In one of my holiday posts I confessed to secretly reading the Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell and not blogging about the books. I will try to make amends with this post.
The first I had heard of Sharpe was as a television series which ran on ITV in the UK in the mid-90s and starred Sean Bean. It was only after reading some of Bernard Cornwell’s other books that I discovered that he was the author of the book series. Being a big fan of Cornwell’s writing I was interested in reading the series but, given that there were so many books involved, unwilling to part with any real money for the privilege.
Charity bookshops came to my rescue (with a little help from the ‘two pound on your novels’ man on Loughborough market) and I am currently missing only six of the twenty-four books, mostly from later on in the series.
So I have read “Sharpe’s Tiger” which is in no way the first Sharpe novel Cornwell wrote (having been published about sixteen years after Sharpe’s debut) but is the first in the chronology of the story sequence, and the two subsequent books leading up to “Sharpe’s Trafalgar” – “Sharpe’s Triumph” and “Sharpe’s Fortress”.
In “Tiger”, it is 1799, in India, and Sharpe is rather unfairly sentenced to death for striking a superior having been set up by an unsavoury character called Hakeswill. The fatal amount of lashes at the stake are interrupted as Sharpe is needed for a higher purpose. When he recovers from his ordeal, Sharpe is assigned on a secret mission. He joins the Tippoo Sultan’s army posing as a deserter, but is found out and imprisoned. He escapes during the siege of Seringapatam, destroys a mine meant to decimate the British army, leaves Hakeswill to fight an angry tiger, and kills the Tippoo. Sharpe plunders a veritable treasure of jewels from the Tippoo’s corpse which he hides about his person – stitched into the linings of his red coat and hidden in his knotted hair. He is promoted to sergeant as a reward for his bravery.
In “Sharpe’s Triumph” Sharpe is the lone survivor of a massacre carried out by a notorious turncoat called William Dodd. Once recovered Sharpe is taken on a mission to identify and capture Dodd. Their search eventually takes them to the Battle of Assaye (1803).
During the battle, Arthur Wellesley (the future Duke of Wellington) needs a replacement dragoon (he gets killed) and Sharpe takes his place. Wellesley is unhorsed and Sharpe defends him and saves the general’s life, receiving a promotion to Ensign for this act of gallantry. It is very rare for such a battlefield promotion to occur. Sharpe corners Hakeswill (who survived his ordeal by tiger) in a village and this time sets a savage bone-crushing elephant on him.
In “Sharpe’s Fortress” both Sharpe and his colleagues find it difficult to adjust to Sharpe’s new status. While dealing with supplies he meets some rather unsavoury characters within the army and discovers that Hakeswill has once more escaped death by wildlife. Hakeswill sets Sharpe up again, steals his jewels and leaves him for dead (a mistake that Sharpe kept making with Hakeswill). Now the shoe is on the other foot Sharpe decides to leave off with the animals and tries to take out Hakeswill in the dead of night with a knife. Hakeswill runs to join the enemy forces at the mountain fortress of Gawilghur.
Discovering that he is still alive, Sharpe’s superior officers arrange for him to be transferred to the newly formed 95th Rifles Regiment. To join the Rifles he must travel back to England, but before that there is the small matter of the Siege of Gawilghur, (December 1803). Sharpe commands troops for the first time, storms the walls of the inner fortress and opens the gates for the besieging forces to enter. Sharpe finds Dodd inside the fortress and kills him. He also deals with Hakeswill – throwing him into a pit of deadly snakes and this time he doesn’t survive. He also recovers his treasure.
In “Sharpe’s Trafalgar” it is 1805 and Sharpe is on his long journey back to England to take up his position with the Rifles. He is aboard the cargo ship ‘Calliope’ when it is captured by a French warship, the ‘Revenant’. He loses his treasure that he left in the supposed security of the captain’s cabin.
Sharpe discovers that the ‘Calliope’ has been surrendered far too easily by the captain who is in league with the French. The ‘Revenant’ is headed to join up with the French fleet and one of the passengers from ‘Calliope’ is carrying a secret document that, if delivered, could provoke Indian forces to start a new war against the British army. The ‘Revenant’ is in turn boarded and taken over by the British navy.
The arrival of Admiral Horatio Nelson’s fleet leads to a confrontation with the Spanish fleet and Sharpe finds himself caught up in the Battle of Trafalgar. It is the first of the novels in the wars against Napoleon and so Sharpe’s first encounter with France and its European allies as an infantryman. On the journey he meets and falls in love with Lady Grace Hale, the wife of an unlikeable politician (is there any other kind?), meets Nelson for a spot of tea aboard the ‘Victory’, acts as a musket wielding marine aboard the ‘Revenant’ and after bloody ship to ship skirmishing gets his treasure back.
As a bridge between the India conflicts and the Napoleonic wars the four books do a good job, but getting Sharpe from India into the right place at the right time to take part in the Battle of Trafalgar might on reflection seem like a shoe-horn too far. However this contrivance aside it is actually a very well-researched and atmospheric nautical tale. It is also at times quite romantic – the relationship between Lady Grace Hale and Sharpe is one of the better written ones (like Bond he seems to have a different love interest in each book).
It certainly provided me with a great holiday read and I’m looking forward “Sharpe’s Prey”…