A story of a book

Here’s where this started:

Oxfam Books in York’s Petergate has just received a going-over, and is in the state of fresh-paint-smell that royals must think is the usual when visiting the wider world.

Michael Joseph put this one out in 1941. The cover shows mottling. The paper is a bit on the war-time crude side, but shows little sign of ‘foxing’. I could replace the falling-apart paper-back copy that has followed my house-removals over the years; except, when I look up, I find I must have discarded that one a while ago.

By 1941 Forester already had the first three Hornblower novels behind him — which made it a full score of previously published works. He was among the pantheon of fictionists. In a way, then, The Captain from Connecticut, is almost a pot-boiler.

Enter spooks

From 1941, the British Information Service at Rockefeller Plaza, NYC, was a branch of the British Consulate, and at root a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Foreign Office. Its business wasn’t quite disinformation: such would be crude propaganda. The aim was ‘nudging’ American opinion in Britain’s favour.

At first, the output was high-minded: T.S.Eliot was induced to maunder on at length, generating Defence of the Islands.

Jan Stuther had been writing Mrs Miniver for the London Times since 1937 — the life and times of a upper middle-class lady in a period of turmoil. The column evolved into a 1940 novel (about the Miniver family in the opening months of the War). The novel went into the New York Times best-sellers list, and was snapped up for William Wylder’s 1942 movie, which was saved from sentimental mawkishness by Greer Garson as the title character.

More soft-soap from Helen MacInnes and Above Suspicion. It is 1939: an Oxford academic and his wife are off for a continental holiday. They are induced by British intelligence to carry messages to an anti-Nazi agent. The couple are then pursued across Europe by the evil enemy. The sub-text is Helen MacInnes was also Mrs Highet. Gilbert Highet taught at Columbia University, and was extremely close to MI6.


Also on the plantation was CS Forester. He had come to America when Warner Bros. had commissioned him to turn Hornblower into a screen-play. At the outbreak of War, Forester left California for home to ‘do his bit’ — to be told by the Ministry of Information to get back again.

Forester was also a newspaperman, immensely bumptious over his reporting as a London Times correspondent on the Spanish Civil War, and on the take-over of Czechoslovakia. This gave Forester an ‘in’ to the American magazine market, for which he churned out a steady out-pouring of uplifting pieces.

That is where we should place The Captain from Connecticut. Anyone who reads it (as I am re-reading) would instantly spot the overlaps with The Happy Return, a.k.a. Beat to Quarters, the third (published 1937) of the original Hornblower sequence. Hornblower had his Lady Barbara Wellesley; Josiah Peabody has his exotic Mlle. Anne de Breuil.

Only connect

Roald Dahl’s active service ended in crashing his Hurricane in the Western Desert (the autobiographic account in Going Solo should not be trusted further than it can be thrown). He was posted to the Air Mission in Washington,  we can presume as a come-on for the ladies of the diplomatic circuit.

Three days after his arrival, still not sure what he was meant to be doing, Dahl found Forester on the other side of his desk. Forester wanted Dahl’s account of the crash, as raw material for another article. The two adjourned for an extended lunch at a restaurant near the Mayflower Hotel. Somehow Forester didn’t get the material he needed, and Dahl lost track. Dahl apologised for his vagueness, and offered to send some notes later.

What Dahl turned out was a complete account of a heroic crash, totally fictionalised, which he had the Embassy type up under the title A Piece of Cake. This he sent off to Forester. Forester forwarded the piece to his literary agent, Harold Matson. Matson  submitted it to The Saturday Evening Post. The Post liked it, to the tune of $1,000 (from which Matson deducted his easily-earned 10%). The Post then changed the RAF slang title to the more prosaic Shot Down over Libya, and Dahl’s first published work appeared anonymously.

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Filed under History, Literature, World War 2

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