Review of ‘Sharpe’s Story: The Story Behind the Sharpe Series’ by Bernard Cornwell

Sharpes-StoryBernard Cornwell, Sharpe’s Story: The Story Behind the Sharpe Series (West Chatham, MA: The Sharpe Appreciation Society, 2007). Paperback

Several years ago, a friend recommended the Richard Sharpe stories by Bernard Cornwell. I had been reading Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin stories, and my friend thought I would like the Sharpe stories, which also were set in the era of the Napoleonic Wars. I didn’t take him upon the recommendation then, but when I finally did, I realized how right he’d been.

Bernard Cornwell is a terrific storyteller, and Richard Sharpe is a terrific character. A rogue, but as Cornwell puts it in Sharpe’s Story, he’s “our rogue.” In this booklet, Sharpe describes the genesis of the character and the series that bears his name. He also explains why the books were written in the order they were, and how the successful BBC series influenced the stories. I’m reading the Sharpe stories in the order of the events they describe, not in the order of their publication, and I’d recommend others to do the same.

Sharpe’s Story also includes “Cakes and Ale” as an appendix. This is a short memoir Cornwell wrote describing the circumstances of his birth, his adoption by highly religious parents, and his eventual rejection of that family and their religion, together with his reunion with his birth family. As a Christian minister, I have to admit a bit of disappointment at Cornwell’s conversion to “atheism and frivolity,” as he puts it. Nonetheless, I appreciate Cornwell’s outstanding talents as a writer and plan to continue reading the Sharpe stories, and perhaps Cornwell’s other books. They are outstanding examples of how historical fiction should be written.


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Review of ‘Sharpe’s Fortress: Richard Sharpe and the Siege of Gawilghur, December 1803’ by Bernard Cornwell

Sharpes-FortressBernard Cornwell, Sharpe’s Fortress: Richard Sharpe and the Siege of Gawilghur, December 1803 (New York: HarperCollins, 2000). Hardcover | Paperback | Kindle

There is a line between war and murder, and Ensign Richard Sharpe keeps stepping over it in this third volume of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series. On the one hand, we see him devising and leading the 33rd Light Infantry and a ragged assortment of Scots, Sepoys, and cavalrymen up a ladder in the escalade of the Gawilghur fortress. (Sharpe is fictional; the escalade was not.) On the other hand, we see him revenge-killing a sergeant and two privates who had betrayed him and stolen his stuff. (The men who wanted to kill him were themselves seeking revenge for the hanging of a relative, which Sharpe carried out under orders.)

When you combine the war violence and the revenge killings with the looting and rapine that accompanied British victories—indeed, when you remember that Cornwell is depicting the imperial invasion of a foreign land—you start wondering why any moral human being would derive pleasure from reading Cornwell’s books. At least that’s the question I began to ask myself while reading Sharpe’s Fortress.

Here’s the answer I came up with. Cornwell is a masterful storyteller. His depiction of the exploits of the British Army in India during the era of the Napoleonic Wars is gripping. It’s difficult not to be sucked into the narrative of men under fire—even if their cause is unjust, or at least very imperfectly just. I dare you to try and read about the repeated British infantry assaults on Gawilghur’s inner fortress—bloody, futile assaults—without marveling at the bravery of the soldiers. I dare you not to thrill when Sharpe realizes that an escalade—basically, climbing a ladder over a wall under fire—might put enough troops on the inside of the gate to open it up, and then puts that dangerous plan into action. Cornwell’s chapters describing these actions are some of the best war-writing I’ve ever read.

Another part of the answer relies on the value of an empathetic understanding of history. The Sharpe series is a work of historical fiction. The fictional part gives you empathy, as Cornwell portrays the motives (good and bad) and courage (or lack thereof) of people on both sides of a conflict. The history helps you understand the past. How did Sir Arthur Wellesley defeat Napoleon at Waterloo and become the Duke of Wellington? By putting Sharpe under Wellesley’s command, Bernard Cornwell helps you begin to understand the question.

A final part of the answer is that reading the Sharpe’s series helps form the moral conscience by giving the reader a depiction of both martial virtue and martial vice—that is, of courage versus cowardice—as well as of the horrific impact war has on soldiers and civilians alike. I don’t know that Bernard Cornwell wrote this series to provoke such thoughts. I think he certainly wants us to understand the bravery of the ordinary soldier. But I do know that reading this series inspires such thoughts in me. A book that is both a page-turner and a thought-provoker is a good book, in my opinion, even if it’s historical fiction about the fine line between war and murder.


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Review of ‘Sharpe’s Triumph: Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Assaye, September 1803’ by Bernard Cornwell

Sharpes-TriumphBernard Cornwell, Sharpe’s Triumph: Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Assaye, September 1803 (New York: HarperCollins, 1998). Hardcover | Paperback | Kindle

Midway through reading Sharpe’s Tiger, the first volume (chronologically) in Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe series, I hurriedly ordered the second volume for two-day delivery from Amazon. I am a series reader, and this clearly is a series to be read. It follows the exploits of Richard Sharpe, a soldier in the British Army, during the era of the Napoleonic Wars.

Sharpe’s Tiger was set in India in 1799 and focused on the siege of Seringapatam in the spring of 1799. Sharpe’s Triumph picks up the story four years later as the British Army under Gen. Arthur Wellesley—after Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington—fights against the numerically superior Mahratta Horde at Ahmednuggur and then Assaye. (I’m using Cornwell’s terms and spellings. Wikipedia prefers Maratha, Maratha Empire or Maratha Confederacy, and Ahmednagar, in case you want to look them up.)

Cornwell doesn’t paper over the greedy motives and savage conduct of the British or other Europeans as they fought for control of the Indian subcontinent. He doesn’t valorize their enemies either, however. What he does is present the conflict from a British soldier’s point of view, showing his courage under fire.

And what courage it was! Cornwell’s description of the British escalade at Ahmednuggur, in which Lt. Colin Campbell of the Scottish 78th Regiment mounted a ladder three times to scale the fortress wall—a true story, by the way—astonishes the reader as much as it astonished Campbell’s contemporaries. (Campbell received a battlefield promotion to colonel, and in later years he was knighted and served as governor of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka.)

But Cornwell’s description of the British assault at Assaye, in which the 78th calmly marched in formation under enemy fire, took a beating, but still went on to crush the Mahratta right flank, is even more astounding. Sometime after his victory at Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington was asked which was his finest battle. He answered: “Assaye.” When you read this book—which is, remember, a work of historical fiction—you’ll nonetheless understand why.

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Review of ‘Sharpe’s Tiger: Richard Sharpe and the Siege of Seringapatam, 1799’ by Bernard Cornwell

Sharpes-TigerBernard Cornwell, Sharpe’s Tiger: Richard Sharpe and the Siege of Seringapatam, 1799 (New York: HarperCollins, 1997). Hardcover | Paperback | Kindle

Nearly ten years ago, for reasons I don’t remember, I started reading Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels. Set in the era of the Napoleonic Wars, the novels follow the exploits of Captain Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy and Stephen Maturin, his ship’s surgeon and best friend. Hearing of my interest, a friend recommended I read Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe novels, which are set in the same era but tell the story of the conflict from the point of view of a soldier in the British Army. For some reason, I ignored his suggestion.

A few days ago, however, I was casting about for something new to read and seeing the Aubrey-Maturin novels on my bookshelves reminded me of my friend’s suggestion. So I went to Amazon, found the first book in the series—Sharpe’s Tiger—and began reading.

Now I’m hooked.

The book opens with Richard Sharpe, a disgruntled twenty-something private, contemplating desertion from the army. The work is boring, the pay is bad, his immediate superiors are corrupt, and army discipline is brutal. Indeed, Sgt. Obadiah Hakeswill—Sharpe’s immediate superior—conspires to trap Sharpe in an offense that will get him flogged with 2,000 lashes, effectively a death sentence.

As the sentence is being carried out, however, a summons from Gen. George Harris saves Sharpe from the lash, only to send him into deeper peril on a mission behind enemy lines. Sharpe’s exploits behind those lines constitute the bulk of Cornwell’s fast-moving narrative. Like other writers of historical fiction, Cornwell has taken literary license with the British Siege of Seringapatam in the spring of 1799, though he helpfully explains where he has departed from history in “Historical Note,” at the end of the book.

Sharpe’s Tiger is the first book in the series, chronologically, though it was not the first published. That honor belongs to Sharpe’s Gold. I recommend reading the books chronologically, however, because that gives you a better sense of the history of Britain’s wars as well as the evolution of Sharpe’s character.


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