Sharpe’s Eagle – Bernard Cornwell

 

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Sean Bean as Richard Sharpe in the TV series

Sharpe’s Eagle was the first of Bernard Cornwell’s series of novels about Richard Sharpe, the fictional British rifleman active in Wellington’s army in Europe and India.

Sharpe’s Eagle tells the story of the period surrounding the Battle of Talavera, beginning with the army’s advance from Portugal, and culminating, despite victory in the Spanish battle, with Wellington’s retreat to Portugal.

The novel contains two or three key battle scenes, which as far as I can tell are portrayed with due reference to the actual historical facts, describing weapons, tactics and the actual strategies used by Wellington and the French, and that alone made the book interesting. In fact Cornwell claims never to have written about a battle without first visiting the site. This must have afforded him some interesting tax deductible holidays!

The burden of the novel is not actually about the struggle with the French though. It’s a novel about male heroism, and definitions of male identity, as well as a novel about British society and its interminable and damnable class divisions.

Sharpe is a down to earth working class hero with no fancy ways, and it’s hard to think of him without being reminded of Sean Bean’s portrayal: pure Sheffield working class, and a blunt northerner who calls a spade a bloody shovel. In fact I could hear Bean’s voice clearly in the dialogue at times. Cornwell himself comments on Bean’s eminent suitability for the role, and no doubt the producers of Game of Thrones identified this northern integrity and honesty when casting him so successfully as Ned Stark.

Sharpe has come up through the ranks, making officer thanks to his own experience and ability, in an army where it was usual to purchase a commission, and this places him as a working class hero amongst a bunch of namby-pamby southern types who couldn’t take the skin off a custard, never mind lead an army into battle. We observe their shallow and futile management of the troops, and their cruel and selfish behaviour almost through Sharpe’s eyes, though it’s a third person narrator. Meanwhile Sharpe’s friends are men that toil, Scots and Irish often, honest and trustworthy yeoman types.

The anti-English element of this is interesting. It’s a common literary trope for the English to be mean and cowardly, interested in personal gain and full of treachery, and is an issue I mentioned in my recent review of Pride and PrejudiceIn Sharpe’s Eagle it’s accentuated by the mistreatment of Josefina by the wealthy English officers, and Sharpe’s rather more noble romantic entanglement with her.

In the end of course justice is done, and Sharpe survives to fight on in the next instalment. This was my first Sharpe novel, and I found it an easy read with entertaining aspects, but really, as I suppose is widely accepted, it’s just a tale of derring-do, a Boys’ Own Paper story.

As a footnote, although this was the first Sharpe novel written, it is not the first in the chronological story of his life. It’s clear from reading the novel that Cornwell already had ideas about how the earlier part of Sharpe’s life would lead to this moment, though I suppose these embellishments may have been added at a later date to subsequent editions of the book.

Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

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What more could I add to the thousands of words that have been expended on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice? I have just finished it again for the umpteenth time.

I remember not reading it for the first time when it was set for my A levels, and amiably discussing with a school chum whether it was any more than just women’s tittle tattle. That had been the essay we’d been set, though I had no idea how to answer it, never having got further than Mr Collins’ yawningly embarrassing proposal. I suppose that I didn’t have the wit to realise that that part of the novel was meant to be boring! In any case I went on to make up some stuff about it in an A level exam from which I profited little, but which did complete justice to the effort I’d made. It was only when I began to teach Austen that I really began to appreciate the wit and wonder of her writing.

Surely the plot must speak for itself. Pride in the guise of Darcy, wealthy nobleman, meets prejudice dressed as Elizabeth Bennett. Then Elizabeth’s friend, Charlotte Lucas, makes a sad marriage to a foolish man to safeguard her financial future: this is a feminist issue, and accounts in part for Austen’s enduring merit and fame. In a deliberate and artistic contrast, Lydia rushes into a foolish and romantic relationship with a ne’er do well soldier.  The charming and handsome military hero is a literary trope, but Austen does not treat Wickham with quite the same satirical intent that she shows for the Gothic novel in Northanger Abbey: there is a moral danger that she does not diminish with humour.

There you have it: Austen manages to be at the same time of political, moral and literary significance. No wonder she still gives so much pleasure today, managing to remain completely relevant as a commentator on the status of women, and as a literary and moral touchstone.

As for the rest, well there are some brilliant sections and characters, laugh aloud funny. The sycophantic and shocking Mr Collins, a parson with amazingly unchristian attitudes to forgiveness and full of pompous self regard. Lady Catherine De Bourgh, bursting into Elizabeth’s home full of indignation, self importance and ignorance. Lydia, foolish and possibly irredeemable, Mr Bennett, as clever as Elizabeth but unfortunately allied to a pretty, but vacuous wife.

Of course every rereading of Pride and Prejudice reveals more of the complex ironies involved. This is a hallmark of great literature. I remember a recent romcom which the reviewer claimed was only funny in the opening twenty minutes, and after that so consumed with the complexity and denouement of the plot that humour disappeared. Reading Pride and Prejudice this time did remind me of that comment. Once Elizabeth returns from her visit to the Collins and sets off to Derbyshire the plot begins to dominate, and moves at quite a rapid pace. But in  the last chapters we return to the heart of Austen – the brilliant entrance of Lady Catherine, more letters from Collins, and the appearance of Wickham and Lydia at Meryton, the former full of duplicity and hypocrisy, the latter of ignorance and bad manners.

Austen seems to embody so much that is English and good, and I say English because as a nation we are often overlooked, unlike the Celtic nations who prize their individuality and their own cultural voices. But Austen is not British. She shows the English in such a clear and intelligent way – parochial, snobbish, concerned with status and money, sexually repressed, ambitious and clever!

It seems that Austen is an unalloyed joy, but I could not help wonder about her treatment of Mrs Bennett in the final chapters. Here is a woman who loves her family, but finds her daughter marrying above her station. This daughter is desperate to move to Derbyshire away from the embarrassing manners of her mother and aunt, yet Austen seems to approve. Was this Austen’s honest final ironical appraisal of Elizabeth, for so much of the novel our rational and moral heroine, almost the voice of the author herself? In the end was Elizabeth just a cruel snob who would forsake a mother’s love for money, status and manners? I guess so; if not Austen herself would be morally repugnant, and to admit that would be iconoclasm.

(Oh and by the way, could it be the other way round, that Elizabeth is pride, and Darcy prejudice?)

Holy Orders – Benjamin Black

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Benjamin Black is the pseudonym of Booker prize winning Irish author, John Banville, and Holy Orders is a detective story.  It’s one of a series set in Ireland in the 1950s, and based around Quirke, a pathologist verging on alcoholism, and toying with depression. Quirke is a great name for this character as he’s got enough of them to easily fill a series like this, which consists of about 5 or 6 novels.

I first came across him in a televised mini-series which seems to be no longer available on the BBC here:

Quirke – Episode Guide

The Telegraph gave the series a poor review here

Telegraph Review

and though I hate to publicise that right wing rag, owned by non-domiciled non tax paying billionaires, who campaigned to leave the EU so they could maintain that cost efficient tax status, it is worth reading the review as it’s such a stinker.

Back to Holy Orders, which is the story of the death of a journalist in Dublin, a dark and sinister setting unredeemed by modernity and beset by gangsterism and corruption. During the course of the novel both the perpetrator of the murder, and the motive become clear, and the mystery is solved, but to be frank that’s not really the most important thing here, and it passes as a sort of afterthought in a novel that really focuses on Quirke and his dysfunctional personality.

Quirke was an orphan, adopted as a boy into a wealthy family and educated at a series of Catholic schools. In England these would be called public schools, though they offer a private fee paying education, and are not run by the state. In Ireland they are commonly sponsored by the church. I was reminded frequently of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a popular A level text at one time, though much more rarely studied these days I think. In it there is a famous quotation in which Stephen Daedalus, the cipher for the author in this semi-autobiographical novel, describes Ireland as:

the old sow that eats its farrow. 

an image of the country destroying, indeed feeding on its own children. Benjamin Black takes the whole concept a step deeper into darkness than Joyce appeared to, by focusing almost uniquely on the abuse that Quirke suffered at the hands of his teachers. When forced to return to a school similar to his own during the course of the investigation he has a panic attack and suffers hallucinations. In observing his thoughts, we see these formative experiences as the root of his current alcoholism and the problems he has in maintaining long term relationships.

Indeed the novel does focus on these relationships more than on the murder mystery, though Quirke’s journey of investigation takes us into a few interesting places, including the police department, the newspaper business, a tinkers’ camp and the unhappy home of a wealthy Irish couple.

Quirke has a daughter who he allowed to be brought up by his own adoptive brother after Quirke’s wife died in childbirth. Quirke felt he couldn’t cope with the responsibility, but has recently let her know the truth of her parenthood. As you can imagine this is not an easy relationship, and when the girl has to deal with a dawning awareness of her own lesbianism the situation is complicated further.

There is another woman in Quirke’s life. She is an actress just returned from a tour of Ireland where she played in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. That in itself is an interesting choice – a play in which the female protagonist is in a terminally unsatisfactory relationship. But this woman is not at all like Nora: instead she is compliant and needy, seeking a long term and meaningful partnership that Quirke cannot provide.

Much of the novel focuses on these two characters, including the daughter’s burgeoning romantic feelings for the sister of the murder victim, and the murder itself is solved in a brief conversation buried away towards, but not quite at the end of the book.

As you might expect Banville writes very well. The characters are all interesting in their different ways, and the setting is well described, though it’s a dark and suffering place. The writer does create a real sense of Dublin in the 1950s. Because there are no modern appliances, few cars, no mobile phones or gadgets the setting becomes much more generic or universal, with the atmosphere of a film noir. Banville /Black does go overboard in describing the fashions of the time which he uses as a sort of shorthand to introduce and give life to the different characters, who all wear ties, or bow ties, or nylon stockings, or heavy dark suits depending on their gender and role.

However, I would certainly recommend this book. It’s rich and vibrant with character, reflection and description. It’s well written and I plan to read others in the series.

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

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The Essex Serpent comes with hearty recommendations from a variety of sources, and has been named a Sunday Times number one bestseller. I have to say I am becoming increasingly sceptical of that accolade. Perhaps it’s the readership of The Times? After all they are stupid enough to buy the paper and imbibe the flawed and warped neoliberal philosophies of its owner, why should they show any more discernment when it comes to their reading of fiction?

The Essex Serpent is a modern novel written in Victorian style, and is typical of the genre in many ways. There are the traditional preoccupations of the novelist, and the usual modern twists: for example a major character suffers from Asperger’s or some form of autism: since The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night this has become regular trope.

More broadly, the romance is presented in Victorian style, but is modern in content and theme, and includes lesbian affairs.  It can be compared to The French Lieutenants’ Woman in seeing Victorian concerns through modern eyes, though it lacks that novel’s playfulness with narrative structure, and its philosophical depth.

There are many issues which allow the writer to draw implicit contrasts between modern and Victorian beliefs, always with the intention of preferring the modern. It seems very modern that the protagonist is a woman, and a feminist, who is freed from domestic servitude and violence on the death of her husband. She is also a geologist with an interest in fossils – hence the Essex serpent. The parallels with Fowles’ novel are clear here,  as are the opportunities to draw a contrast between the validity of modern science, and the failings of Victorian religion.

The protagonist’s love for an Essex vicar is at the heart of the novel, and again the links with Charles in TFLW are obvious, though there is not the same extended drama, or should I say melodrama, attached to the denouement of the relationship. There are other aspects that develop the contrast between the modern and the Victorian: so there is the superstition of the locals about the nature of the Essex serpent and the recent deaths on the river, and the focus throughout on medicine, science and social policy – a minor character is a ground breaking surgeon, another suffers from consumption, a third is an MP and another becomes involved with public housing, acknowledging the need for slum clearance, and implicitly the progress that was made at that time in public health. There are some interesting aspects to this, but it seems like there’s been assiduous use of a checklist entitled Social and Scientific Progress during the planning of the novel.

There are some interesting characters in the book, and the children especially bring variety to the story. There is also a sustained use of the colour blue related to the consumptive, who hallucinates in a fevered way and seems to be some kind of symbol of true love and friendship, though I found this quite hard to understand. Knowing she will die, she forgives her husband’s love for his new woman, and is able to relate to the autistic boy, becoming in the process some kind of visionary or prophet. Perhaps I’ve got this wrong. But it didn’t do much for me.

I have to say after a very slow start the plot did pick up speed and I was able to enjoy the second half of the novel much more than the first, but it is a pastiche of a Victorian novel and so does demonstrate many of those qualities of formal language and slow plot development that make that era difficult for a modern reader.

 

To War with Wellington – Peter Snow (or how the Tories snuffed out democracy again)

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To War with Wellington is a direct and straightforward summary of the war in Spain, France and Belgium beginning with the landing of the British force in Portugal in 1808, and culminating in Waterloo. There are many contemporary accounts of the events of this period, and Snow draws directly on these to produce his version. He presents different viewpoints, though these are mostly British. Even the stories of looting and plunder come from the pens of British writers in diaries, letters and reminiscences, including letters Wellington himself sent back to London condemning the actions of his troops.

Snow relies on some key sources, so we meet the same characters on different battlefields and at different places, and they include a variety of types of people: there are some common soldiers, surprisingly literate and articulate considering the general lack of education in this period, and, unsurprisingly, officers and generals with their own more narrow points of view.

Snow offers clear diagrams of battles, and these are very helpful in communicating the key strategic and tactical decisions Wellington made, and there are a couple of larger scale maps that show his progress through Portugal and Spain. These are also really useful.

To War with Wellington is a lively and interesting account. Snow chooses quotations from his different sources wisely, focusing on dramatic events expressed in colourful language. He links these direct and indirect quotations with his own summaries of events, and moves the narrative along quickly. The narrative structure is pretty straightforward – a chronological account starting with the British troops landing north of Lisbon during a storm when they have to ride the surf to the beach, and finishing with the defeat of the French at Waterloo.

We are given a detailed picture of Wellington, starting with some basic physical attributes, and it’s almost a warts and all portrayal. Snow is honest about Wellington’s appearance, and the rather dreary and cautious approach he took to the war in Spain, especially in the early years. He received criticism for this and it’s possible the war lasted longer than it needed as at key points, such as after taking Madrid in 1812, Wellington retreated to Portugal to safeguard his rear and consolidate his position. Snow is also  honest about Wellington’s failing marriage, and his romantic liaisons with a variety of foreign women firstly in Spain, then later in Brussels, as well as in 1814 during his brief tenure as ambassador in Paris, where apparently he shared a couple of Napoleon’s old flames.

The Peninsular war was not Crimea, or WW1, but there were many casualties and these are covered in great and often horrific detail as might be expected. Exploding shells apparently became prominent at this time, and as in any war, technology played a big part. Wellington was given a great advantage by the deployment of the 1st/95th rifle brigade, whose story is told in a Mark Urban book, Rifles: Six Years With Wellington’s Legendary Sharpshooters. The range of their guns was perhaps double that of the traditional musket used by the French.

To be honest the bravery of the soldiers in these wars astounded me. They besieged towns and attacked them in what can only be described as shocking conditions and often with little prospect of surviving the battle. The first to attack were named the forlorn hope, as this described their chances of returning alive, and at Badajoz the carnage was appalling. It reminded me unfortunately of the comic poem by Thomas Hood, Faithless Nellie Gray:

At duty’s call I left my legs
In Badajoz’s breaches.

-a wry pun that Hood develops in all kinds of clever but I suppose cruel ways throughout the poem.

It’s hard to explain the bravery of these men and I suppose that’s down to their patriotism, and a sense of camaraderie or esprit de corps that narrowed their world. They were soldiers and would have wanted to be valued as such: often their horizons were limited to that. But in many ways it could be argued that these were men fighting against their own best interests.

 

The war against France, begun in the 1790s, was essentially a rearguard action by the royal families of Europe designed to protect their privileges. The Whigs in parliament were much more supportive of Napoleon’s political philosophy, but the Tories under Liverpool and Castlereagh were quite opposed to those liberal views, and their triumph dictated the development of Europe in the period following the war. It led to another hundred years of servitude for Russian peasants, and of course to the final cruel and violent end to the Tzars in 1918.

In 1815, before Waterloo, with Napoleon defeated and on Elba, the victorious Tory government under Lord Liverpool introduced the Corn Laws to protect the interests of the landed classes, another direct expression of their political philosophy. It lead four years later to the massacre, on the fields of Peterloo in Manchester, of working men dressed in their Sunday best and protesting about the price of bread. Meanwhile, at the battle of Waterloo the Polish were fighting alongside the French, recognising the opportunity Napoleon gave them for independence from the crowned heads of Europe. The French soldiers too were fighting for liberty, equality, fraternity – fighting for the legal rights embodied in the Napoleonic code, and for the opportunities for education and advancement that it offered them – opportunities written in their constitution, and denied their British counterparts at that time.

Of course victory at Waterloo also ensured the triumph of Britain, giving us pre-eminence in a world in which British industrial and scientific power guaranteed a technological advantage over less industrialised countries, and made victory secure. We can all enjoy that history, built on the ironically named thin red line, the blood of the British infantry, but the Empire was a myth for the factory worker and the farm labourer.

The poor did not share in the benefits of Empire, though they may have seen it at the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace, and again in the Festival of Britain. It was a country that worked for the wealthy but not for those on the Jarrow marches, on means tested benefits in 1930s Britain or in the Preston in 1854 that inspired Dickens’ Hard Times.

In Britain we are disadvantaged, as we do not have a written constitution, unlike the rest of Europe. There are no hard rules to protect our rights, just grace and favour and tradition. The Tories can plan a bonfire of regulations – workers’ rights, environmental protection and so on, and parliament is sovereign, can override any of these rights even though we value them.

In Germany, after their experiences with Hitler, referenda are not allowed under the constitution, but the right to remain in Europe has been stolen by 37% of the electorate, or a slim majority, in a referendum that, because it was only advisory, not binding on parliament, was seen as no threat to the constitution or to our rights. But it was a threat. Sixty plus percent would have been the internationally recognised supermajority, usually required for constitutional change. It might have left a less divided nation, and a country where the young would have felt happier. At the same time we have a Tory PM who is threatening to take away our human rights, as if that were some kind of vote winning proposition. We really did lose, at the Battle of Waterloo.

Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Half of a Yellow Sun tells the story of a Nigerian family in the 1960s before and during the Biafra crisis. The book opens several years before the war, and follows the lives and loves of a small group of well educated university people, then cuts to and from the Biafran conflict as the story unfolds.

The opening chapter was very striking and particularly effective. It introduces the main characters, living on a university campus and discussing politics and philosophy over bottles of alcohol. It concludes in an amusing triangular relationship in which the house servant is worried about being usurped by the new mistress of his boss. This relationship acts as a kind of ironic summary of the whole colonial enterprise: she is seen as the coloniser in his domain, whilst he is worried that he will be discarded and replaced.

Adichie is a clever writer and the scenes before the Biafran war are amusing. The characters are varied and reveal a range of quirks and flaws. They mimic European habits and prize the ability to speak English well. They are well educated but I guess many of them overestimate their own abilities: we are shown this in an understated and amusing way.

There is snobbery and tribalism, but this is shown through individual characters and not in broader more general terms. So a protagonist’s mother criticises both his mistress, and his failure to marry a serious woman and produce children. She is dismissive of his servant’s rural and uneducated background, and criticises his cooking. In order to procure grandchildren for herself she introduces a young girl from the village to her son’s household, and partakes in various rituals. to encourage their love. The poor girl becomes pregnant, but of course that solves no problems at all. I enjoyed this part of the book the most, it’s full of human observations and humour.

Later there is infidelity and betrayal within the group, and in particular within one family, so that when the war begins the family conflict further separates the characters, and we await both denouements – that of the civil war, and of the war within the family.

Half of a Yellow Sun was on the shelf for a long time before I finally plucked up the courage to read it. I was alive in the 60s, and remember the cruel jokes about Biafrans, and the horrific nature of the war, so the book didn’t seem an enticing prospect. But I was quite young then and knew few of the facts so it was interesting to discover more about how the war started. It seems that jealousy about the financial success and the power of the Igbo tribe provoked violent attacks from the moslem community in the north of the country, which led to Biafra seceding from Nigeria and declaring independence under its own flag – a half of a yellow sun.

Biafra was badly lead, and its people lied to repeatedly: well that’s not unusual is it? Defeat was inevitable but slow and painful. It occupies most of the second half of the book, and makes the novel quite hard going.

Adichie is a great writer, and I really recommend her work. It’s amazing to think that someone with such serious aspirations and achievements as a writer and feminist has been used by Boots to advertise makeup.

Boots Number 7

One up for literature there I say. But if you are interested in Adichie’s writing, don’t start with Half of a Yellow Sun, try:

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

 

 

Addlands – Tom Bullough

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Addlands is a novel set in the Welsh hills, somewhere in the Brecon Beacons, providing for me a familiar catalogue of place names – Llanbedr, Builth Wells, Hereford, Lanedw. These towns are surrounded by beautiful but bleak hills, which provide joyful hill walking if that’s what you like to do. They are the setting for several books I have read. Bruce Chatwin’s On Black Hill is set in this area, as is Owen Sheers’ Resistance and indeed his poetry anthology Skirrid Hill – see also The Farrier.

I always take some sort of vague interest in the place names when I read these books, as I have walked the hills so often. It’s a geography that seems to stamp its qualities on its inhabitants. They live hard lives and it turns them into hard people in one way or another.

Addlands tells the story of a family of hill farmers in a series of episodes, each set in a different year. The first takes place in 1941, the year that the main protagonist was born, and the last in 2011.  Some are set in years that mark memorable events in British life. So 1947 was the year of incredible snows and the long freeze, as was 1963. 1976 was the long hot summer of drought, and 2001 the year foot and mouth disease devastated farms. In these episodes Bullough weaves the narrative around the key historical events, giving the account a kind of documentary feel.

Other episodes are used to narrate the bare bones of the lives of the characters. There is Oliver, the main protagonist, and a cuckoo really. His mother married a local farmer when she was already pregnant in order to avoid the shame of having an illegitimate child. His mother, father and grandmother share the farm that he grows up on. Nearby lives an estranged uncle and in the background a contested will, disputed acres. At first I thought I was going to read some sort of tale of family feuding, but though this is a part, it’s not really the nub of the story.

Oliver is almost literally a cuckoo – too large for the nest he is growing up in. A dark and silent type, reminiscent of Heathcliff, it seems he can communicate physically, but not verbally. At times he erupts into violence. Oliver becomes a bit of a local legend as a fighter, and the writer shows us this in a series of vivid scenes set in local pubs and dance halls.  He never marries, despite some sexual liaisons, and stays on the farm. His love life is glossed over, but one relationship in particular becomes the pivot of his life. Naomi, the daughter of a London professor who has bought a local cottage, bears Oliver a child, extending the family saga into another generation.

Bullough is really looking at the passage of time in the Welsh hills, and emphasises this when the professor symbolically unearths a 2000 year old stone carved with Irish runes. The family has nine generations of history here, and the people are rooted in this valley, and in this farm, though the old ways of life are coming to an end as holiday cottages and bankruptcy intrude into farming life.

Addlands is also a story about family, and about love. Oliver finds it hard to express his feelings, lives a chaotic and undisciplined life of drinking, brawling and sexual freedom, fails as a father and partner, but in the end finds true meaning in family and continuity.

Addlands is beautifully written and detailed in its description and evocation of the Welsh countryside and the lives of the farming community. At times the detail was perhaps too much, and the use of dialect off putting – the book would benefit from a small glossary. Bullough also has a habit of beginning new chapters and sections without signalling the change of character, setting or event quite as clearly as he might, making the book quite hard work. But Addlands is a book that would certainly repay a second reading, and though in fact nothing much happens, it’s a book that I found quite compelling in the way it evokes the characters and places, makes you care about them.