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  • Lance Mannion
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« D'Artagnan in his fortieth year | Main | A Penance for Tom Mallory »


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mac macgillicuddy

There's an old joke: A guy walks into a bar and sits on his usual barstool, orders his usual. He looks down the length of the bar and sees a familiar face at the other end. "Hey," he says, "that guy must be a real drunk. He's here every night!"


“(...) I am broad-minded. If Uncle George wants to marry waitresses, let him, say I. I hold that the rank is but the penny stamp — ”

“Guinea stamp, sir.”

“All right, guinea stamp. Though I don’t believe there is such a thing. I shouldn’t have thought they came higher than five bob. Well, as I was saying, I maintain that the rank is but the guinea stamp and a girl’s a girl for all that.”

Tom W.

OK, that's twice on the O'Brian tweakage, my friend - I may be called upon to respond! (At some point - soon - maybe).


I concur. Seriously, Lance, how can you deride the epic poem of the age of wooden ships and iron men? (To paraphrase, not seriously, Takakura Kan's admonition about giri in The Yakuza, a man without a collection of Aubrey-and-Maturins is not a man.)

I'd never suspect you of condemning O'Brian for some of his more Tory fans (that Scalia thing was a bitter drink, much like William Buckley's endorsement of the movie), but do his occasionally old-fashioned attitudes put you off? Does his style?



Great joke.

Tom, Rasselas, I didn't slight O'Brian or Lucky Jack and the good doctor. I just said I enjoy reading the Sharpe books more. In fact, in the next sentence I praised the series for its psychological realism. But, still, Tom, I think you should respond with a defense of O'Brian. I'd like to read more of your thoughts on Aubrey and Maturin.

And, Ras, normally I hate to get a literary allusion wrong, but when it results in a correction from Wodehouse, I'm only too happy to need the edit.

rameau's nephew

If you enjoy both Aubrey and Sharpe, you should join us at one of the Forts Niagara, George or Erie for a rousing good time. Sleep under white canvas, drink port around a fire with a wool capote for warmth. Kids welcome, and I'll arrange a musket for your place on the line, or a job on an artillery crew if you'd prefer.

Being a fan of Sharpe (the Platonic Ideal for many Napoleonic/1812 reenactors) you would be welcomed with open arms, but you'd hate their politics - I know after the past 9 years moving in those circles that I do. You could help support me as I bescoundrel our current King George to the refugees from the reality based community.

Harper or Maturin? please discuss.


Of all the books you're discussing here, I've only read Patrick O'Brien's books and far from all of them.
You might be interested in this, however: A few years ago, a group of friends invited us to watch the tall boats sailing north along the Hudson as I inferred they do every year. During the picnic, the men and women argued about Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey-and-Maturins series, including a few of the additions, with the men insisting, like Rasselas above, that the books were "men's books" and the women advocating the series as a woman's provenence. At first, the idea struck me as similar to your disagreement, Lance, with people who advocate particular works of art for people who are politically right wing versus art that enriches the politcally left. But then, try assigning a teen-age girl to read, Conrad's "Heart of Darkness;" or a boy, "Anna Karenina." Nine out of ten times, neither will follow the work at all, insisting it's boring.
As to Patrick O'Brien, the fact that within this social group, the men wanted to claim his books as theirs and the women wanted the same books stacked on their side of the divide demonstrates the silliness of their argument at the start. Or maybe (I'm still undecided), maybe not.

Mr. Shakes

Well, Mannion. I must say I'm very surprised to discover that you enjoy Cornwell more than O'Brian. Of course, that's not to say you're "wrong" to do so - it's a subjective opinion, after all - but I'd be curious to hear your reasons why.

I don't think there can be any question that O'Brian is the more gifted writer. As you say, the psychological realism and depth that O'Brien lends to his characters is superior, and it seems to me that in every category which a writer can be qualitatively judged O'Brian is the greater man. His historical setting is more authentically realised; his plotting more intricate; his dialogue more engaging; his ideas are more profound, and all the while his pages turn just as fast as those of Cornwell. I even found O'Brian's big set-pieces more heart poundingly exciting, and action is what Cornwell excels at (and is what I enjoyed most about the Sharpe novels). However, as good as Sharpe's Waterloo was, for me it was forgettable next to the storming of the Cacafuego, or Stephen's midnight landings on the French beaches.

The impression you give is that you probably wouldn't argue too much with any of these points. You said that you "like" Cornwell more, not that you thought he was the better writer. So is there a particular aspect of O'Brian's work that just turns you off a little, or is there something about the Sharpe series that resonates with you personally? As I said, it surprised me to learn you enjoy Cornwell more, especially given your obvious interest in the psychological interplay between characters and the moral quandaries that exist in the relations between men and women (a subject that O'Brian explores extensively).

Pray elucidate, kind Sir.


Mr Shakes,

You are correct, sir. But I think I need a whole post to address your points. This will require some reading too. I'm going to have to re-read Post Captain and Sharpe's Trafalgar today. Sigh. Homework. It's such hard work being a blogger.


As a fellow fan of the Sharpe books, does anyone else crack up at the repeated theme of Sharpe's identifying some useful piece of clothing or equipment, and then slaughtering half the French army to get it? The good boots, the green coveralls (two pairs of these if I remember correctly), the sword... I can reduce my father to tears of helpless laughter by relating an imaginary scene from one of the books in which two French officers are watching Sharpe from a distance: "Hmm, what is the Englishman doing? He appears to be looking over here... perhaps at your greatcoat, Jean? Now he's looking down at his own coat... poor and cheap... he shivers in the cold wind. Sacre bleu, it's Sharpe! Drop the coat and fly, it is our only chance!"



It doesn't just work on your father!

Gonna be a long time before I can read Sharpe again without laughing. Thanks a lot.

Dave Bell

I think the Sharpe series does suffer from the prequels. They have to have a pattern of Sharpe going through bad times, and yet still finishing as better off than when the book started. And that means they have to drag down his origins.

Right from the start of the series, there are Riflemen who are educated men, but not gentlemen, and they are enough real memoirs from the Rifle Brigade to support the existence of such a character.

The TV material also loses some of the knowledge of the warfare of the time. There are a few big re-enactment events, here in the UKm where they get enough people together to set of something close to a battalion volley. Cornwell gets more of the feel of such things (again supported ny memoirs and letters) than the TV productions can afford to depict.

And Sir Charles Oman got it wrong: it wasn't the arithmetic of line vs. column that won the battles. It wasn't the casualty difference from 600 men in 2-deep line being all able to fire, compared to that column with a 60-man front.

The tactic which defeated the French so often, "in the same old way", was the column coming over the crest, receiving a volley at close range, and seeing a mob of screaming maniacs with bayonets coming out of the smoke.

Cornwell catches some of that. O'Brien catches the naval equivalent, and so does the movie. But the TV, Sharpe or Hornblower, rarely does.

There's a certain mythic status for the bayonet in the British Army, but it atill works.

Anna in Portland (was Cairo)

Wow. You know, it never occurred to me to compare the Dumas novels to the Sharpe page-turners. I loved the Sharpe books. My 13 year old son loved the Sharpe books. (He also likes Dumas. And Alexander Hope. You get the idea.) It is true, Dumas was the genrefiction of his time. That makes me feel a bit less guilty for reading Sharpe. In a generation or so it may even be taught in high schools! I don't read silly fiction! I read literature.

I do think it is kind of neat that reading such books gives you insights into history, though, even if it is sort of a overly-close-up look into it (knowing too much about how Baker rifles worked and not a lot about the overall reasons for why, e.g., the British went into Denmark in that one prequel Sharpe book). My son and I consider ourselves experts on the Napoleonic wars, now.


I think the Sharpe series does suffer from the prequels. They have to have a pattern of Sharpe going through bad times, and yet still finishing as better off than when the book started. And that means they have to drag down his origins.

And they're also inconsistent with the beginning of the original series. In Sharpe's Rifles, he's a quartermaster who knows that his superiors and his men despise him for coming up from the ranks, and that his military career is going nowhere -- he's aging (probably supposed to be under 30, but too old for his rank) and depressed and in a dead end. The hero of the original series is someone turning a stalled life around.

The prequels make him an unstoppable golden boy on a meteoric trajectory upward -- while the sequence of events from the prequels to SR is possible, the character arc is really unlikely.



I don't think the character arc is as unlikely as all that. It depends on what other stories Cornwell decides to put between Sharpe's Fortress and Sharpe's Prey. Sharpe is definitely on a personal downward slope in Sharpe's Prey. Lady Grace's death has devastated him, for one thing. But he has also hit a wall in his career, very probably caused by his romance with Lady Grace.

Golden Boys hit walls all the time. This is what this quote from Dumas' Twenty Years After is about: D'Artagnan didn't go on from the apparent happy ending of The Three Musketeers to a career of success after success. In fact, he's been stuck in the same spot for nearly 20 years. Maybe Cornwell's done a better job of reading Dumas than I gave him credit for.

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