For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Hence, after gorging myself on emotionally compelling fiction, I found myself reaching for a Sharpe novel to read next. Richard Sharpe doesn’t do emotion. Or, rather, he has emotions (lusty; vengeful; mad as hell), but they are not the reason you read a Sharpe book. It’s the swashbuckling action that draws you in and keeps you reading.
The novels trace the career of fictional British soldier Richard Sharpe. Almost all of them take place during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) except for a ‘prequel’ set in India, and one final send-off dated 1820-21. Bernard Cornwell said that he wanted to do for Wellington’s army what C. S. Forester did for Nelson’s navy with his Horatio Hornblower series. I’ve never read the Hornblower books (I fear they might contain too much rigging), so to me Richard Sharpe is basically James Bond with a 19th-century rifle and pantaloons. He’s tough, there’s never any doubt that he’ll beat the villain, and he always gets the girl.
Sharpe’s gold is set in 1810, slap-bang in the middle of the war. British morale is low: Spain has fallen to Napoleon’s troops and it looks like Britain will be next. Amid the pessimism, Sharpe is summoned to Wellington’s office, where he is instructed to carry out a dangerous secret mission. He must travel into French-occupied Spain to collect a cache of gold from a fierce band of Spanish guerillas and smuggle it back to the British army in Portugal. Without the gold, he is informed, the campaign against Napoleon will end in defeat.
He pushed a piece of paper over the table. Sharpe unfolded it. ‘Captain Sharpe is directed by my orders and all Officers of the Allied Armies are requested and instructed to offer Captain Sharpe any assistance he may require’. The signature was a simple ‘Wellington’.
“There’s no mention of gold?” Sharpe had expected elucidation at this meeting. He seemed to find only more mysteries.
“We didn’t think it wise to tell too many people about a great pile of gold that’s looking for an owner. It sort of encourages greed, if you follow me.”
Of course, it’s not going to be as simple as simply picking up the gold and returning to Wellington: Sharpe will need all his wits and courage to carry out the mission. What follows is the patented Cornwell blend of heart-stopping action and military strategy, incorporating the siege and spectacular destruction of the Portuguese city of Almeida.
The edition that I read had a section at the end where Bernard Cornwell explains how he came to write the Sharpe novels, and how they developed over time as he wrote them. In it, he says that one of the best things about writing historical fiction is that it enables the writer to ‘explain’ small mysteries of past events in a way that historians are not allowed to do. In this novel, he takes the known facts of the destruction of Almeida and weaves a story about how it could have happened – with Richard Sharpe as a key player. I like this playfulness with history, and I also like his admission about the somewhat ad hoc nature of his series:
What did I know of my hero? … I knew he was an officer who had come up from the ranks, because that would give him some problems in his own army, but beyond that, not much. I described him at the beginning of the book as tall and black-haired, which was fine till Sean Bean came along, after which I tried not to mention his hair colour ever again. I gave him a scarred cheek, though for the life of me I can never remember which cheek has the scar and I suspect it changes from book to book.
The reader is never going to notice the wandering scar; they’ll be too busy enjoying the action. Besides, it’s impossible not to like a book that features a rooftop sword-fight with a villainous Spaniard.