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THE FIRST RULE OF HISTORICAL FICTION

date: 05 April 2016 at 19:16:24

Last weekend I went to the local flea market.

I didn’t find much. Indeed, I didn’t find a thing, except for a washed out English-language paperback which cost 2/6 when it was published back in 1956 by Penguin Books. Entitled “Death To The French,” it had originally been published in 1933 by the author, C.S. Forester, for The Bodley Head.

I remember reading Forester’s Hornblower novels when I was a boy in the 1950s, and reading them over and over again, but “Death To The French,” (or “Rifleman Dodd” as it was titled in America) was a novel that I had never come across at the time.

Some years ago, I enjoyed reading Mark Urban’s “Rifles – Six Years with Wellington’s Legendary Sharpshooters” (Faber, 2003), a vivid history of the 95th Regiment of Foot (Rifles), and I remember thinking that there was plenty of material for historical fiction there. In his introduction, Mark Urban mentions Forester in a one-line throwaway, saying that “Forester often used riflemen in his books,” but he made no mention of “Death To The French” or any other novel by C. S. Forester.

It’s a classic story of one man’s fight against the might of the French during the Peninsular Wars in Portugal as sharpshooter Matthew Dodd gets cut off from his regiment – the 95th – and attempts to make his way back to safety through the French defences.

While the story has its ups and downs – Forester needed to introduce secondary figures in the form of a French sergeant and his men who try to capture the English rifleman, and Portuguese peasants who fight a guerrilla war against the French longside Dodd – the solitary figure of Matthew Dodd, who speaks no Portuguese and communicates by signs and a mere few shared words with his new comrades, is especially interesting.

He might have come straight out of Mark Urban’s “Rifles.”

Urban’s introduction mentions the difficulty of researching the history of the 95th Rifles, particularly regarding the riflemen themselves. While officers left memoirs, and regimental records provide information regarding troop movements and engagements with the enemy, most of the men, like Dodd, were ordinary fellows with little education. Equally, like Rifleman Dodd, they appear to have had a strong sense of duty and of belonging to an honourable regiment. Indeed, it seems that the US Navy made the book obligatory reading for new recruits to give them an overview of what it means to be a fighting man and belong to a company of warriors!  

Forester’s descriptions of the Peninsula War and his use of history and real events as the basis for his novel are an object lesson in writing historical fiction, faithfully respecting the first rule of the genre. Matthew Dodd does only what was possible (and probable) within that precise historical context.

If there is only dead horse or putrid mule to eat, then that is what he eats!

Clearly, Forester had done his homework.

 

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