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The African Queen, C.S. Forester (1935)

Sometimes you read a book, like it a lot, and start hunting down more material by the same author. And sometimes you read a book, like it a lot, and don’t do that.

At least, that happens to me. I’ve liked The African Queen a lot every time I’ve read it, but I’ve never hunted down anything else by Forester. I think I came across one of his Hornblower books once, set on the high seas during the Napoleonic wars. But I didn’t like it, so I was confirmed in my disinclination to try anything else. I think I’m wrong, because I doubt that The African Queen is a one-off. It’s the excellent and engrossing story of two nobodies, a “Cockney engineer” called Charlie Allnutt and a missionary’s sister called Rose Sayer, who pull off an extraordinary feat by navigating an old steam launch down an unnavigable river in tropical Africa during the First World War.

The book takes its name from the launch. So did the film, a cinematic classic starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. I think the film may explain why I’ve never hunted down more of Forester’s work. It was entirely self-contained and I’m pretty sure I saw it before reading the book, so it might have influenced my idea of the book. But the book would have been sui generis anyway and it’s better than the film. Books usually are and in some ways they can’t be beaten. There’s a magic in mere words that is intensified when words become silent, sitting as static black ink on white paper. An ancient part of biology, the eyes, collaborates with an ancient piece of technology, the book, to create a world inside the head.

Film is superficial, literature is submarine. It dives beneath the surface, entering the inner worlds of its characters, exploring their psychology, motives and history in a way that film can’t. But action can be important in literature too and Forester, like H.G. Wells and Robert Louis Stevenson, can make the real world grow dim while you read. And this book dives beneath the surface in more ways than one. When the propeller and shaft of the launch are damaged in some dangerous rapids, Allnutt has to remove them for repairs:

The African Queen was moored in moderately still water in the eddy below the rock, but only a yard or two away there was a racing seven-knot current tearing downstream, and occasionally some whim of the water expressed itself in a fierce under-water swirl, which swung the launch about and usually turned Allnutt upsidedown, holding on like grim death in case the eddy should take him out into the main current from which there would be no escape alive. It was in one of these swirls that Allnutt dropped a screw, which was naturally irreplaceable and must be recovered – it took a good deal of groping among the rocks beneath the boat before he found it again. (ch. 8)

If he’d been by himself, he would never have attempted the job. He knows too much about machines, you see, and Rose knows too little: “He sighed with the difficulty of explaining mechanics to an unmechanical person.” But Rose’s ignorance gets them through. She’s the stronger character of the two and persuades Allnutt to try the repairs. To his surprise, he succeeds. Rose is an African Queen in her way and Forester is only partly ironic in naming her after England’s national flower, because she’s attractive in her way too.

But her attractions were fading, worn down by drudgery and subordination to her brother, when the war broke in on their remote African mission in a German colony. Her brother dies of fever, shattered when the German army requisitions goods and labour from the mission, so Rose wants to strike a blow for England in revenge. But how can she, a “weak, feeble woman”, do anything against the might of Germany? The arrival of the African Queen and Allnutt, “the Cockney engineer employed by the Belgian gold-mining company two hundred miles up the river”, gives her an idea. The two of them will take the launch downstream to “the Lake” and sink another African Queen, the “police steamer” Königin Luise that allows Germany to rule those inland waves.

Allnutt laughs at the idea of sailing down the river, but Rose persuades him to try and he agrees, thinking that he can easily sabotage the mission before it gets dangerous. But he’s caught up in the powerful current of Rose’s now unrepressed personality, and decides to do what she wants. He’ll do his best to get to the Lake. And here Forester becomes like one of his characters: he has “the difficulty of explaining mechanics to an unmechanical person.” It’s the mechanics of boating, navigation and hydrography. The African Queen is a quest-story, like the Lord of the Rings, and the best quest-stories read easy but feel tough. Forester has to write well to convey the hardships that his questing characters face: the rapids, the broken propeller, the ugly leeches that lurk beneath beautiful water-lilies, and the hot, stinking, malaria-ridden mangrove swamp that is the last and almost insurmountable obstacle before the Lake. Charlie and Rose have to pole and pull their way through the swamp.

Then they reach the Lake and the hardest part of the quest begins: sinking the Königin Luise. Forester has set up a grand finale and even threatens his characters with extinction, because the Queen will have to ram the Königin with high explosives in her bow. Charlie says that he’ll do it alone, but Rose refuses to leave him: “It all ended, as was inevitable, in their agreeing that they would both go. There was no denying that their best chance of success lay in having one person to steer and one to tend the engine” (ch. 14). And so they’ll both be close at hand when the high explosive goes off. In other words, they’ll both be killed. By then, that prospect will matter to you: you’ve suffered and sweated with Charlie and Rose, so you want them to succeed. The film brings you close to its characters too, but the film had to alter Forester’s ending. What works on cellulose doesn’t always work on celluloid. Literature is subtler, slyer, more sinuous, rather like a river.

And did Forester take the seed for this book from the sly and subtle W. Somerset Maugham? There’s a missionary’s sister, a working-class man, and a steam launch in Maugham’s short story “The Vessel of Wrath” (1931). And, just like Rose, the missionary’s sister in Maugham’s story is neurotically worried about rape, before she and the working-class man fall in love. The similarities are suggestive, but if Forester was influenced by Maugham’s story, he only took the seed from it. The African Queen has grander themes and is more exciting. And Maugham can’t write about action the way Forester can. Maugham was interested in psychology, not steam-launches. Forester was interested in both and a lot more beside. His wider interests make for richer reading and enhanced excitement.

And The African Queen is historically and sociologically interesting too. Forester was born in 1899 and his Victorian roots were still showing in 1935, when the African Queen was published. But he’s candid about sex in a way no respectable Victorian novelist could have been. There’s nothing explicit here, but his unmarried questers are lovers long before the climax of their quest. It all seems plausible: a novel is a kind of machine too and Forester was an excellent literary mechanic. If you’ve seen the film, try the book. It’s better and bigger and I really do need to hunt down more by Forester.

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