Richard Sharpe Returns For More Military Adventure And Intrigue
By Lucy Bednar
I hate books about war. This prejudice, no doubt, comes from my gut-level revulsion at how wars are "engineered" by those who have power at the expense of those who have little or none. Nonetheless, I’ve enjoyed every Richard Sharpe novel I’ve ever read, including the latest, "Sharpe’s Fury: Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Barrosa, March 1811," number 21 in Bernard Cornwell’s popular series.
The adventures and misadventures of Cornwell’s hero, Captain Richard Sharpe, are played out against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. That large conflict routinely provides the stage for several smaller conflicts, most obviously Sharpe’s clash with an incompetent superior officer, less obviously Sharpe’s clash with himself.
Early in his career as a soldier Sharpe saved the life of Arthur Wellesley, Lord Wellington, and this unpremeditated act of bravery has affected his life ever since. Whenever possible, Wellington sees to it that Sharpe gets an opportunity to advance. In 1811 Sharpe commands the South Essex Light Company, green-jacketed riflemen whose weapon, the Baker Rifle, gives them a status that ordinary soldiers don’t have, thanks to the gun’s superior accuracy and range.
In "Sharpe’s Fury," a supercilious brigadier general named Sir Barnaby Moon is determined to keep Sharpe in his place. At their first meeting Sir Barnaby snaps, "‘I don’t want any damn heroics, Sharpe ... You need make no reputation with me,’ " to which Sharpe dutifully responds, "‘No, sir ... I’ll try hard not to, sir.’ " Readers of the Richard Sharpe series know immediately that Sir Barnaby will, before long, be forced to re-evaluate his haughtiness.
Although Lord Wellington does not appear in this novel, his younger brother, Henry, does. It seems that Henry, His Brittanic Majesty’s Envoy Extraordinary to the Court of Spain, has written some love letters to the beautiful Caterina Veronica Blazquez, who, far from being the respectable young woman Henry assumed, is, in fact, a con artist. The letters become currency in a game of blackmail and diplomacy, between the British who want to maintain their alliance with Spain and a faction of Spaniards who favor an alliance with France. Sharpe’s help is required to recover or destroy the letters.
If I hate books about war, as I claim, why then do I enjoy Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe novels? The author certainly doesn’t glamorize war or gloss over its horrors. His attention to historical detail in recounting how individual battles are planned and fought is excellent. It’s evident that wars of the early 19th century, though not yet mechanized, and fought on a smaller scale, were just as savage and bloody as those of the 21st.
In fact, they were in some ways even bloodier and more savage because much of the fighting occurred at close quarters, often face to face. During the Battle of Barrosa, a recreation of which occupies the last third of the novel, the British troops, outnumbered by the French and abandoned by the Spanish under General Lapeña, fight desperately and emerge victorious, in spite of heavy losses.
The battle itself is a chaotic blur of movement and noise, men shouting and screaming, and some even singing, like Major John Browne, who rallies his men with a rendition of "Heart of Oak." A sergeant urges his company forward by "chanting as though he were training men at the barracks. ‘Lunge! Recover! Stance! Lunge! Recover! Stance! Not in his ribs, you bloody fool! In his belly! ... Don’t just prick the bastard! Do some damage!’ "
Cornwell’s characters are certainly engaging, especially Sharpe’s riflemen, most of them abject failures in civilian life who have found a home in the army. Among them are Sgt. Patrick Harper, a huge Ulsterman with a wry sense of humor; Harris, an ex-schoolmaster, "clever, well-read, and too fond of gin"; and Hagman, "a poacher in Cheshire before the law caught him and condemned him to the army’s ranks." Clearly, readers are meant to like these appealing misfits.
However, at the center of each novel in the series is the enigmatic Captain Sharpe himself, the son of a prostitute, who began life as an illiterate street urchin and thief, before joining the army, where he has risen through the ranks on his own merit, a fact that breeds resentment among those who feel that such advancement is "an affront to the established order." Sharpe prospers in the chaos of the time because, like his men, he has learned the power of "discipline tied to savagery."
In spite of having no formal education (he learned to read only as an adult), Sharpe is a very intelligent man, a fact that makes obeying the often idiotic orders of incompetent superiors a genuine burden. He exists in the uncomfortable space between two worlds: the one in which he gives orders and the one in which he takes them. Even when forced to dole out harsh discipline, he prefers the company of his own men to that of his superior officers, most of them aristocrats, who remind him, directly or indirectly, of his low-birth and lack of education.
Cornwell describes Sharpe as a rather ugly man, with a hard, hostile face (unlike the handsome Sean Bean, who plays him in the television dramatizations). Nonetheless, the ladies find him irresistible, another reason for his well-born superior officers to resent him — and readers to like him.
The dashing captain, his likable companions, his often loathsome superiors, the chaos of Europe during the Napoleonic Era, and the certain knowledge that the intrepid Richard Sharpe will survive anything — all combine to make this series of novels a real treat, even if you hate books about war.
Contact Lucy Bednar at email@example.com