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Book Review: The African Queen - #6 In My Modern Library Classics Challenge


Rose: “Dear?...Dear?...What is your first name?” One of the best lines from the movie The African Queen - how Katharine Hepburn’s character Rose learns Captain Allnut’s first name.
‘There was a blushing interval when she had to own that she did not know his name, and, when he told her, shyly, she savoured the name “Charlie” over to herself like a schoolgirl, and she thought it a very nice name, too.’ The same moment in the book The African Queen.

The Book Review

The African Queen is set in the German East Africa of World War I. Rose Sayer, devoted sister of the British Anglican missionary Samuel Sayer, is alone with her brother at his mission when he passes on. Captain Charlie Allnut, a fellow Brit (Cockney in fact), who pilots the African Queen, regularly stops in to bring supplies to the mission, and shows up just in time to bury the Reverend. Rose mourns of course, but also finds her passions inflamed against the Germans whose actions caused the failure of her brother’s mission, and who she now blames for his death. With Allnut, she hatches a plan to take the African Queen down the river Ulanga to the Lake where the German navy boat the Kรถnigin Luise patrols, and blow her up.
And so begins C.S. Forester’s 1935 love story that later was the basis for the 1951 movie starring Humphrey Bogart as Allnut and Katharine Hepburn as Rose. It’s mostly a character study of Rose wrapped into enough of a plot to carry it off as a novel. For much of the book Rose and Allnut are the only characters, alone on the African Queen making their way through rapids and other challenges as they approach Lake Wittelsbach.
Allnut doesn't rise much above caricature - he’s a solidly built, mechanically-inclined man of few words, not given to thinking too much about things outside his immediate view. His significant trait is his pliability, demonstrated in his inclination to bend to Rose’s will from the start. This trait is remarked on by the author more than once. Forester builds out Allnut’s character with, perhaps, the comfort of the readers of the 1930s in mind. He is “all man”, and yet also welcomes Rose’s dominant role in the relationship and isn’t challenged by it.
Rose begins as the spinster sister of the missionary, to whom she has devoted her whole life, subsuming herself to be of service. But with her brother gone, and she alone far from home, she quickly sheds her old skin and transforms herself into a woman confident of her new goal and devoting all her energy to making it come to fruition. 
For the reader, it’s certainly an interesting transition for Rose, and also a picturesque portrayal of the trip down the river for her and Charlie. But 87 years after its publication and more than 100 years after the events in the book, well, I have to say that while the book has its charms, it’s also showing its age. 
Maybe I dislike how Allnut’s willingness to go along with Rose’s ideas has to be excused and made to seem a personal failing on his part.  Perhaps I’m reacting negatively to the chauvinistic bias I hear in Forester’s depiction of Rose herself. Or, maybe it’s just that the writing style strikes my modern American ear as too formal, and too officiously British. 
This is, after all, the same author so beloved for his Horatio Hornblower (of the British Navy) series of books, and who came to America during World War II to write propaganda to encourage the US to join the Allies. I do have to admit though, that the frank (for the 1930s) way in which Forester conveys that Charlie and Rose have fallen in love and had sex aboard the boat surprised me, even as I admired how well done the writing about it was.

On the subject of writing, the book has one of the best smile-inducing last lines, despite its officious British construction  - “As to whether or not they lived happily ever after is not easily decided.”
Altogether, a mixed reaction from me. More positive than negative. Not glowing. As a classic I am glad I finally got around to reading it. If you are more of a fan of the Romance genre than I am you’ll probably like this one.

Classics Challenge

This is the sixth book in my 2022 Modern Library Classics Challenge. I’m challenging myself to read at least one of my Modern Library classics each month this year, though I’m a bit late in finishing this one. It’s part of my overall goal to read 100 books for the year. 

I own over 40 Modern Library editions that I collected in my first years out of college. At the time I was buying them, I admired them more as “art” than as books. I just liked the idea of pocket sized hardcovers, which is interesting since at the time most of the books I was buying to read were trade-sized paperbacks. Treated as art on my shelf, I haven’t ever read my Modern Library editions. So, it’s about time to do so now that I’m retired.

Book 1: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Book 2: A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man by James Joyce

Book 3: The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells

Book 4: Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

Book 5: The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze by William Saroyan

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Title: The African Queen

Author: C.S. Forester

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (Hachette Book Group)*

Publish Date: June 30,1984*

ISBN-13: 9780316289108

Publisher’s List Price: $16.99 (Paperback as of 07/2022)

* The African Queen was originally published in 1935, by Little, Brown and Company. 

My Modern Library edition appears to have been printed sometime between 1940 and 1975, and unusually long range likely prolonged by the popularity of the movie. This estimate is based on the book’s dust jacket, and the research on

Modern Library is now an imprint of Penguin Random House (PRH). Random House doesn’t list an edition of The African Queen on their website. (As of April 2020, PRH is a subsidiary of the privately held German conglomerate Bertelsmann.)