There are authors who lie unattended on bookshelves for decades, and some deserve to. I’ve read and enjoyed a lot of fiction. I started young, raiding the boxes of old novels my grandfather used to keep in his spare bedroom.
Even then, I knew most were flimsy. Now, I realise they were largely pulp fiction. They often used expected stereotypes, strong men and women who needed to be rescued, and kissed, or married. Occasionally, though, there were some gems. It was there I first read, The African Queen, by C. S. Forester.
Forester is probably better known for his Hornblower series. Horatio Hornblower, a British naval officer of the Napoleonic wars was played by Gregory Peck on the big screen, in 1951, and by Ioan Gruffud for a tv series between 1998 and 2003.
The African Queen has, so far, only been filmed once. But, it was a good one. Made in 1951, it starred Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. Yes, the set looked a little suspect at times, and the dialogue was occasionally clunky, but I don’t think it was for technical details this movie was preserved in the USA National Film Registry. I think it was for the same reason I fell for the novel when I first read it, aged about fourteen: the characterisation.
On one level, the story is about Rose and Allnut’s plan to ‘strike a blow for England‘ in the heart of German controlled Africa. On another level, their battle is against nature, in terms both of environment and personality.
Rose has been blindly loyal to her older brother all of her life. She had gone with him to Africa at the age of twenty-three. She’s now thirty-three.
‘She had been his housekeeper and the most devoted of his admirers, his most faithful disciple and his most trusted helper…’
It is the death of her brother and the presence of the Germans that forces Rose out of her rut, and provides the motivation for her to become an unlikely heroine. Allnut, her companion, is just as unlikely a hero.
Allnut had played lone hands occasionally in his life, they were not to his liking. Sooner than plan or work for himself he preferred to be guided – or driven. He was not avid for responsibility. He was glad to hand over leadership to those who desired it, even to the ugly sister of a deceased despised missionary. He had arrived in Central Africa as a result of his habit of drifting, when all was said and done.
The story of their journey along the river Ulanga has no obvious glamour. Both protagonists are mid-life, and flawed. We see them in glimpses, Rose has a ‘big chin‘, ‘thick eyebrows‘ and she exists in a ‘frozen spinsterhood‘.
Yet, at the very beginning of the novel there is a hint that we should be careful how we prejudge her. Despite her respectability, and knowledge that ‘no woman of the age of fourteen and upwards ever appeared in public’ without a corset, Rose has (on account of the hot climate) reconciled her conscience and abandoned hers. She’s even considered ‘wearing no underclothing at all beneath her white drill frock.’
Allnutt is largely presented through his cockney accent. As with Rose, physical details are occasional, but telling.
In later years Rose could never picture Allnutt to herself without a cigarette – generally allowed to go out – stuck to his upper lip half-way between the centre and the left corner of his mouth. A thin straggling beard, only a few score black hairs in all, was beginning to sprout on his lean cheeks.
The two characters spend most of their time sweating, and dirty, and arguing. In that process, though, they are revealed to each other, and to us.
There is one thing bothers me. For a novel with such a powerful African setting, we meet few Africans, and those we do are stereo-typically of the period. This might be because mostly they are described either through the consciousness of one of the protagonists, or by them, and in terms of their absence. Villagers have either been conscripted by the German colonial chief, or disappeared in order to escape capture.
It is this rounding up, that has already taken place when the novel opens, that provides the spark for the rest of the story. In his book, African Settings in Contemporary American Novels, Dave Kuhne says that the river Ulanga is ‘the only important African character in the plot‘. It certainly held a more central role in my consciousness than Von Hanneken managed to.