So the last time I read about Richard Sharpe, Bernard Cornwell’s great British hero, he had fallen in love with Lady Grace Hale, met Admiral Nelson and survived the Battle of Trafalgar. In Sharpe’s Prey our hero has pretty much gone back to zero. Grace died in child birth, their child also died and her family’s lawyers have prevented Sharpe from inheriting any of her estate despite him using up all his treasure in helping to buy the house. He is acting as Quartermaster for the 95th Rifles, a job he hates and once he finds out he can’t cash his commission in (because it was gifted to him by Wellesey), he decides to desert from the army.
He needs money and with a black desire for revenge burning in his heart he decides to return to the foundling home in Wapping where he grew up as a child. The children there are terrorized and mistreated by the same man who made Sharpe’s boyhood a misery. His name is Jem Hocking and Sharpe murders him and steels his money. This part of the story is all rather Dickensian, but vastly entertaining.
He is then made an offer he can’t refuse by a character from the Indian conflict novels, General Baird, to act as bodyguard to a dodgy British agent John Lavisser travelling to Copenhagen. Lavisser is taking a big box of gold to bribe the Crown Prince of Denmark to give up his fleet to the British. Unfortunately Lavisser is a double agent and Sharpe finds himself stuck inside the city which is soon to be bombarded by the British fleet who want to get their hands on the Danish fleet before the French do. The French having had a lot of capital ships sunk in the Battle of Trafalgar need to get hold of the Dane’s ships to regain control of the seas.
The book is a fascinating slice of history (1807) and paints a rather unflattering picture of the Danish armed forces. They seem naïve, easily duped and out-gunned by the British in part because of the ineffectual decisions made by the Crown Prince and his advisors. Equally the bombardment of civilians within Copenhagen is hardly a great moment from a British point of view. The Danish wouldn’t surrender their ships to the protective custody of the British (and why indeed should they have?) and so the British just took them, killed a shed load of innocent people and laid waste to a peaceful city in the process.
Sharpe’s escapades are as usual entertaining and rather far-fetched. Attention to technical detail is faultless. His ability to fall in love at the drop of a hat second only to James Bond and the character seems a lot more of a foolish romantic than Fleming’s and as a result is far more likeable.
In Sharpe’s Rifles, Cornwell’s first ‘filler’ novel written as an intro for the television show, we find that Sharpe has been promoted to Lieutenant in the Rifles and is in Spain. He is involved in the rear-guard action during the British retreat after being ousted by Napoleon’s French forces. A small band of riflemen are cut off from the bulk of the army and after some in-fighting, in which Sharpe almost kills Harper, they team up with some Spanish Partisans. Sharpe has no control of the disrespectful and unruly band of riflemen and defers authority to the Spanish cavalry officer Vivar who wants to be escorted to the city of Santiago de Compostela.
During a surprise attack from the French who are on the trial of the Partisans, Sharpe displays some impressive wiles as a soldier and Vivar befriends him and tries to help him take control of his men. Harper, much to his dislike, is promoted and eventually mutual respect grows between Sharpe and his new second in command.
As usual there is a damsel in distress who Sharpe falls for, but it is no surprise to find that by the end of the book he has found his love is unrequited. The Spanish Partisans fight with the British to temporarily liberate Santiago de Compostela so that Santiago’s legendary battle pennant can be unfurled and ridden into battle. Vivar wants word of this event to spread across Spain and fuel the revolt against the French occupying forces.
Rifles is a more fantastical and romantic book than Prey with allusions to Arthurian legends and religious prophecy. This is helped a lot by the swashbuckling and unerringly single-minded Spaniard and the battle of brothers for the future of a country. It is also interesting that the story includes a lot of details from books earlier in Sharpe’s chronologically which Cornwell had yet to write. Hat’s off to the author in this respect for some excellent forward planning.
Image: detail from an image in the British Library’s Flickr collection.