Desert Isle Keeper
The Richard Sharpe Series
I’ve always enjoyed a well-written historical romance set in the time of the Peninsular Wars (1809 – 1814) and the battle of Waterloo a year later, especially if the hero is a military man. I remember thinking a couple of years ago that it might be good to learn more about the day-to-day life of British soldiers in that time period, and someone recommended I read the series by Bernard Cornwell, about a fictitious rifleman named Richard Sharpe, who managed to be present at every major skirmish of the campaign. I started the first one and barely came up for air as I devoured every last one of them. This soldier is one of the most compelling recurring characters I’ve run across in fiction, and he has the most ripping, riveting adventures, to boot. I’m not alone in my fascination for the Sharpe series; in addition to many of my colleagues here at AAR who have gobbled them up, authors Mary Balogh and Julia Justiss are also fans, as they noted in a recent issue of At the Back Fence.
Born to a London prostitute, orphaned and left to fend for himself in the rookeries of the capital, Sharpe enlists in the army at the end of the eighteenth century, and to his surprise he finds a home there. Sure, there are the fools and insufferable people one would run across everywhere, but when the fighting starts, Sharpe can forget all that and do what he was born to do: fight, fight viciously, and win (which is not to say that he doesn’t have some close calls). In between battles, he makes friends and enemies, wins, stumbles across, steals, and loses a couple of fortunes, and falls in and out of love – and bed – with any number of beautiful women. But make no mistake: Sharpe is a warrior, first, last, and always.
Cornwell uses Sharpe to portray in convincing fashion the life of a soldier, the boredom, the power struggles, the frustration and chafing under petty rules and even pettier superior officers and sergeants. Moreover, he does a very good job in illustrating Sharpe’s socially awkward position, as more than a mere rifleman in the ranks, but never quite enough of a gentleman to be accepted by his fellow officers. But it’s in his depiction of Sharpe before, during, and after battle that Cornwell displays his mastery of writing: the almost crippling fear, then the intense focus on just surviving the melee, the uncivilized satisfaction in killing one’s foes, and the red haze that lingers long after the guns have fallen silent. More than once, I’ve raced through one of the books just to get to the battle scene. I can almost smell the gunsmoke and hear the boom of artillery.
Sharpe’s not a terribly introspective guy, but he’s developed a code of ethics, and he never strays too far from it. He realizes that it’s supposed to be wrong to enjoy battle, but he’s not too bothered by that aspect of himself. He just accepts it and lives his life. There are right and wrong times to kill, and as long as he does so in battle, or to protect himself or his comrades, that’s all right. His honesty is elastic. He’ll lie to save his skin or advance his interests, but never to those he trusts or admires – if he can help it. He’s learned to trust his instincts in order to survive, and those instincts have saved his life more than once. When it comes to other soldiers, while he may not be the most politically savvy fellow, he’s a good judge of character and is able to size a man up pretty quickly. Women, however, present a more complex challenge, and more than once Sharpe has put his trust in the wrong woman. When he discovers their perfidy, though, they pay. Oh, yes – they pay, often dearly.
The cast of supporting characters grows as the stories go on, but several play a more central role in Richard’s life than others. There’s Patrick Harper, the Irish bear of a sergeant and Sharpe’s best friend; their friendship is cemented in the wake of an introductory fistfight that’s a draw (such a guy thing!). Obadiah Hakeswill, a mentally unstable NCO who believes his deceased mother will protect him from death, has it in for Sharpe from the first moment they lay eyes on each other, and he becomes Sharpe’s ultimate nemesis. You almost don’t want Obadiah to die, because it’s so much fun watching the back-and-forth between these two. And of course, Sir Arthur Wellesley keeps popping into Sharpe’s life. Sergeant Sharpe saves the great man’s life at the battle of Assaye, in India, and earns the promotion from the ranks that will change his life. As a further token of his gratitude, Wellesley presents Sharpe with a telescope, which gets a lot of use in subsequent books.
Sharpe has a number of possessions with interesting stories: the telescope, the boots and leather overalls he takes off a dead Frenchman, a cavalry saber. There are rituals you come to expect in every book; to me the one that stands out the most is Sharpe, on the eve of battle, finding a cavalry regiment’s blacksmith and having that saber honed to razor-edge sharpness (pardon the pun). It had better be sharp, because he’s going to need it.
The series is set during the period between 1799 and 1821. Cornwell wrote all the Peninsula-set novels first; in the past few years he’s been filling in Sharpe’s pre-Peninsular backstory. There are a few, very small inconsistencies in a couple of them, but nothing major enough to throw you off for more than a second. Here are all the titles so far in this series, in chronological (not written) order. Not all of them are in print:
Sharpe’s Prey *
|* Not released at time of DIK review|
There’s also a television version starring Sean Bean as Sharpe that aired on PBS a while back. You may be able to borrow it from your library. I did try to watch one episode but found it impossible. Dreamy as Bean is, he’s physically so different from the Sharpe of the books that I couldn’t buy into his portrayal (I kept asking, “Where’s Richard’s dark hair with its distinctive ‘badger’s streak of white’?”). Besides, several books were telescoped into the one episode and the storylines adjusted so that I barely recognized them. The experience was too distracting for me, but this condensation may not bother other viewers.
Cornwell always includes an afterword with historical information about the location and actual events and people on which he’s based a particular book, and I always find them very interesting. The Peninsular War-based books have the same last words: “Sharpe and Harper will march again.” What comfort for the dedicated Sharpie to see this phrase! If you enjoy historical series, written with verve and meticulous research seamlessly woven into the stories, I urge you to make the acquaintance of Richard Sharpe, private, sergeant, ensign, lieutenant, captain, major, and lieutenant colonel – warrior extraordinaire. You will not be disappointed.