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

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Fort, by Bernard Cornwell (2010)

Over three years ago, I read and wrote about a historical novel called Arundel, by Kenneth Roberts, set in what is now the state of Maine in the early days of the Revolutionary War (1775). In that novel, I learned a lot about a neglected chapter of that war's history, so I was excited to discover The Fort - another Revolutionary War novel set in Maine. Bernard Cornwell is a reliably excellent historical novelist, and The Fort is another well-researched and written novel from the prolific author.

I was surprised, however, to find no connection at all between the events described and the story of Arundel. For starters, The Fort is set four years later - near the end of the war. All of the main characters in Arundel had moved on to other theaters and one - Benedict Arnold - had even changed sides. Secondly, although the physical distance between the two stories was minimal, the remoteness and small population of Maine meant there was little communication between the scattered towns. Nothing that happened in Arundel led in any way to the events of The Fort. The only continuity I found was the ineptitude of the divided and contentious American military command structure - which was a major factor in the failure of both campaigns.

The Fort tells the story of the Penobscot Expedition, which resulted in a resounding British victory that nevertheless had little effect on the outcome of the war. The war drama, in Cornwell's capable hands,  is full of memorable characters - some of whom went on to become well known historical figures. Most prominent of all - from an American perspective - is Paul Revere, who served as an artillery officer in the Massachusetts militia sent from Boston along with a large naval force to recapture Penobscot Bay after the British sent an occupying force from their base at Halifax, Nova Scotia. The titular fort built and defended by the British forces was called Fort George.

Cornwell's specialty is graphic descriptions of historical battle scenes, but the verbal encounters among the various military commanders in The Fort are even more interesting. The fictional writing is interspersed with text from actual letters written at the time by the novel's characters.  

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. In particular, the role of rebel privateers in the war warrants investigation - either in novels (if available) or in straight history. On the other hand, the Penobscot Expedition was such an isolated action that it doesn't really point to any lead-in or follow-up Revolutionary War events.

Score = 4
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. The inclusion of many historical letters is just one of the ways Cornwell showed that he did his homework before writing. As always in a Cornwell novel, the descriptions of ships, weapons and tactics used, along with domestic details like food, housing and clothing  are interesting and well-researched.

Score =5
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes. Inclusion of historical notes following a novel always scores points with me, and Cornwell is very good about explaining his sources and noting where he occasionally takes minor artistic liberties with events.
Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
Probably, mostly. It's always risky for a novelist to use fictionalized historical persons as main characters, but the historical letters tend to back up Cornwell's depictions. Especially interesting is the fictionalized Paul Revere who, as Cornwell notes, is known to us today mainly as the heroic midnight rider in Longfellow's famous poem. The real man apparently did not always live up to that high standard - which should come as no surprise to readers of history. A point gets subtracted here just as a caveat about the inherent dangers of fictionalizing real people, but Cornwell's Paul Revere is certainly more accurate than Longfellow's, so one can argue that Revere's reality had already been distorted.  

Score = 4
  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?
Yes. Happily, Cornwell is incredibly prolific and it will take quite a while to get caught up. Already consumed and awaiting a writeup is Redcoat, another excellent Revolutionary War novel.
Score = 5

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