Sharpe’s Eagle by Bernard Cornwell

(mild spoilers)

For those of us of a certain generation and mindset, Richard Sharpe and his various adventures were the dog’s danglies. He even had their own TV show, featuring Sean Bean in the one role in his life where you knew he probably wasn’t going to die. There was lots of fighting, impassioned denunciations, Napoleonic era uniforms, and attractive people of both sexes. If that’s not great TV, I don’t know what is. I’m not here to talk about the show though, I’m here to talk about Sharpe’s Eagle, the first published adventure of Bernard Cornwell’s great creation and Britain’s greatest fictional war hero.

Now, this is a well-worn reread for me, which gives the signal virtue of allowing the mind a certain amount of license while reading. This time, that meant my mind asking “why are those so great anyway?” It’s hard to pinpoint some exact touch of genius that elevates Cornwell’s work above his competitors, although one is damn sure it is indeed elevated after reading. Part of it, I think, lies in the fine details of the idea itself. If you will forgive me for being all writerly, a lot of people will tell you that ideas are cheap and the easy part. That’s true, but there seems to be a difference between good ideas and really good ideas, ideas that hit us right in the zeitgeist.

The thing about Sharpe is that he’s an authority who’s anti-authority (something that might be a particularly British taste). There are lots of fictional maverick army officers, but few who butt heads with his gloriously hateable and pompous superiors with such regularity and verve. Our Sharpe was promoted from the ranks for being very good at his job, y’see, back in a time when most officers purchased their rank but still thought they knew best. They were gentlemen; Sharpe was an orphan from the rookeries. Right there, you have a perfect source of drama and tension to compliment the action scenes.

Take the plot of Sharpe’s Eagle (such as I will reveal it). Here, Richard Sharpe is a lieutenant of rifles, commander of a small platoon of strays that got separated from their regiment during Sir John Moore’s retreat from the Napoleonic French armies (the overlying framework of the Peninsular War in which Sharpe fights is mostly taken faithfully from the actual history). Sir Arthur Wellesley, the new commander and an old appreciator of Sharpe’s skills, keeps finding tasks for Sharpe. One of them involves acting as a babysitter to Sir Henry Simmerson, a colonel with no military experience and a great taste for discipline. To everyone’s surprise, the two get along like two atoms of uranium, and Sharpe’s career will be in ruins unless he can perform some great act of heroism. Here, Sharpe’s enemies on his own side are more important to the story than his enemies among the French.

The whole set up is also a good way of demonstrating Sharpe’s character, and adding a level of pathos and sympathy that stops him from just being some invincible shagger who isn’t quite believable enough. Sharpe’s traits are those of an outstanding soldier – daring, tenacity, loyalty, ambition – but those are less ideal in polite society and Sharpe can’t just turn them off. Bull in a china shop barely covers it. It’s great entertainment, all the more so for the many complete and utter dickheads he offends along the way. As such, he’s very easy to root for.

In general, the whole balance of glamourous adventure and gritty reality is finely balance and key to the success of Sharpe’s Eagle. Yes, there are heroic deeds, good camaraderie, fancy duds, and gorgeous ladies, and of course Sharpe gets the best of them. But Sharpe can’t keep hold of the lady, spends most of his time in a tattered uniform missing the silver buttons that he sold to buy food, and men live in squalid conditions and die in pain. Without the former, it wouldn’t be fun. Without the latter, it would feel hollow.

The more you look at Sharpe’s Eagle though, the more apparent Cornwell’s gifts come. It is eminently readable. It is impeccably paced, and the prose smooth. Turning the next page becomes an automatic habit. There’s a wealth of period detail, but the book never feels dense or slow for it. And perhaps that is Cornwell’s great act of genius. The balance with which he portrays his ideas, and the verisimilitude and joy it brings.

Or maybe he’s just very good at every part of this writing business. Whatever it is, Sharpe’s Eagle is a very superior piece of historical military fiction, an adventure that will probably be picked up for a good few generations yet.

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