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The beginning of a legend.
Sharpe's Rifles - Bernard Cornwell
Member Name: blackbob
Sharpe's Rifles - Bernard Cornwell
Date: 23/01/06, updated on 23/01/06 (144 review reads)
Advantages: Well researched,plot led,fast paced with excellent characters.
Richard Sharpe and the French Invasion of Galacia,January 1809.
Author - Bernard Cornwell
I've had a rotten weekend.I can't stop sneezing,I'm burning up,heads thumping,I've no energy and my eyes are red raw.I'm sure this is a situation that many of us are familiar with;the good old winter blues.A perculiarly British experience,no doubt.
Why are you wittering on about your cold when you're meant to be reviewing a novel?
Simple,I'm getting around to explain that I've spent the weekend in bed.
With little on T.V to take my fancy,I've found myself looking for something to kill my time and what better way than to read a book.But.
My minds not up to something new,my concentration's not on top form so as often the case in these trying moments I've resorted to reading an old favourite(ah,now we'er getting to it).
And Sharpe's Rifles is definetly an old favourite.I've no idea how many times I've read this particular novel but it IS many and not only is the familiar story ideal for me when I'm feeling low but the easy and enjoyable style in which it is written mean it's hard to put down once begun.
Now I'm sure many of you have seen the excellent T.V series produced by Carlton and are familiar with the overall premise.
The main character being played by the aptly suited Sean Bean,even though there are several main differences from the actual written character(more of those later.)
Incidently,I cannot remember whether I read this book before I saw the first T.V episode but I do remember that it was my father who kept trying to turn me on to reading them.And it was this first in the series that I read first.It was the first novel at the time,since then there have been several prequels.
The main bulk of this series of novels are based in the Peninsular War 1808-1813,which was fought,mainly in Spain,between the Napoleonic Army of France and the combined forces of Great Britian,Spain and Portugal,I know there were German soldiers and others who fought but these are the main combatants.
In late 1808,Sir John Moore,often described as 'the unlucky general' led a force of 20,000 troops from Lisbon into Spain,after several bruising encounters with the French,under Marshall Soult,was forced to retreat to Corunna in North Western Spain.
The retreat to Corunna,in the late winter of 1808/09,is one of those historical times etched into the memory of the British Army and is where the novel begins.
Now I'm not going to be so evil as to tell you the whole story,that would be bad form.
As I've just said,it is during this gruelling retreat that the novel opens,finding Lieutenant(pronounced Lef - tenant,by the way,for those of you brought up on American T.V)Richard Sharpe at the very tail-end of the British Army.
Our hero,being neither fish nor foul,is disliked by his men and despised by his superiors.
While engaging in a constant rear-guard action against advance units of the French Cavalry,the unlucky Light Infantary unit,95th Rifles are suddenly caught by more Cavalry and cut to ribbons,Lieutenant Sharpe and half a company of rifles only manage to escape by making high ground where the French horses cannot follow.Although they manage to take the wounded Captain Murray with them,his wounds are fatal and Sharpe finds himself cut off from his army and commanding soldiers who do not respect his authority and do not want to follow his orders.
Hold up in and old barn high up in the Spanish mountains,private Patrick Harper,a gigantic and massive Irishman who is the mens true leader decides that Sharpe's attempt to head south to Lisbon is a pointlessly dangerous exercise.He believes that they should be heading north and gives Sharpe an ultimatum,either come with us or die here.
Sharpe,realising that if he was to follow the men north then he would lose all of the tenous authority he has over the men attempts to beat Harper into submission.
Not long after they find themselves in this position,they are discovered by the enigmatic Don Blas Vivar,a major in the Spanish Army,who agrees to lead them to safety,though his motives are not as pure as they at first seem for he has his own particular mission and his own use for this motley band of British soldiers.
I'll leave the plot there,if I was to tell you the story there would be no point in reading the book,would there.
Richard Sharpe,at age 31,seems to be old for only a Lieutenant in the Bitish Army but this is because he joined as a private and was raised from the ranks to become an officer by saving the life of the then General Authur Wellesly,later to become the Duke of Wellington,at the battle of Assaye in 1803.
This is an important factor in the novel,the series as a whole and to the character of Richard Sharpe.
The British Army of the 18 and 19th century could never have been descibed as a meritocracy,unlike Napoleon's Army as it is based on wealth,privalege and connections at court.
To become an officer,first you had to be a gentleman,you bought your commision to Lieutenant and bought your promotions thereafter,meaning that more often than not the men in command were wholly unsuited to their rank,having neither proper experience or even the intelligence to do their job properly.
Under these conditions,a man raised from the ranks of the 'damned' was despised for not having the right background,parentage,wealth or social graces to be a real officer and gentleman.Also the men that the unfortunate upstart would have to command got no respect due to the fact that the rank and file believed that officers were born not made,meaning that someone raised from the ranks would be one of them and not someone that had the right to tell them what to do.
It is his lack of proper education and the sort of upbringing that a 'true born' officer and gentleman would have that constantly plague Sharpe.Whereas other officers not only assume their right from birth to tell the lower orders what to do,they automatically expect that their orders will be carried out.Sharpe,on the other hand,not having natural authority or the easy leadership of one born to it often resorts to foul language,abuse and his fists to reinforce his authority thus only breeding resentment from those under his command,he is one of them so what gives him the right to tell them what to do - he's no better than us.
This is the position that Sharpe finds himself and something he constantly has to contend with,although by the end of this novel he prooves to his men that he may not be a gentleman but is a very compotent,hard and experienced soldier.In turn,they come to trust and respect their irregular officer as he understands them and looks out for them in a way any true 'gentleman officer' never could.
The vast majority of the proper officers he meets along his way though do not like this officer because aside from their social prejudices they don't believe he has the wit and intellegance for proper command.There are several that do realise his potential though,notably Wellington himself.
As for the men under his command,the most outspoken of them is Patrick Harper,a giant Irishman.He may be only a be a private but is the one that the men listen to and hates his new officer but after the severe beating he recieves from Sharpe at the beginning of the story and also because of the assertions of Vivar he comes to respect Sharpe and a true friendship is born that will be a feature of the series.
Sharpe constantly doubts his authority and feels that he himself is not a proper officer in the true sense and this is perfectly highlighted in the relationship between him and the Spanish officer Major Vivar,whoes easy authority and leadership instantly earns the respect of Sharpe's men,particularly Harper and this annoys Sharpe a lot.
Vivar soon learns to respect this rough and crude officer for his abilities and leadership under fire.Vivar constantly teases Sharpe over his lack of social background and the British in general but due to lack of social skill and self confidence with his percieved betters he rarely has an answer and responds in a bad tempered and crude fashion which only seems to amuse Vivar more.
These books and this first of the series in particular are very well researched from a historical point of view and are written in an easy,enjoyable style which makes them hard to put down.
They make entertaining and likeable action stories and the 'fish out of water' theme of Sharpe's position plus the meticulously researched historical content and setting only add to the overall enjoyability.
My version of the book is actually a hard back published by Collins in 1988 and has 304 pages so I can't tell you what the price of the latest paperback version would be but I can't imagine it would be more than,say,£6.99 and at that sort of price has to be very good value for money.
Having just read my review through I notice that I said there were several differences between the character of the novels and the ones portrayed by Sean Bean on the T.V,these are just differences in his appearence and background.
The Sharpe of the novels is from London,6ft and dark haired.Sean Bean isn't,which is about the only real difference.Aside from that,Sean Bean's character is essentially the same as the novel and very well played.BB
Summary: Easy and enjoyable action novel containing well researched historical setting and strong characters.