The Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell seem to get a lot of stick from some wargamers. But I’ve been re-reading the series over the last few weeks, and it has brought back to me just how much I enjoy his stories featuring the eponymous rifles officer Richard Sharpe.
If I want a light story with some wonderful descriptions of life in the British Army, a pack of larger-than-life characters to cheer for or hiss at, and battle scenes where I can almost see, hear, feel and smell the action, then Sharpie’s my man.
To me, Cornwell is the master storyteller of land-based Napoleonic derring-do. I’ve tried other authors who write fiction about soldiers of this period, but most of them I find don’t have the deft touch that turns a painstaking Napoleonic military procedural into a dramatic story. Cornwell even gives the well-known naval authors a good run for their money in some of the Sharpe stories where our hero finds himself on the ocean wave.
I still recall coming across my first Sharpe novel in an airport book shop many years ago. This was Cornwell’s first story, Sharpe’s Eagle, in which Sharpe and his trusty companion Sgt Patrick Harper strive to capture a French eagle during the Battle of Talavera. I was instantly captured by the story, which brought to life a wargaming period I loved. My enjoyment of the book was tinged with a slight bit of jealousy though, as I had always fancied writing a novel about a soldier in an historic setting (to be true, a rather unlikely dream with my lack of fiction-writing ability).
I’ll be the first to admit that the Sharpe novels aren’t ‘real’ literature, but then they don’t purport to be. If I want something more high-brow, I also enjoy Patrick O’Brian’s sea-going novels featuring Captain Jack Aubrey, which are written in an erudite and almost Jane Austen-ish style. But if I want to be entertained by a simple well-told yarn I’ll turn to Cornwell, who to me is like the written form of an ancient storyteller seated at a campfire, enthralling his eager listeners with each dramatic cliffhanger in his tall tale.
Cornwell writes knowledgeably enough about the period. Despite some occasional minor clangers, you’ll learn a lot about Napoleonic warfare – and not only how it took place, but what it actually felt like for the soldier on the ground, whether trudging on campaign, charging into battle, victorious or defeated.
If I was to try to distill what it is I like most about the books, I think it is the Dickensian characters. They don’t generally develop much through the stories, but I’m not a stickler for a novel only being able to be classified as good if the characters change during the course of the story. In the Sharpe books, in most cases what you see is what you get. Villains are utterly evil, inept, treasonous or … gasp … they’re lawyers (Cornwell obviously has a bee in his bonnet about the legal profession). The heroes are generally good chaps, though sometimes rather morally suspect in their use of ‘the means justifies the end’ – I’ve lost count of how many baddies Sharpe has despatched without recourse to trial.
Despite the lack of development, Cornwell’s characters never seem one-dimensional. They’re fully fleshed out with superb descriptions, armed with idiosyncratic traits, and given language that gives itself expression and accent in your head as you read.
I’ve also got the Sharpe videos. Again, it is the wonderfully-drawn and well-acted characters who make these special. Who can forget the ugly one-eyed, bewigged, false-toothed but faithful Captain Frederickson; the pompous blow-hard Colonel Henry Simmerson; the smarmy, twitchy-eyed and utterly evil Sergeant Obadiah Hakeswill; the French spymaster Pierre Ducos with his reptilian eyes; or the youthful, brash and foolhardy Prince of Orange?
As a fan of Sharpe and Harper, I’ve of course had to incorporate this dynamic duo into my Napoleonic armies. Below are my 40mm versions, made by Sash and Sabre. Sgt Harper is carrying his heavy multi-barrelled Nock gun. Sharpe is modelled on Sean Bean from the videos, with his trademark blonde mullet – in the books, Sharpe is a much leaner character with jet-black hair.
And here they are again, this time in 28mm made by Chiltern Miniatures. Harper’s menacing Nock gun is again evident. Sharpe is wearing the tatty raincoat he is depicted with in the Sharpe’s Waterloo video.
The skirmishing officer and riflemen in the picture below aren’t specifically Sharpe and his Chosen Men, but they could be. These are my 28mm 95th Rifles by Front Rank . (If you click to enlarge the picture, please excuse the goggle eyes – these were painted in the old days, before I learned it was better to merely hint at eyes with a dark wash rather than trying to try to paint them in detail.)
Finally, Perhaps the picture below is a Napoleonic fellowship of the ring, with men and hobbits?!
16 thoughts on “Reacquainting myself with Sharpe and Harper”
I certainly enjoyed the books, but some of the videos left me a bit cold; lost Aztec tribe in Spain? those goofy wolf tails on the French hussars? and the movie version of Sharpe’s Waterloo is truly dreadful. Shame really.
But yes, Cornwell can certainly spin a yarn. have you tried his “Winter King” trilogy?
Also have you tried Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Brigadier Gerard” stories? More tongue in cheek than Sharpe, but good fun.
Yes, I must admit the ‘Sharpe’s Gold’ video is my least favourite, as it veers so vastly away from the book (which had nothing to do with Aztec gold!).
I’ve tried the Winter King, but I’m afraid I’m just not into books set in medieval or earlier times.
Yes, I own the Brigadier Gerard books, and they are a fun read.
Alban Miniatures also makes a Sharpe and Harper pair of personalities, but they are a lot thinner than the Front Rank figures. I love the books, you could create endless Wargame scenarios from each book. I like to movies too, despite their historical problems, because I just enjoy seeing actors running around in period uniforms. It is entertainment after all.
I’ve got the Alban pair, but they just don’t do it for me, so are languishing at the back of my desk unpainted and unloved!
Yes, I love seeing the actors in their Napoleonic get-up. I think the costume designer for the Sharpe TV series has done a magnificent job, particularly with the leading characters.
Yea, from an old granny with all the Sharp paperbacks and all the movies – and who worked through all the doco’s she could find re the Rifle Brigade on you tube – and who follows the action on Google Earth when she’s chin deep in some action or other !!
Cornwell’s stories allowed me to feel close to a g.g.g.Scotttish granny who was army born and brought up her own children in the Wagon Train during this period. He eventually died of Yellow Fever in Barbados and the children were sent to the Duke of York’s Royal Military School in London. What a wonderfully lucky break for those kids, They were given a really good education and all did well for themselves in the colonies.
What a great family story, Valerie!
I guess I really shouldn’t like Sharpe so much, because by g.g.g.g.grandfather was a trumpeter in the French 12th Dragoons fighting in Spain – so Sharpe would’ve dealt with him if he could!
I loved the books when I was a teenager, but the TV series left me cold. Probably not so bad if you go into it with eyes open like you say, but then there seems to be so many other books and movies to watch!
The only thing I don’t like about the TV series is the lack of numbers in some of the battle and formation scenes. I guess if they did it today, they would use CGI to fill in the missing men.
But other than that minor issue, I just love the series. Especially how they’ve brought to life all those wonderful characters that Cornwell invented.
Fully agree – the books may vary across the series, but, taken as a whole, they are excellent historical fiction. Cornwell himself has no pretensions about their literary “merit”, but he’s a b####y good storyteller. The TV films might also be somewhat hit and miss (it’s well known why the script of “Gold” ended up with Aztecs!) but I challenge anyone to name a better, long-running, primetime TV series about the Napoleonic Wars (at least until Hornblower came along). I get hacked off with all those who look down their nose at Sharpe – Cornwell singlehandedly generated a widespread popular interest in the Napoleonic Wars that allowed so many other books – especially obscure historical accounts and memoirs – to get published.
Thoroughly entertaining with the classic tale of overall good guy over coming the odds and as a wargamer set in a period of great historical,interest to boot. Along with Hornblower, what better characters to set your morale compass by, far better than our UK footballers. Bally heros , oh not forgetting Biggles as well.
I agree with you about Hornblower, too. The books are a little dated now, but the TV series is actually better than Sharpe, I think.
I used to love Biggles when I was a kid. I must admit I’ve never tried re-reading those books, though.
Great post Roly – Couldn’t agree more! And Bernard Cornwell’s non fiction ‘Waterloo’ is a damn fine read too!
Yep, I’ve got his Waterloo non-fiction book on my library reserve list, and on my Christmas list!
Hope it’s ok to share your blog on the Bernard Cornwell Fan club facebook page. Some keen war gamers on there. Also 9k people with an interest in Sharpe 🙂
Absolutely OK! I would be delighted.