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?!