Friday, December 10, 2021

Swords into Plowshares

If asked to summarize in one word what ended the Napoleonic Wars, most people would say “Waterloo.” And indeed, the Battle of Waterloo, fought between Napoleon’s legions and the Allied troops under the leadership of Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, did wreak such havoc on the emperor’s reputation that it eventually brought to a close the ongoing conflict for supremacy between France and Great Britain, which had simmered throughout the previous century.

To say that Waterloo brought peace to Europe would be an exaggeration: conflicts within states continued, as did wars between Russia and Turkey and attacks by colonial powers on communities in other parts of the world. But between 1815 and the outbreak of World War I ninety-nine years later, Europe did not experience an all-continental war of the type launched by Napoleon Bonaparte.

Even so, as we can see from Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe’s Assassin: Richard Sharpe and the Occupation of Paris, published by Harper in the United States this past Tuesday, Waterloo did not mark the actual end of the war so much as the beginning of the end. As Cornwell himself notes in his nonfiction book Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles (New York: Harper, 2014, 316), although Napoleon may have lost 30,000 men during the battle on June 18, he estimated that he could field 300,000 a few days later. “All is not lost,” he wrote to his brother Joseph.

But it was, and this novel explores the reasons why. Sharpe’s Assassin follows Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe, the hero of more than twenty books and by now advanced to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, from Waterloo to Paris. Sharpe’s job is first to free an English spy being held in the town of Ham, then keep that spy safe as they travel to Paris, full of sullen citizens who still support the emperor (the return of the Bourbons in the form of King Louis XVIII pleases no one in this book) but are tired of fighting for him. Yet a small (fictional) secret group of loyalists known as La Fraternité (the Brotherhood) has sworn to protect Bonaparte in life and avenge him in death or defeat. Does the group exist in fact as well as in name? Does it really plan to assassinate the Allied leaders, starting with Wellington? Can Sharpe discover the members in time to prevent any such plot? And what will Sharpe himself do once the war that has consumed so much of his adult life finally staggers to its end?

Although the Sharpe series is Cornwell’s longest-running, the previous installment appeared in 2007. In the interim, we have made the acquaintance of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, the Saxon lord raised by Danes and adamant rejector of Christianity as a proper faith for warriors. Lord Uhtred has become the star of thirteen novels and a hit Netflix TV series, The Last Kingdom, now entering its fifth (and final) season. For those—like me—who first encountered Cornwell’s work through Uhtred, two things about this latest novel are important to know. First, you need not have read any of the previous Sharpe books to enjoy this one. Selected parts of the hero’s past are presented as needed, and the whole is easy to follow.

Second, Sharpe is not Uhtred, but he does resemble Uhtred in certain ways that should appeal to readers of the Last Kingdom series. Sharpe goes his own way, whatever orders he receives from the military brass. He has risen through the ranks from a disadvantaged background, making him both prickly about being given the respect he deserves and fiercely loyal to his men (most of whom come from the same social class that he does) and strong in their defense. He is smart and experienced, a man who fights hard when fighting becomes necessary but doesn’t embrace violence for its own sake.

Sharpe doesn’t quite have the complexity of Uhtred, the split loyalties that force the Saxon lord into constantly questioning what matters to him most. That makes Sharpe a little less interesting to someone like me, who skims through the war scenes in search of interpersonal conflicts and development. But Sharpe has his friends and foes, his loves and losses, his own version of split loyalties more appropriate to the early nineteenth century, which draw readers into his story. And the writers among us will appreciate Cornwell’s note at the end, where he mentions that Sharpe got to pick his own ending, which proved as much a surprise to the author as it perhaps does to the character. Sharpe’s story may not yet be over, but it does come to a place of rest—and the war-torn nations of Europe find a respite from their struggles as well.

Image: Jan Willem Pienamen, The Battle of Waterloo (1824), showing the hatless Duke of Wellington mounted in the center and the wounded Prince of Orange being carried from the field in the left foreground (an incident attributed to Sharpe in the novel)—public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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