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

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.

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