Sharpe’s Trafalgar a Seafaring Breath of Fresh Air
By Kristin Battestella
After reading Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe India Trilogy, I was keen to move on to the next chronological tale, 2000’s Sharpe’s Trafalgar. As a Hornblower enthusiast, I wanted to see how landlubber Sharpe would take on this famous high seas adventure. There are a few hiccups, yes, but otherwise Trafalgar does its duty to the reader wonderfully.
It’s 1805 and Ensign Richard Sharpe is finally leaving
India on his return voyage to . His passage begins on the Calliope under Captain Peculiar Cromwell, but the unfriendly Captain and the snotty Lord William Hale make the trip unbearable for Sharpe. Thankfully, Sharpe’s quickly smitten by Lord William’s cold, seemingly sickly and distant wife Lady Grace. When the French warship Revenant captures Calliope, all hope of Romance and England is almost lost. Fortunately, Captain Chase and his Pucelle reclaim the Calliope, and the Pucelle’s vengeful pursuit of the Revenant opens new adventures for Sharpe. He learns what its like to be a ship bound marine, flirts dangerously in romance with Lady Grace, and ends up fighting in a little battle off England Cape Trafalgar.
Recently, I don’t have as much time to read straight through a book as I’d like. However, my father was in the hospital when I first started Trafalgar, and my days having to be still and quiet in his room allowed me plenty of time with Sharpe. I tore through most of the novel- as opposed to some of the weaker recent books like Sharpe’s Fury where I found myself skipping around looking for the good parts. Thanks to the storyline and my bound reading situation, Trafalgar reminded me very much of one of my favorite and most read books, Lieutenant Hornblower. I remembered the first time I read Lieutenant Hornblower- stuck in detention at school, trying desperately not to fall asleep as I read Hornblower’s wild
Caribbean adventure under a mad and crazy Captain Sawyer and his subsequent ill adjustment to land life playing whist. (I could talk for hours about Lieutenant Hornblower, so I’ll just stop there! I actually have a cat named Mr. Bush, that’s all I’m saying.)
The different ship experiences in Trafalgar-both positive and negative for Sharpe- capture the creepy, tedium, monotony, and cramped living of seafaring life whilst also highlighting the high seas mystique, homebound excitement, and adventure of the unknown. We are learning so much about Richard by seeing him as the proverbial army fish living the navy lifestyle. For the first time since beginning my readings with Sharpe’s Gold, I feel like we’ve been personally with Sharpe, knowing his yearning, plans, and desires. Even in the
trilogy where he was alone without Harper and the rest of his rifleman pals, we still had too many viewpoints and villains to really get to know the budding Sharpie. Here in Trafalgar, however, we spend most of the novel with nothing to do but follow Sharpe. I felt his impatient tedium and angry vengeance right there in that hospital room. I was there pursuing the Revenant with Sharpe and learning the ropes of the Pucelle. This is what a book is supposed to do, and it’s downright refreshing! India
Lady Grace is also a cool dame-chronologically the first real relationship we’ve seen for Richard. There have been other sexcapades and relations based on the situations of the time in
, but this feels like a real romance for Sharpe at last. First, he is obsessed with the aristocratic lady on board, and his cabin fever-like risks make for great reading. It’s not a lovely dovey romance here- the delicate stance the couple treads is mixed with the usual heavy we expect from Sharpe. When he gets his girl, we then see the confident, intelligent Grace emerge through Sharpe. Grace and the relationship are well developed-even if it’s a foolhardy affair. She’s witty and charming compared to her limp fish husband Lord William, but we can’t deny the hot scandal putting the entire Pucelle at risk. I dare say Sharpe is even a little unlikeable when it comes to protecting his adulterous actions. He’s a throttling, vengeful force that should be feared-and it’s strange to see that his battlefield fury can also be used socially, even lustfully if he feels so passionately. India
Of course, now that we’re at sea, we have the usual cast of characters onboard ship- swarthy sailors, corrupt politicians, scary surgeons, and vile Frenchmen. It’s not always easy to tell where everyone’s allegiances lie- and this makes Sharpe’s lengthy journey perilous and entertaining. Captain Chase is a wonderfully good hearted man who takes a liking to Sharpe, but Captain Peculiar Cromwell is just that, a little too peculiar to be an honest man. Brawny gunner Cloutier is a little stereotypical, but also well written as the seemingly low but loyal and heroic brute with exceptional and deadly skill. The dedication Sharpe takes in him is almost as confounding to Cloutier as Chase’s attention to the supposedly low Sharpe. On a ship, it seems action oriented talent like Sharpe’s is rewarded amid the ship’s hierarchy- rather than shunned or snubbed by the army officers who resent his rise from the ranks.
Naturally, there wouldn’t be a point in calling a book Trafalgar if you weren’t going to have Admiral Nelson make an appearance. It’s a neat portrayal. The reverence Nelson had from his peers is instantly made known-along with his more scandalous behaviors-but his small stature, gentile and warm-hearted style touch Sharpe. It’s not treated as obligatory or hokey when the famous ‘
confides that every man will do his duty’ signal comes to the fictional Pucelle. Again, it’s all very Hornblower-esque, somber and written in multiple layers. Instead of spelling everything out for his reader like Cornwell sometimes does with his research and information, the scenes with Nelson are quiet, reflective, and tightly written. Space for the reader to reflect and emote is allowed amid the unspoken lines. Not only is the setting akin to the Hornblower series, but some of Cornwell’s finer writing here is almost as good as C.S. Forester’s work. England
Unfortunately, yet again the ending of Sharpe’s Trafalgar doesn’t live up to the lovely adventure of the rest of the novel. We spend the first eleven chapters almost exclusively in Sharpe’s point of view-only to have the last chapter of battle action break down into nameless French viewpoints, stern to starboard action, and intrigue in the Pucelle’s lady hole. I like the seafaring battle action-perhaps even more so than the Napoleonic proper retellings- but it’s just a little too broad and impersonal after all that intimate Richard time. Sharpe, the Pucelle, and Revenant weren’t even at the Battle of Trafalgar after all; yet like so many other big battle sequences in recent Sharpe books, I had to ask myself again, ‘Where’s Sharpe?’ How can we spend an entire naval voyage from
to Trafalgar in his point of view only to have him disappear for extended chunks of the main battle? We know how Captain Chase feels, what the nameless wounded French guy bleeding out on the deck is thinking, we see what ships on the other side of the battle theater are doing-but we don’t always know where Sharpe is in the action. For all the historical research, we’re dealing with fictional men on fiction ships- stick to them! Trafalgar wraps up much too quickly-with the simplicity of tossing the loose plot strings overboard, literally. Naturally, a few things should be left for the follow up Sharpe’s Prey, but the whole point of this homeward bound journey was to go home, wasn’t it? If the point was the deviation for Trafalgar, the battle should have happened a lot sooner than the last two chapters. India
Despite the unraveled ending, Trafalgar is one of the more tightly written books in the series, and one of the finest since the original canon books. I imagine those who prefer the Peninsular Sharpe action might not like the naval lessons here, but fans of the initial Sharpe books should definitely try this similar but different taste of naval action. Readers of Hornblower or Patrick O’Brien will absolutely delight. In some ways, I can image an entire series with Sharpe as an army man stranded on a frigate always facing adventure. I suppose that may show my true leanings towards Our Man Horatio, but this is the first time we’ve really seen Sharpe alone and out of his element- just like Hornblower always thought himself to be. Oh how I’d love to see a crossover movie between these series! Though I don’t have the next chronological book Sharpe’s Prey, I’m eager to continue reading on with Sharpe’s Rifles. Despite being in the middle of the chronology, uninitiated viewers can meet Sharpe in this relatively stand-alone sea epic as well. Return to Sharpe and relive Trafalgar as your final beach read this summer.