Sharpe’s Trafalgar

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Fans of historical fiction everywhere are familiar with the work of Bernard Cornwell, whose prolific output chronicles the army career of Richard Sharpe in the Napoleonic wars. Sharpe’s Trafalgar, the seventeenth volume in the series, shifts to the hero’s early years in the army, just as he is returning to England by sea to join the 95th Rifles. Though this young army officer may seem out of his element on a ship, Sharpe soon reveals the two passions of his life and hence the series: romance and war.

Returning to England from India with a small fortune in jewels and an officer’s commission, Richard Sharpe gains passage aboard the Calliope, an East Indiaman with a merchant convoy. Along the way, Sharpe breaks the tedium of the long voyage by impregnating Grace Hale, the wife of Sir William Hale, a powerful official in the British government. The irrepressible ensign then proceeds to strangle Sir William’s secretary when the latter attempts blackmail, hops aboard a passing British frigate, and goes on to take part in Admiral Lord Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar. Without much ado, he vanquishes foes both personal and national, and the novel’s conclusion finds him headed home with Mrs. Hale all his own.

Cornwell’s book is undeniably entertaining, and one cannot help but cheer for a hero who has risen from the bottom of British society. However, Sharpe’s Trafalgar is not without problems. The book is poorly edited, with the result that typographical errors and anachronistic language abound. More serious, though, is the shallowness of Cornwell’s characters, who often seem to be talking stick figures. Bernard Cornwell is sometimes likened to Patrick O’Brian, whose own Aubrey/Maturin novels set a new standard in historical military fiction. Cornwell is no O’Brian, but that will not matter to those who want to see Sharpe in action yet again.