Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Monday, March 28, 2011

Oh no, not another history movie!

I promised myself to stay away from these things, but somehow it seemed this one might be different - alas, fooled again. I'm referring to Amazing Grace, a big-budget 2006 British film (yes, I know it's five years old - this review is for the NetFlix crowd) about 18th century MP William Wilberforce and his campaign to outlaw the slave trade. A worthy subject for a historical costume drama, certainly, but don't expect historical accuracy in this version. Why is it that a compelling true story about a remarkable man (really a group of remarkable people) is not good enough? It has to be adjusted, fudged, altered, exaggerated, simplified, romanticized and otherwise messed with until some really interesting (and really real) historical characters are transformed into standard Hollywood (or London) good v evil stereotypes? It would take me all night to list all the historical inaccuracies. The Wikipedia article barely scratches the surface.

In spite of all that, I liked the film because it got me interested enough in the history to want to find out more. It scores a 4 (of a possible 5) on my first criterion. Plus, maybe the opportunity to rant about the faults appeals to my curmudgeonly side. And, to be fair, the film's heart is in the right place. If the real Wilberforce didn't quite live up to Saint Wilbur of the film, why quibble? It's intended to be a feel-good story and I felt good at the end. Who needs credibility, subtlety, nuance and complex characters?

Monday, March 21, 2011

'Redcoat', by Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell was already well known for his Sharpe series of historical novels, but in 1988 he decided to do something a little different. The result was Redcoat, whose main protagonist is a British infantryman named Sam Gilpin, serving in the army of General William Howe during the capture and subsequent occupation of Philadelphia in 1777-78, critical years in the American Revolutionary War. While many historical novels include accounts of the American army's brutal winter at Valley Forge, fans of historical fiction set in this period should appreciate that Cornwell chooses to tell this story mostly from the perspective of the British soldiers and the civilians, both rebel and loyalist, who chose to remain in the occupied city. In the course of his duties, Sam gets to know several of the rebel sympathizers and falls in love with one, the beautiful and courageous (of course) Caroline Fisher. Also compelling is the detailed view of life within the city during the occupation. How does this novel rate on the five criteria? They are:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
  2. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
  3. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
  4. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
  5. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters?
Here are the ratings for Redcoat.
  1. Score = 4. The rating would have been a '3', but I bumped it up one because of the unusual perspective. This novel should inspire readers, especially Americans, to read more about the British side of the Revolution - on both sides of the Atlantic. American fiction writers tend to present the war as a one-dimensional heroic struggle by freedom-loving rebels against the brutal and merciless tyranny and aggression of the British (think Mel Gibson in The Patriot). Redcoat provides some much-needed balance.
  2. Score = 3. The historical story of the Philadelphia Campaign and occupation is related in some detail, and is intertwined with the fictional story, which is otherwise an interestingly complex but fairly conventional boy-meets-girl romance. The story lacks much reference to events outside of Philadelphia, but that contributes to the sense of isolation felt by the occupying army.
  3. Score = 4. In the 'Acknowledgements', Cornwell credits his grasp of the details of day-to-day life in occupied Philadelphia mainly to one book: With the British Army in Philadelphia, by John W. Jackson. Those details contribute greatly to the realistic feel of the narrative. Cornwell introduces one fictional variation to the historical account of the Battle of Red Bank, in which a detachment of Hessian mercenary troops attempted to capture the rebels' Fort Mercer, located on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River, south of the city. In Cornwell's story, rebel spies betray the British plans for a surprise attack, allowing the defenders time to prepare and repulse the assault. Although I've found no evidence that this actually happened, it very well could have, given the situation.
  4. Score = 3. Principal British commanders, while not main characters, do get some dialog which helps to give historical context. The fictional British Captain Vane becomes an aide to General Howe, which makes him privy to goings-on at headquarters. He meets fellow aide Captain John Andre, General Henry Clinton, General Howe's brother Admiral Lord Howe, The Hessian commander Colonel von Donop, General Corwallis and others. The portrayals of these characters seem to stay within the bounds of historical accuracy, and General Howe especially is presented in greater depth. Historical civilian characters, on the other hand, are in short supply. Prominent Philadelphians, especially traders and civic leaders like Edward Shippen and David Franks, should have shown up somewhere in the story.
  5. Score = 4. I would gladly read a continuation of the story of Sam and Caroline, the fictional boy and girl involved in the novel's romance plot. Unfortunately, Cornwell has written only one other novel set in the Revolutionary War, entitled The Fort (2010). It's not a sequel, or connected in any way with this book, but sounds interesting.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

'Sparrowhawk, Book One: Jack Frake' (2001) by Edward Cline

Sparrowhawk, Book One: Jack Frake, by Edward Cline, is the first of a series, and an interesting novel for a couple of reasons. The first one is history-related: the protagonists are members of a band of smugglers, operating in the south-western English county of Cornwall. No dates are mentioned in the text, but a brief discussion among the well-informed and politically astute smugglers indicates that the action begins during the years of the War of the Austrian Succession; after the 1743 Battle of Dettingen and before the 1745 Battle of Fontenoy. You won't find many other specific historical events embedded in the fictional story, so one suspects that this one bit was inserted just to establish a time and place. The historical interest lies rather in the descriptions of the machinations of English justice and government at that time, the attitudes of various sorts of Englishmen toward their government, and the way some of those attitudes were evolving toward the principles embodied in the founding of the United States.

The second interesting thing, or group of things, about this novel are the personalities of the main protagonists. While reading, there seemed to be something familiar in the characters of young Jack Frake, his mentor John Smith, and especially the smuggler chief Augustus Skelly. It wasn't until I got to the end and read the author's 'Acknowledgements' that I realized what made them seem so familiar. I learned that the author is a great admirer of the novels of Ayn Rand. That's it, I thought - the three all share character traits with the hero of The Fountainhead, the iconoclast architect Howard Rourk. These three all possess Rourk's rugged individualism, innate and unshakable personal convictions, the lack of any moral ambiguity or hypocrisy, and an unfailingly clear discernment of truth and falsehood, strength and weakness. Having even one, let alone three such characters in one novel can seem a bit over-the-top at times, but didn't detract too much from my enjoyment of the story. Plausibility suffered, at times, from the unrelenting heroism, but maybe I'm just a cynic. Anyway, let's move on to the historical-novel critique. Remember the five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
  2. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
  3. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
  4. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
  5. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters?
How does Sparrowhawk, Book One: Jack Frake rate?
  1. Score = 3. Because much of my current historical reading is about the period leading up to the American Revolution, this novel's discussion of conditions in England was interesting. The protagonists struggle with the inequities of the legal system in England at that time. Their objections dovetail neatly into the arguments soon to come in the American colonies. Indeed, I'm sure that's exactly the course the author intends to pursue in the rest of the series. The end of Sparrowhawk, Book One (spoiler alert!) finds young Jack Frake headed for America aboard the good ship 'Sparrowhawk'.
  2. Score = 2. Pending further research on 18th century British smuggling and legal procedures, I suspect that historical fact has been somewhat shaped in pursuit of a clean ideological arc. That pursuit required no falsehoods, merely selective inclusion of historical data. Nothing wrong with that, of course. The reader of historical fiction can never forget that the purpose of a novel is to tell a story, not necessarily to present an accurate historical narrative.
  3. Score = 2. As noted above, there are no easily identifiable historical events that are part of the story in this novel so it's hard to judge accuracy. That was probably another intentional move by the author.
  4. Score = 2. I detected no historical characters, other than those distant figures connected with the events mentioned above, though there may be some modeling. The smugglers' Rourk-ish willingness to face punishment rather than back down or run away reminded me somewhat of the career of English 'radical' John Wilkes. It seems highly unlikely that any actual band of smugglers ever resembled Skelly's gang, but I'll reserve final judgment until I do a search to see if any smuggler-penned novels or memoirs exist.
  5. Answer = yes. Not right away, perhaps, but I am curious to see what becomes of young Jack Frake in America.
Next time: Redcoat by Bernard Cornwell. Thanks again to Margaret Donsbach at Historical for categorizing historical novels by period and location, making it much easier for me to locate novels with similar settings.

Monday, March 7, 2011

'Dissolution' by C. J. Sansom (2004)

Taking a break from more recent history, I picked up Dissolution, by C. J. Sansom. Intrigued by a positive review of Sansom's most recent novel in this series, entitled Heartstone, I decided (as I usually do) to start with the first in the series. Before even cracking the cover, however, the novel had one strike against it in my personal historical-novel rating system. The setting is England during the reign of King Henry VIII. This blog's very first post noted a problem shared by all novels using older historical settings: Accurate depiction of historical characters. More than the more-or-less contemporaneous Wolf Hall, Dissolution suffers from characters that feel too modern. The author obviously put a lot of thought and research into avoiding that pitfall, but the result is not entirely convincing. Happily, the novel novel is entertaining enough to overcome that handicap.

Maybe now is a good time to institute a rating system, based on the four ingredients I consider important in a historical novel. A 1 to 5 range should be sufficient, where 1 is so bad that I couldn't finish the book and 5 is 'practically perfect in every way' (I don't expect to award many 1s or 5s). A more detailed discussion of these criteria can be found in the Jan. 13 post. Briefly, they are:
  1. The ability to inspire me to further research a historical topic,
  2. Inclusion of enough history to make the novel an interesting historical story,
  3. Accurate depiction of historical events,
  4. Accurate depiction of historical characters.
Note that these criteria apply only to historical novels. Things like interesting characters, descriptions, plots and dialog are essential to any well-written novel. So, how does Dissolution rate?

  1. Score = 2. Because...
  2. Score = 3. There's some history, but not enough. The action takes place almost exclusively at a remote fictional monastery, far from all but the most general current events. This was the time of Henry's attack on the Catholic monastic orders, beginning in 1536, which by 1540 brought about the dissolution of nearly all of the old monasteries and convents in England. There is some interesting historical background on the methods used, by Henry's chief minister Thomas Cromwell, to bring this about. Still, there's not much historical meat to chew on. Perhaps later novels in this series will offer more.
  3. Score = 3. What history there is seems accurate; there's just not much of it. Sansom earns a gold star for including a 'Historical Note' at the end.
  4. Score = 2. Apart from the inherent problem caused by the antiquity of the setting, the problem here is the same as for #2; there are too few historical characters. Thomas Cromwell is the most prominent, and he appears only very briefly.
  5. I'll add a fifth item to the original four. This one asks the question, 'Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters? For Dissolution and Cromwell's hunchback investigator Matthew Shardlake, the answer is yes.
Next post will discuss Sparrowhawk, Book One: Jack Frake.