By Graeme Restorick (alias Matthew Hill-spur)
Word Count: 1334
Summary: A Review of the TV series Sharpe
The Sharpe Series, based on Bernard Cornwell’s books, was a popular period drama series set during the Napoleonic Wars that was originally screened on ITV in the UK between 1993 and 1997 (with one-off episodes based in India in 2006 and 2008 respectively).
Richard Sharpe, the protagonist, is an officer in the 95th Rifles promoted from the ranks for saving Sir Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) from being killed or captured by French Horsemen in 1809 during the Episode ‘Sharpe’s Rifles’.
Though a natural leader, Sharpe is handicapped by the English class system of the time. Having been born in humble circumstances to a prostitute in Keighly, Yorkshire, in England, he joined the army like many of his station to avoid the absolute poverty endemic in Britain at that time. The attitude of the upper classes to the common soldiery of the time is best illustrated by the comment from the real Duke of Wellington who once described the average British soldier as ‘the scum of the Earth enlisted for drink’, an attitude that makes it seem somewhat implausible that he would have promoted someone like Sharpe from the rank of Sergeant to 2nd Lieutenant simply for saving his life.
Because of his humble origins and the contemporary class system, Sharpe has to work harder than most to earn the respect of both his social ‘betters’ and his ‘peers’. The former despise him for his lack of ‘breeding’ and frequently view him as a low-born, uneducated brute who does not belong in their exalted ranks. This snobbery is matched by the attitude of the lower ranks themselves, who view him as being ‘jumped up’ and seeing himself as ‘better than he should be’. This reflects a common attitude of the time in Britain that one should defer to one’s social superiors and not get ideas above their station.
The first episode deals with Sharpe’s struggles to earn the respect of his peers after he is left as the only surviving officer when his unit is decimated during a mission to link up with a banker and assist a force of Spanish guerrillas. The Riflemen in Sharpe’s platoon include Harper, a large and powerfully built Irishman; Hagman, a former poacher from Cheshire and a crack shot; and Harris, a somewhat enigmatic well-educated former servant (based loosely on Benjamin Harris, a real former rifleman who fought in the Peninsula campaign and publisheded a memoir of his experiences in 1848 that Cornwell used as source material for many of his novels).
As the only surviving officer, Sharpe pushes to continue the riflemen’s mission to link up with the Spanish guerrillas, led by the beautiful but fierce Teresa Munro, and assist them in fomenting a rebellion against the French occupiers. However, the Riflemen, who do not view Sharpe as a ‘proper’ officer because he is of humble origins like themselves, suggest that with all the ‘real’ officers dead, they should abandon their mission and make their way back to British lines, instead. When Sharpe refuses and tries to impose his authority as an officer on them, they plot to take matters into their own hands and murder him, with the formidable Harper chosen for the task. After a ferocious fight, Sharpe manages to overpower Harper and put him under arrest, causing the other Riflemen to fall back into line and obey his orders.
Harper later redeems himself by preventing the capture of a valuable relic by the enemy, despite being given the opportunity for a reward, in addition to his freedom, for standing aside. In the action, he kills two French cavalrymen and drives off the primary antagonist with his rifle. Sharpe, whilst pretending to be unimpressed, allows Harper to fall back into the ranks and the two eventually become firm friends, with Harper becoming his second-in-command in later episodes.
Although he has earned the respect of his peers in this episode, Sharpe has to deal with the snobbery of his social superiors throughout the series, although he also earns the respect of many of them through his leadership and courage, and is steadily promoted to the rank of Lt. Colonel by the time of Sharpe’s Waterloo, set in 1815.
All in all, it is an enthralling and primarily action-oriented series that also deals with some of the social attitudes and issues of the time. Sharpe, like all of Cornwell’s protagonists in his other historical novel series, is an outsider and a virtual outcast who has to prove himself constantly by his own merit, courage, and wisdom to overcome the contemporary prejudices of those around him and command the respect of those he leads and seeks to influence, persistently rising above these difficulties and triumphing over his adversaries, both internal and external, by the end of each episode or novel.
As an aside, I met Bernard Cornwell a few years ago at an historical fiction seminar in Harrogate where he was promoting his nonfiction book on Waterloo. Interestingly, he used to work for the BBC and only became a writer because he moved to the US with his American wife and couldn’t get a green card allowing him to work, and so turned to novel-writing, instead. In addition to Sharpe, he also wrote a short-lived series of novels centred around Nathaniel Starbuck, a Northerner who ended up fighting for the Confederacy despite being antislavery and having very enlightened, modern views on racism of the time, in keeping with his tradition of his protagonists being outsiders distrusted by those on his own side. Much to my disappointment, however, he decided that the Starbuck Chronicles were too much like Sharpe and effectively abandoned the series to focus on his other novels, including the Grail Quest series, about an English archer from the 14th Century who fights in France under Edward III during the Hundred Years War whilst simultaneously searching for the Holy Grail and dealing with being declared a heretic by the Church.
The general anti-Church theme of his Grail Quest series is a reflection of his upbringing by a Christian sect he was adopted into, known as ‘the Peculiar People’, which he called an apt description ‘as they were peculiar’, during the Q&A session. Via his Canadian father, who had a brief fling with his mother during World War II when he was stationed England, he discovered he was descended from Uhtred the Bold, an Anglo-Saxon Ealdorman of Northumbria who once ruled over Northumbria from Bamburgh Castle, and thus decided to write another historical novel series (later turned into a TV series in its own right called ‘The Last Kingdom’) based on a fictionalised version of his ancestor. This character is portrayed as an Anglo-Saxon captured as a child and raised as a pagan Dane, and steadfastly refuses to re-convert to Christianity despite the problems this causes for him amongst King Alfred the Great’s court, including his being given the sobriquet of ‘Uhtred the Wicked’ by his enemies amongst the Anglo-Saxons. His paganism is tolerated only because of his skill and bravery fighting the Danes, which makes him too useful to get rid of, but still prevents him from being fully accepted by those around him. Despite this, he is firm friends with Father Beocca, his childhood tutor, and Father Pyrilig, a former warrior who became a priest that occasionally fights side by side with Uhtred in his battles with the Danes. Some readers may therefore find its anti-religious and anti-Church themes offensive at times, but it would be too far to say they amount to anti-Christian screed since not all devoted Christians are portrayed as foaming bigots and fanatics, although there are plenty of those serving as antagonists as well.
They are definitely worth checking out if you like your historical fiction to be gripping and filled with plenty of action as well as being thoroughly well-researched on the historical background of the times they are set in.