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 Prejudice. In 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.