Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Sharpe series, by Bernard Cornwell

The prolific Bernard Cornwell began his "Sharpe" series of historical novels in 1980. The most recent was published in 2006. Waiting until now (although not intentional) allowed me to read them in chronological order rather than published order, which is quite different. Cornwell's website includes an explanatory list. Historically, the series begins in 1799 (Tiger) and ends in 1820 (Devil).

The stories follow the military career of the fictional Richard Sharpe, who rises through the ranks from private to colonel in the British army. Sharpe's units mostly serve under the command of Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington. Notable digressions allow Sharpe to be present at Trafalgar with Nelson in 1805, and to meet Napoleon on St. Helena and Cochrane in Chile in 1820. The short novels share a title structure (Sharpe's xxx), several characters and a lot of descriptive detail so, rather than review individual novels, it seems better to talk about the series as a whole.

If there is one consistent criticism of the Sharpe series, it's that large sections of descriptive detail appear with little alteration in each of the novels. Through sheer repetition, it's unlikely I'll ever forget the process of loading and firing a cannon, flintlock musket or rifle of that era. Some readers are undoubtedly put off by the graphic and gory details of various types of wounds and battlefield sights, sounds and smells. Lest we forget - war is not pretty.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. I had not previously read much of the history of the Napoleonic Wars, and the Sharpe novels are a pleasure way to begin. The early campaigns in India, especially, were new to me. 
Score = 5
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. For the most part, the battles depicted were actual battles; the campaign movements described are what actually happened, the military units and most of the commanders are historical. Only Sharpe, his circle of closest compatriots and female conquests (usually one per book) are fictional.  
Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes. As always with Cornwell, the attention paid to accuracy of historical detail is far greater than most "historical setting" novels. The inclusion of "Historical Notes" at the end of each novel clarifies the extent of artistic liberty taken.
Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
Not sure. I haven't yet read biographies of Napoleon, Wellington, Nelson or any of the many other historical figures appearing in these novels, so I can't really say how much they are fictionalized.
Score = ...
  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?
Yes. I'm always sad to reach the end of a Cornwell novel or series, but that has to happen eventually in historical fiction that actually includes the history.
Score = 5

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