Bodice-rippers for boys? and a geographical review of ‘Sharpe’s Rifles’ by Bernard Cornwell

Sharpes Rifles PB.jpgHere’s a question: is military-historical fiction the masculine equivalent of the bodice ripper? Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m an enthusiastic reader of decent and sometimes not-so-decent historical fiction,  but a look back over the novels I’ve read recently in Spanish and English suggests an overwhelming bias towards female-authored stories of women’s lives (confession: I am 100 pages into Wolf Hall and have been for about a month; I’ve really enjoyed those 100 pages, but the sheer bulk of the novel is making my arms twitch just to think about picking it up </whinge>). So, in a mission to widen my horizons, and also because it’s kind of related to my current research project, I have just read my first-ever Bernard Cornwell, specifically my dad’s copy of Sharpe’s Rifles (1988), the first prequel to Cornwell’s first bestseller, Sharpe’s Eagle (1981).

Sharpe’s Rifles is set in Galicia in 1809,  during the British retreat to Corunna. Cornwell explains on his website that the book was written because the producers of the Sharpe ITV series wanted a story with a Spanish hero to fight alongside Sharpe – and so he created Major Blas Vivar, a member of Galicia’s minor nobility and a dashing soldier who is sworn to protect a great secret, which leads him to co-opt Sharpe and his men into a (fictional) battle fought in the streets of Santiago de Compostela. If this review seems rather coy regarding details, it’s because I don’t want to give away any of the revelations or plot twists – not that they are earth-shattering or that the novel is particularly plot-driven, but it seems only fair. That said, once I found out it was written with television in mind, some aspects of the novel made a lot more sense to me.

So … I did enjoy Sharpe’s Rifles, although truth be told, I skipped over quite a lot of the long battle passages, which suggests I might have somewhat missed the point. These are the parts I can see working well on screen; in the way they are written, the action is easy to follow, and the locations are so clearly drawn they must have been a gift to the location scouts. Sharpe himself is a vivid if not always likeable character, who suffers from a certain amount of self-pity and/or self-loathing. Blas Vivar, the Spaniard, is (stereo)typically dashing, a hit with the ladies, and quixotically idealistic, and of course his name recalls the Cid, who was known as  ‘el de Vivar’ ‘of the house of Vivar’. My primary interest was to see what kind of treatment Cornwell would give the Galician landscape, and particularly the Galician sites that are meaningful within the history of the Peninsular Wars.  

One of the things I’ve discovered in reading 19th-century British accounts of Galicia is that until the railways came towards the end of the century, the map of Galicia that dominated the British imaginary was oriented around the triangle between Lugo, Santiago, and Coruña. These major sites would be described in plenty of detail, often in the context of the military action they had seen earlier in the century, but the areas between them tended to be sketched more impressionistically, with comparatively little detail, and more emphasis on the beauty or intransigence of the landscape. Certainly, for much of the 19th century, the few British travellers who ventured north to Galicia from the more usual destinations of Madrid and the South were heading for battlefield sites, and the majority of them (led by Borrow and Ford) would include a visit to inspect the tomb of Sir John Moore at Corunna [see above].

This version of Galicia is precisely where the action of Sharpe’s Rifles takes place: Corunna and Santiago (also Lisbon) are regularly invoked, and we hear indirectly of Moore’s death, but we never see Corunna or Lisbon, and reach Santiago only at the novel’s end (and then from the opposite direction to that we anticipated!). For much of the novel, we are with the Rifles as they march through the Galician countryside. There are no place names to orientate us, although we see gorges, rivers, bridges and villages (usually razed by the French). In this way, I think Cornwell really succeeds in conveying the landscape as contemporary accounts suggest it was perceived by British soldiers and the travellers who followed in their footsteps – a heady rush of natural beauty and regular obstacles, natural and man made, with no familiar names or landmarks around which to orientate themselves, and only the iconic names of military engagements to give shape to the surrounding landscape.

Towards the end of the century, the railway came and organized travellers’ experiences of Galicia, drawing them away from the unregulated routes in the centre of the country, and creating a break between the Galicia experienced by British soldiers and travellers in the first part of the century, and the tourists who would come later – right up to the ‘Green Spain‘ beloved of today’s travel companies and marketing men. From this perspective, the great achievement of Sharpe’s Rifles is to bridge that break and evoke a long-vanished geography, with its peculiar way of observing landscape and valorizing sites,  in a way that seems utterly convincing today. Now I just have to read the other eleven Spain- and Portugal-set Sharpe novels …


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