reading it I can’t say I am entirely sure why it’s on a list of important or indispensable novels – yet unlike Cop Hater, it’s value is more than merely historical. It’s a truly enjoyable read, an early work by a gifted storyteller. It’s not, structurally, perfect, but it is frequently compelling and always readable, written in a limpid and clear style, with characters that are more complicated than those that Huston, James Agee and Peter Viertel ended up writing about in his script. There is an odd patriotism to it – although it’s less odd when you consider Forester’s biography – and a cavalier attitude to colonialism that can be put down in large part to the fact that this book was written in 1935. There are shots in the 1950s movie that are equally troubling and are less excusable. What’s much more remarkable is the way Forester writes his female protagonist. In his hands “spinster missionary” Rose Sayer is a strong, intelligent woman, who in modern parlance would be described as “badass”, which is lovely enough. But Forester also manages to contextualize her behavior in the patriarchal environment she was raised. It’s strangely progressive for a 1935 adventure novel, but all of it explains why Katherine Hepburn, upon reading the novel, immediately agreed to play Rose Sayer when asked by Huston. In fact, one strand running through her charming reminiscences The Making of The African Queen is her disappointment by the changes the script forced on the character and her fights to restore her as she’s presented in the novel. If you’re looking for an entertaining adventure novel with simple but interesting characters that’s confidently written – and are willing to read past certain anachronisms, read The African Queen.

The-african-queen-1-The plot of the novel is almost identical to the plot of the movie, except for the ending. It’s set at the beginning of World War I, in what was then known as German East Africa, one of Germany’s four major African colonies. It included what are today Mozambique, Ruanda and Tanzania and it bordered British and Belgian colonies. When WWI broke out, a German general took over German forces, committed to waging war on British troops in Africa to tie as many troops as possible in Africa, so they would not be used in Europe. The particular historical event that is specifically referred to is the Battle for Lake Tanganyika. As the book opens, German troops have just razed an African village including its church. Left behind is a missionary and his sister. Shortly, the missionary dies, leaving his sister to fend for herself. She is, however, in luck, because there is one other white person left in the area, who is not also German. That other person is Charlie Allnutt, a jack of all trades who works at a nearby Belgian mine as a mechanic and runs a steamboat called “African Queen” on the Ulanga river. All of this happens in the first dozen or so pages of the book. All this does is set up the main plot of the book and the characters’ various motivations. The cruel Germans, the lost Charlie Allnutt and Rose Sayer, a Missionary’s sister with a profound dislike of Germans. Much more than the movie, the two are set up as different classes from the beginning as Forester has Allnutt speak in a very strong Cockney dialect, and handing over the novel’s point of view to Rose Sayer, whose thoughts are always calm and collected, even in moments of anger. The narrator is strictly speaking an omniscient narrator, but for much of the book he chooses to convey to us Rose’s point of view. That decision is one of the main reasons the book is so enjoyable and can frequently rise above its anachronistic politics. It doesn’t, honestly, start off well. Rose is driven by a thirst for revenge and a loud and strident patriotism. She wants to “strike a blow for England” and she intends to use Allnutt and his boat to achieve this goal. Set as her efforts are halfway between revenge and support for the war effort, the outspoken patriotism sat a bit queer with me as a reader.

DSC_1536That said, having a woman fill in the role of intrepid wartime adventurer (adventuress?) is a welcome change, and Forester doesn’t stop there. The plan, as it’s quickly decided upon, is to go down the Ulanga river, which leads into a large lake. On that lake, a big German ship, the Königin Louise, is holding sway, dominating the banks of the lake with her far reaching canons. Since the African Queen has some explosives on board, the plan is to glide into the lake and use the boat as a kind of torpedo to blow up the Königin Louise. Between the village and the lake, however, there are treacherous rapids, waterfalls and a German fort overlooking a part of the river. Once the two makeshift sailors get on board the roles are quickly distributed. Rose steers the boat, picking up nautical terms and facts on the fly, and Allnutt tries to keep the boat’s faulty old steam engine running. Steering the ship through the dangerous waters of the Ulanga river is a fulfilling experience for Rose: “Rose was really alive for the first time in her life,” we learn. As it turns out, her life with her brother was dull and empty. She would be left to tend to his household, was not allowed to mingle with men and had to frequently ford the torrents of his angry moods, leaving her apprehensive of the violence and dominance of men. The book is extraordinarily clear on these things. Until she had met Allnutt, she had always submitted to all the men in her life – her father and brother, and in her quarrels with Allnutt regarding tactics, “she seethed with revolt and resentment.” The river – like a bilious, eddying metaphor, carries her in a few hours and days towards emancipation and maturity, at the ripe age of 30something. And at the height of it, at her fullest sense of self and freedom, after a particularly dangerous and successful ride down a series of dangerous rapids, her sexuality blooms and she and Allnutt kiss and have sex right there on a bank of the Ulanga river. All this development reads exceptionally modern, and one worries that it’s not inherently placed like that in the text. I like to think about it as a complexity engineered by an unusual text. After sex, Rose slips immediately back into submissive mode, for the first time since meeting Allnutt – but even that is explicitly reflected by the text as her assumption of a role. Rose is shown to be navigating gender roles very narrowly, working on interactions with her father and brother only, leaving her no room for fluid interpretation.

That's the only Hornblower book I own and I haven't even read it - hence I can't really comment on Forester's work beyond The African Queen.

That’s the only Hornblower book I own and I haven’t even read it – hence I can’t really comment on Forester’s work beyond The African Queen.

And it’s not just 21st century me that finds this in the text – Katherine Hepburn, who read the novel upon being offered the role of Rose Sayer, suggests a similar line of fascination in her account of The Making of The African Queen. The movie, as she says multiple times, fails to do justice to this interesting, strong character. Much as I worry reading a postmodern sensibility into this text written in the 1930s, the script more or less imposes a morality and reading on it that appears to be more conservative than even 1950s Hollywood. The movie takes the word “spinster” and appears to attempt to do a “historically accurate” reading by making Rose an exceptionally prim character. Whereas book-Rose bathes “naked”, film-Rose bathes in frilly, “grotesque underwear,” to quote Hepburn, literally straight out of a museum. Whereas in the book she learns steering on the fly, the movie inserts a scene of her being clumsy at it and having to be shown the ropes by Humphrey Bogart. The most significant scene however comes during pouring rain. Rose is asleep in a sheltered part of the boat and Allnutt, drenched by the storm, comes in from where he was sleeping to seek protection from the storm. In the book, Rose’s reaction is an involuntary urge to hold this wet, strange man, and a practical question of “What can we do?” The movie script replaces this with a loud shriek and Hepburn’s Rose yelling “Get out! Get out!”, sending Bogart’s Allnutt back into the rain. Movie-Rose ends up allowing him back in, but this strident assertion of propriety that’s added to the book is a misreading of what “a straightlaced lady” would have done. It strips the book of its interesting, counter-intuitive and explicit wrestling with gender roles and replaces it with “straightlaced” primness and morality. To be fair, the movie, taken on its own is fantastic and one of the rare cases where you should see the movie first, because it deserves being seen without the critical eye that compares book and film. Huston’s direction and Hepburn’s and Bogart’s acting transcend what’s, quite honestly, a rather mediocre script. And the contrast with the movie adds another layer of fascination to the already intriguing book.

DSC_1540The danger, of course, of taking away the progressive gender angle of the book (whether that’s intentionally there or not) is that it leaves us with the more unpalatable parts of the book’s politics. Like many books then (and quite honestly now), The African Queen unfurls in front of us the drama of white people in Africa without being particularly interested in the Africans’ plight. There’s a Belgian mine near the village at the beginning of the book, and historically, we know how the Belgians treated their colonies. I mean the mere fact that one of the three colonial forces depicted in the novel had historically committed genocide in Africa, another one came close, and the British record in Africa included the invention of concentration camps, this is completely ignored. We know it happened, we know the historical background, but the writer is utterly disinterested in any of it. What’s more, this blatant disinterest violently clashes with the gung-ho patriotism espoused by the book that leads to Rose attempting what is essentially a suicide-bomber-like mission. The book is set in an area where many different tribes live, but for the book (and the movie) they are all just the same variety of “negro.” This political or racial indifference is the biggest mark against this book and and keeps it from being more than what it ends up being – an above-average adventure novel. As I said the reason I came upon this book was its inclusion on some list of ‘essential’ books, and while it’s better by far than the other bewildering inclusion on that list that I’ve reviewed, The African Queen has less of a reason to be on any list like that. At least Cop Hater is a foundational text for a genre that’s dominating a good chunk of crime writing today, whatever its individual failings. But unless I am missing something, there’s no such effect for this book. It inspired a brilliant movie and its writing is superior to the movie’s script, but there are many equally good books. It’s unfair to judge the book by this arbitrary list, and on it’s own it’s entirely fine. It lacks the scope of the Hornblower books, it lacks the excellence of other (almost) contemporary books on Africa, but its psychology is interesting and its writing is entertaining. Look, entertaining is enough. Read this book. But watch the movie first.


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3 thoughts on “C.S. Forester: The African Queen

  1. That really is an excellent review. I’ve seen the film, but also didn’t know there was a book. It is interesting how narratives from periods and authors we wouldn’t expect to be progressive can sometimes be more so than much contemporary fiction. There’s a (frankly very mediocre) Edgar Rice Burroughs novel for example about the rise of enlightened and progressive African and Chinese states after an apocalypse disproportionately hits Europe. It’s not at all what you’d expect the author of Tarzan to be writing, and assumes development is more a question of freedom to develop than racial destiny which for its time is a reasonably radical view.

    This sounds like it’s key strength is a good grasp of character and behaviour. The problem with sexist fiction in part, a problem perhaps I should say, is that it leads to characters who don’t persuade because they reflect prejudice rather than reality. Forester clearly was more interested in a woman who was first a character, rather than a character defined by being a woman.

    • I will say there are a few very odd lines about her breast becoming bigger as a result of her happiness and healthy living

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