Tag Archives: 19th century

“The Idiot,” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

27 Aug

“The Idiot,” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (597p)1

The Idiot is considered one of Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s masterpieces. Dostoyevsky is a literary giant from the Golden Age of Russian literature in the 19th century – The Idiot was first published in 1869 in St. Petersburg, later being published into English after the turn of the century. The Idiot is the story of Prince Lev Myshkin, an “imperfectly perfect man”, and his return to Russia following convalescence for his idiocy (epilepsy), where upon he is thrust into the middle of a struggle between a right kept woman and a gorgeous, virtuous girl, both after his affection.

(plot summary from SparkNotes)
Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin, a fair-haired young man in his late twenties and a descendant of one of the oldest Russian lines of nobility, arrives in St. Petersburg on a November morning. He has spent the last four years in a Swiss clinic fir treatment of his “idiocy” and epilepsy. Myshkin’s only relation in St. Petersburg is the very distant Lizaveta Prokofyevna Yepanchin. Madame Yepanchin is the wife of General Yepanchin, a wealthy and respected man in his late fifties. The prince makes the acquaintance of the Yepanchins, who have three daughters, Alexandra, Adelaida, and Aglaya, the latter being the youngest and the most beautiful. General Yepanchin has an ambitious and rather vain assistant by the name of Gavril Ardalyonovich Ivolgin (nicknamed Ganya) whom Myshkin also meets during his visit to the household. Ganya, though he is actually in love with Aglaya, is in the midst of trying to marry Anastassya Filippovna Barashkov, an extraordinarily beautiful “fatal woman” who was once the mistress of the aristocrat Totsky. Totsky has promised Ganya 75,000 rubles if he marries the “fallen” Nastassya Filippovna. As Myshkin is so innocent and naïve, Ganya openly discusses the subject of the proposed marriage in front of the prince.

The prince rents a room in the Ivolgin apartment, also occupied by Ganya, his sister, Varvara Ardalyonovna (Varya); his mother, Nina Alexandrovna; teenage brother, Nikolai (Kolya); his father, General Ivolgin; and another lodger by the name of Ferdyshchenko. Nastassya Filippovna arrives and attempts to insult Ganya’s family, which has refused to accept her as a possible wife for Ganya. Myshkin, however, stops her, putting her behavior to shame. Suddenly a rowdy crowd of drunks and rogues arrives, headed by Parfyon Semyonovich Rogozhin, a dark-haired twenty-seven-year-old who is passionately in love with Nastassya Filippovna. Rogozhin promises to bring 100,000 rubles to Nastassya Filippovna’s birthday party scheduled for that evening at which she is to announce whether she will marry Ganya or not. Among the guests at the party are Totsky, General Yepanchin, Ganya, Ferdyshchenko, Ptitsyn—a usurer friend of Ganya’s who is a suitor to Varya Ivolgin—and a few others. With the help of Kolya, Prince Myshkin arrives as well, though uninvited. Following the prince’s advice, Nastassya Filippovna refuses Ganya’s proposal. Rogozhin arrives with the promised 100,000 rubles, but suddenly Myshkin himself offers to marry Nastassya Filippovna, announcing that he has recently learned he has a large inheritance. Though shocked at such a generous offer by an honest and generous heart, Nastassya Filippovna only deems herself worthy of being with Rogozhin, so she leaves the party with Rogozhin and his gang.

Prince Myshkin spends the next six months following Nastassya Filippovna as she runs from Rogozhin to the prince and back. Myshkin’s inheritance turns out to be smaller than expected, and it shrinks further as he satisfies the claims of creditors and alleged relatives, many of which are fraudulent. Finally, the Prince returns to St. Petersburg and visits Rogozhin’s house, which is a dark and dreary place. They discuss religion and exchange crosses. However, later that day, Rogozhin attempts to stab Myshkin in the hall of the prince’s hotel, but the prince is saved when he has a sudden epileptic fit. Several days later, Myshkin leaves for Pavlovsk, a nearby town popular for summer residence among St. Petersburg nobility. The prince rents several rooms from Lebedev, a rogue functionary. Most of the novel’s characters—the Yepanchins, the Ivolgins, Varya and her husband Ptitsyn, and Nastassya Filippovna—spend the summer in Pavlovsk as well.

Burdovsky, a young man who claims himself to be the son of Myshkin’s late benefactor, Pavlishchev, comes to the prince and demands money from him as a “just” reimbursement for Pavlishchev’s support of the Prince. Burdovsky is supported by a group of insolent young men who include the consumptive seventeen-year old Hippolite Terentyev, a friend of Kolya Ivolgin. Although Burdovsky’s claim is obviously fraudulent—he is not Pavlishchev’s son at all—Myshkin is ready and willing to help Burdovsky financially.

The prince spends much of his time at the Yepanchins’. Soon, those around him realize that he is in love with Aglaya and that she most likely returns his feelings. However, a haughty, willful, and capricious girl, she refuses to admit her love for Prince Myshkin, and often even openly mocks him. Aglaya’s family begins to treat him as her fiancé, and they even hold a dinner party with many renowned guests who are members of Russian high society. Myshkin, during the course of an agitated and ardent speech on religion and the future of aristocracy, accidentally breaks a beautiful Chinese vase. Later in the evening he has a mild epileptic fit. The guests and the family are convinced that the seemingly sickly prince is not a good match for Aglaya.

Aglaya, however, does not renounce Myshkin, and even arranges a meeting between herself and Nastassya Filippovna, who has been writing letters to Aglaya to convince her to marry Myshkin. During this meeting, the two women force the Prince to choose between his romantic love for Aglaya and his compassionate pity-love for Nastassya Filippovna. Myshkin hesitates briefly, which prompts Aglaya to run off, breaking all hope of an engagement between them. Nastassya Filippovna wishes to marry the Prince again, but in the end she proves unable to bring herself to do so, instead running off with Rogozhin at the last minute. The Prince follows the two to St. Petersburg the next day and finds that Rogozhin has stabbed Nastassya Filippovna during the night. The two men keep vigil over her body, which Rogozhin has laid out in his study. The epilogue relates that Rogozhin is sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor in Siberia, that Prince Myshkin loses his mind and returns to the Swiss sanitarium, and that Aglaya leaves Russia with a Polish count who lies to her and soon abandons her.
(end plot summary)

This was the second Dostoyevsky book I have read (the first was Crime and Punishment), bought from a second-hand bookstore in the city for $6. So I knew what I was getting myself in for tackling one of Dostoyevsky’s novels, particularly as I was only 19 at the time I read The Idiot. It wasn’t easy to read and I found it one of the more challenging novels I have ever read. A lot of the difficulty I had with The Idiot was the pace of the novel, which moved at the speed of a tortoise on a sedative. It is certainly a departure to what I am used to reading, then and now, but I found a lot of Dostoyevsky’s narrative to be completely boring. Boring and unnecessary and pointless. There is one scene; I forget where specifically, but at length a description of a veranda (porch) was given that went for three or four pages. Every little minute detail was put in front of me, but it was boring and not needed and I didn’t care.

Was it something I was missing? Is this sort of thing a hallmark of Russian literature I simply don’t get? I don’t know, it was this sort of humdum narrative that gradually turned me off The Idiot the more I read. I grew to dislike it the longer it went and for some reason, I kept reading until I eventually finished it. Forcing yourself to finish a novel is never a good sign you enjoyed it – and, to be honest, I didn’t. I liked it at the start and enjoyed some of the characters but the longer it went on the more I wanted to put it down and call it quits. The part spent at a summer retreat was painful and the part I hated most. I didn’t necessarily hate The Idiot, but I didn’t really like it all that much either and I was glad to have it finished when I finally did. Thank god I bought it for $6 …

It’s probably wrong of me to trash something of Dostoyevsky’s like this. Who am I to say this when Dostoyevsky is hailed as one of the greatest writers of all-time, a giant among giant Russian authors? I don’t know, maybe I’m not intelligent enough or have the patience to appreciate a work such as The Idiot, but I didn’t like it all that much. That is fairly obvious. By all means, read it yourself. I’m not discrediting Dostoyevsky and doubting his place in literature, but for me … eh, it’s just not my thing. I’ll stick to what I know and love I think.

4/10.

1 page length depends on which translation you have, mine is the 1913 translation by Constance Garnett.

“Sharpe’s Company,” by Bernard Cornwell

16 Feb

“Sharpe’s Company,” by Bernard Cornwell (332p)

Richard Sharpe and the Siege of Badajoz, January-April 1812

The third novel he had ever written, and originally published in 1982, Sharpe’s Company continues the story of British Rifleman Richard Sharpe during the Napoleonic Wars. It is a new year, 1812, the most tumultuous year of the Napoleonic wars, and Britain is finally ready to march into Spain itself. Standing in its way were the twin fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and the monstrous, towering citadel of Badajoz, which the British must take if it were to drive France out of occupied Spain.

The story begins with the assault on Ciudad Rodrigo, which was the northern barrier into Spain. Sharpe and Harper lead an assault on the French and are apart of the party which successfully breaches into the city, overwhelming the French defenders and capturing Ciudad Rodrigo. Unfortunately, during the assault Sharpe’s commander and long-time friend Col. William Lawford is severely wounded when a mine is detonated, losing an arm and retires from his post as commander of the regiment. Sharpe, saddened by the lose of his friend, has new issues to worry about as Lawford’s departure meant a new colonel would arrive, and that also placed Sharpe’s captaincy (his gazette had yet to be confirmed) over the Light Company in severe jeopardy. It gets worse for Sharpe, though, when his old enemy, Obadiah Hakeswill makes his return. Hakeswill’s hatred of Sharpe and Sharpe’s of Hakeswill sees them soon feuding when Hakeswill makes his first attempts to wrap the Light Company around his fingers by attempting to rape Sharpe’s mistress and the mother of his child, Teresa Moreno.

Lawford’s replacement, Col. Windham, arrives into camp as Sharpe finished dealing with Hakeswill. With him is Sharpe’s replacement: Cap. Rymer. Sharpe is demoted back to lieutenant and placed in charge of the baggage train as the regiment digs trenches around Badajoz. While visiting the men the French attack but neither side is able to use its weapons due to the rain and it turns into a fight with shovels and spades, eventually seeing the French attackers run back to the city. But in Sharpe’s absence the baggage train had been ransacked – by Hakeswill – and the sergeant made his move against Harper, planting a prized possession of the colonel’s in Harper’s belongings. Harper is flogged sixty times as punishment and demoted to private, handing full control of the company to Hakeswill as Rymer is incapable of leadership.

As Britain prepares for its assault on Badajoz, Windham is charged with leading an expedition to blow up a section of the fortifications. Before the attack, Harper’s seven-barrelled gun, a gift from Sharpe, is taken from him by Hakeswill, as it is a non-regulation weapon. When the Light Company takes longer than expected Windham sends Sharpe to find out the cause of the delay. Sharpe arrives to see the Light Company doing nothing due to Rymer’s incompetence. Sharpe fires at a French sentry and decides to blow the wall himself. Riflemen give him cover fire as he attempts to light the fuse on the powder barrels and barrels explode, but the wall is too strong to be destroyed. As Sharpe falls back into the dam he is shot in the leg by Hakeswill, using Harper’s seven-barrelled gun, until being rescued by Harper.

Sharpe recovers from his wounds quickly enough but is dealt another blow by Windham – he is removed from the company all together under the pretence of allowing Rymer to gain control of the Light Company. Hakeswill continues to control the company, however, and soon sees to it that the Rifleman attached to the South Essex<sup>1</sup> are stripped of their honours, rifles and green jackets, and all returned to the level of redcoat privates. Sharpe intervenes and humiliates Hakeswill by pretending to shoot him with the discarded rifles, to which Hakeswill vows revenge by getting to Teresa, who is in Badajoz, before Sharpe does. Sharpe seemingly might not even be participating in the battle after Wellington picks his brain over the strength of the breach; the general refuses Sharpe’s request to lead the Forlorn Hope (called forlorn as it meant certain death, “somebody has to go first”) and instead will guide those men into position and falling back. Wellington explains his reason to Sharpe as he thinks Sharpe is too valuable otherwise sacrifice during an attack which will likely result in a heavy loss of life.

Sharpe nevertheless ignores Wellington’s order and finds his way back to the Light Company. Upon arrival he finds them devastated by cannon fire, Rymer dead and Windham attempting to lead the attack on the breach. Sharpe resumes leadership of the company and takes them over the breach. Captain Knowles, Sharpe’s old lieutenant, is the first into Badajoz and his men overrun the remaining French defenders and begin to break into homes, raping women and pillaging and destroying. Hakeswill had also managed to climb into Badajoz after conveniently disappearing during the siege, and armed with a bayonet and pistol he sets off in the direction of Teresa Moreno’s home. Knowles reached Teresa’s house first but Hakeswill, who had been following, climbed to the upstairs room where the baby Antonia is and as Knowles enters, Hakeswill shoots him. He then threatens to kill the baby unless Teresa has sex with him as Sharpe and Harper had fought their way across Badajoz. They meet Hakeswill face-to-face in Teresa’s bedroom, only wresting away the child and Teresa when Harper provokes Hakeswill’s madness, but the rogue sergeant escapes through a window, running off into the Spanish night as a deserter. Following the siege Harper is returned as a sergeant and the riflemen have their green jackets returned to them, and Sharpe is praised for his bravery and loyalty, now officially made a captain of his Light Company.

I liked Sharpe’s Company quite a lot. It is one of the Sharpe novels written before the series really took off, still in Cornwell’s infancy as a writer. Thus, like all the early Sharpe novels, it’s a simple story with an easy to follow plot. By no means is it a by the numbers adventure tale – which, unfortunately, some of the later Sharpe novels closer resemble – because in Sharpe’s Company, Cornwell began to properly expand the character and his world by introducing more side characters with their own backgrounds and roles to the story. Hakeswill represents this and would later become extended beyond just the one novel, becoming Cornwell’s favourite villain. Other developments to Sharpe’s character also include facing adversity from within the army, which I enjoyed as something different because at times Sharpe’s independence and free will of the norm is often taken to beyond believable lengths. In Sharpe’s Company he is often brought back down to earth and that’s an important aspect to any character’s development. So to is the emphasis on the bond Sharpe has with his men because such a bond is a crucial side to successful groups of men. Cornwell went to great lengths to explain how and why Sharpe has such a command of the Light Company, a change from the common mistrust and feelings of lack of support that he endured in the earlier novels.

Easy to read, Sharpe’s Company is certainly up there among my favourites in the Sharpe series. There is a certain rawness to the story and the feel of the novel itself that, I think, many fans of this genre and novels like this will find appealing. Obviously, if you had read the previous Sharpe’s there is no reason for you to stop as the remaining novels – the “original series” – are all fantastic. As I always say when reviewing Sharpe novels is if this review has interested you into reading the Sharpe series than go back to the start and read from there. While this novel would actually be great as a stand-alone anyway you would be really missing out on what is a truly fantastic historical fiction series by one of this generation’s great storytellers.

8.5/10.

“Flashman at the Charge,” by George MacDonald Fraser

23 May

“Flashman at the Charge,” by George MacDonald Fraser (321p)

1854-1855: Crimean War and the Charge of the Light Brigade, and the Conquest of Central Asia

Flashman at the Charge is the fourth in the late George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series of a false-memoir detailing the life and times of the heroic but cowardly Harry Flashman. Written in 1973, Flashman at the Charge takes Flashman to the front of the Crimean War and details his involvement in not only the suicidal Charge of the Light Brigade but also his exploits on the wild steppe frontier of Central Asia.

Britain and her continental allies were hurtling toward war with Russia, with disputes over sovereign authority of the Holy Land at the heart of it (for more, go here). Flashman, meanwhile, is kicking about on half-pay while scheming to prepare his way out of the inevitable conflict by taking up a position with the Ordnance Board. All seems to be going well until Flashman’s reputation as a gallant and valiant officer comes to the attention of Prince Albert, where Flashman is tasked by the prince consort to be the guardian and mentor of one of Victoria’s cousins, Prince William of Celle. Despite his every attempt to avoid it Flashman and Prince William are soon packed off to the war front so the young prince can experience what war is all about. Prince William is soon killed at the Alma and Flashman himself falls desperately ill with cholera, recovering only in time to rejoin his aide-de-camp duties on the 25th of October; the day of Balaclava and the day of the most infamous cavalry charge in history.

Flashy’s day starts off in the usual fashion as disaster quickly befalls him. While carrying messages across the battlefields he finds himself trapped with Colin Campbell’s 93rd Highlanders as the Russian cavalry attacked, and then with Scarlett’s heavy brigade as they chased the Russian cavalry uphill in a daring charge. All the while Flashman just wants to go and have a lie down with his stomach still ailing him terribly. He almost manages to get away from further duty after Raglan sends an order to Cardigan in the care of Louis Nolan until needing to add further instruction to his order, so he sends Flashman after Nolan to catch him. Unknowingly, Flashman was about to see himself thrown into the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade. He survives, somehow, but is taken prisoner by the Russians. Flashman is at first bundled off to a makeshift prisoner of war camp away from the battlefield, but as an officer he is then transferred to be a hostage (more like a guest) at the home of a trusted landowner in the Ukrainian countryside.

At the home of Count Pencherjevsky Flashman is reunited with Harry “Scud” East (from Tom Brown’s Schooldays), also taken prisoner, and spends many weeks in the company of the Cossack Count Pencherjevsky and his family, including his daughter Valentina, who Flashman is unable to resist spending a few late night’s with in the bedroom. One such late night sees Flashman and the curious Scud East, curious of the constant arrivals of other guests to the Pencherjevsky house, chance upon a meeting of several Russian military and government officials planning an invasion of British-held India. When the opportunity arises Flashman and East escape, taking Valentina with them, and head off for the Crimea and the safety of the British army. They almost make it but Flashman is re-captured by Count Pavel Ignatiev and quickly locked up again, before taken across southern Russia and deep into Central Asia, blackmailed into acting as a double agent in Ignatiev’s scheme to end British rule in India.

While imprisoned at a fort on the Aral Sea coast Flashman meets Yakub Beg and Izzet Kutebar, two Tajik warlords and befriends them. They are soon rescued by Beg’s men and whisked off to the wild steppe (modern Uzbekistan) by Beg’s lover, a Chinese castout woman. There, Beg and his followers hatch a plan to halt the Russian advance over their own lands by performing a near-suicidal attack on the arriving magazine ships, thus destroying any hope of an immediate attack on the Central Asian khanates and eventually British India. Flashman, drugged with hashish, leads the attack and they are successful, allowing him to steal away from Ignatiev and flee into British India. The story is continued in Flashman and the Great Game.

I have always said this is my favourite Flashman novel and, having just re-read it for the third time, my opinion on that front has definitely not changed. I loved it again just as I did the first time. It is, as the endorsement on the front cover suggests, vintage Flashman. That means it is wildly entertaining, superbly written, historically accurate, engaging and engrossing, amusing and with perfect characterisation. Flashman himself is on the top of his game as Fraser presents the anti-hero in his usual swagger – cowardly, perpetually horny, deceptive, lecherous and resourceful. The way he paints the picture of Flashman trying to get his way out of doing anything remotely dangerous while maintaining his public face of a gallant hero, with Flashman’s own running commentary, makes for tremendously amusing reading and a number of laughs. The history is very strong as well and Fraser provides a first class account of the ineptitude of the Crimean War and the events that led to a cavalry charge headlong into artillery, this is bound to make for interesting reading for any history buff as it actually reads, as it always does, that Flashman was actually there and you can essentially take his word as gospel (why not? These books are so meticulously researched you wouldn’t be wrong to quote him).

As seems to be the case with the Flashman novels, Flashman at the Charge doubles as a social commentary of the nineteenth century as well. Flashman’s travels across southern Russia should give a unique insight into the life of a common Russian peasant and their pitiful existence of subversion and submission. In addition, there is a nice social commentary on the state of the officer corps within the British army at the time (which was soon to change following the disastrous Crimean War) and the spirit of the steppe people, which is a welcome change to the present bad press people from that part of the world receive in the modern age.

A first class and immensely enjoyable read. This is the very best of a brilliant series by an exceptionally talented author and one not to be missed.

10/10.

“Sharpe’s Battle,” by Bernard Cornwell

23 Jan

“Sharpe’s Battle,” by Bernard Cornwell
Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro, May 1811 (387p)

Sharpe’s Battle is the twelfth book in the Richard Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell. Written in 1995 at the behest of the production company behind the Sharpe television series (and thus out of order from the original series), it was ordered by them to provide added filler in the series and is dedicated to Sean Bean. It tells the story of the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro in May of 1811.

Sharpe and the rest of the South Essex had been tasked to do dull patrolling and scouting on the fringes of the Spanish-Portuguese frontier, a wild and lawless land where neither side had any control. The villages are deserted and people are scarce, but there is a reason for that – the detached French battalion of Brigade Loup, led by the ruthless Brigadier Guy Loup. Sharpe encounters Loup in a recently ravaged village, capturing two of his men caught raping teenage girls. Sharpe, without authorisation, orders them to be executed. Despite Loup’s pleas to hand the men over and allow him to discipline them, Sharpe carries out the executions by firing squad and makes an enemy of Loup off the bat, the fur skin covered Frenchmen swearing vengeance on Sharpe and his men. Back at army headquarters, Sharpe is tasked by Wellington to take temporary command of a Spanish guards regiment sent from the exiled King Ferdinand, the Real Compañía Irlandesa, and train them into proper troops. But that isn’t really the plan. Suspicion is rife that the guard is full of French spies and so Sharpe’s real task is to treat them so mercilessly and make them so miserable that the guardsmen resort to desertion rather than real army life.

The Real Companies Irlandesa is in fact a guard made up of Irish Catholic exiles (most of whom were Spanish born by several generations) and hopelessly inadequate for the task. Many desert on the first few nights while Sharpe butts heads with their insufferable commander, a womaniser drunkard who seeks glory by suicide named Lord Kiely. The fears of French spies are made true, as well, by the arrival of Doña Juanita de Elía, who is Kiely’s lover but also in the employ of the French spymaster, Pierre Ducos (Sharpe would meet him later). Sharpe’s attempts to organise the Real Companies Irlandesa prove nightmarish with desertion rife, useless weapons and inept commanders, but he opts to defy Wellington and Hogan and tries to make a unit out of them after all. Things start to improve until an American newspaper surfaces in the camp, proclaiming brutalities committed by British garrison soldiers in Dublin, which threatened to cause a mutiny among the Irish troops until Sharpe dismisses it as folly. Soon after, a Portuguese infantry battalion arrives at the fort and the following night, Loup attacks the fort. The Spanish and British hole up in the barracks, but the Portuguese infantry are butchered. Sharpe fears they are all doomed, but a massive explosion kills dozens of Loup’s attackers and he departs from the fort quickly. Sharpe and Harper discover that Tom Garrard, an old friend of Sharpe’s in Portuguese service, blew up ammunition carts, causing the explosion, and sacrificing himself in the process.

The Spanish demand an inquiry into the assault and Sharpe and Runciman are set up as a political sacrifice. To avoid this fate, Sharpe attacks Loup’s hideout, but Loup’s Battalion is missing because he has been tasked to join Marshal Andre Masséna, on the move to relieve the besieged fortress of Almeida and on a collision course with the Viscount of Wellington. Meanwhile, Lord Kiely has killed himself in disgrace and the true saboteur among the Real Compañía Irlandesa is revealed as Father Sarsfield, a close friend of Wolfe Tone. Sharpe is then set to administrative duties to guard the ammunition carts and is essentially barred from participating in the coming battle, but he still finds himself involved anyway and links up with “Black Bob” Crauford and the Light Division, finding himself at the summit of the battle where he enacts his revenge on Loup while Wellington wins narrowly his battle. With Loup dead and Masséna defeated there is to be no court of inquiry against Sharpe, leaving him exonerated and back in the good graces of Wellington’s army.

I did not mind the television version – which differs in its conclusion after the first attack by Loup – and I did not mind the novel version of Sharpe’s Battle either. However, it is far from the best in the series and I immediately got the impression Cornwell was writing within parameters. I am sure the production company, who made the request for it to be written, had some set ideas of what they wanted Cornwell to write and thus provide them with a basis of the story. Much of the dialogue from the film is taken straight from the novel. It is little wonder it is dedicated to Sean Bean because the dialogue in the novel was written for Sean Bean’s Richard Sharpe, not Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe that appears in the first series. That is often the main criticism levelled at the second series of Sharpe novels, that it is Sean Bean’s Sharpe in written form, and I can see where the character has changed, particularly because this was only written to be made into a movie. Mostly the change is in the dialogue because Sharpe never says “bloody this!” and “bloody that” every few sentences in, for instance, Sharpe’s Eagle, he doesn’t give inspirational speeches, and he is never that cocksure about himself around superiors and blue bloods out of the field. One of Sharpe’s most defining characteristics is his self criticism and immediate demur response to those above him, yet in the novel Sharpe brazenly talks in a way that would probably see him lose his commission in Sharpe’s Eagle. Simply because Sean Bean is allowed to do as such in the films.

As it is, the novel is fine, but it does have a bit of a “well okay” feeling to it at times. In the first half of the novel, before the producers changed the ending, I knew what would happen as I had already seen the film. No matter, I still enjoyed it enough. The action is what one can expect from Cornwell and the bloody and gritty battle of Fuentes de Oñoro makes for a captivating read in its own right, particularly since it is almost wholly told without Sharpe present. However, much of the business with the Real Compañía Irlandesa was often annoying and unnecessary, not to mention implausible – Sharpe even says as much. Just how on earth can an American newspaper be able to report on goings on in Ireland scarcely a month after they had happened and have a printed copy floating among the ranks in Spain? I didn’t get it, and even the most uneducated soldier would have realised it was a forgery. I would be willing to bet money, however, that that was a request from the production team and not something of Bernard Cornwell’s creation as he is far more inventive than that.

I doubt I would ever read Sharpe’s Battle again unless it takes me on a whim. Like I said, it is not a bad novel by any means. It is just a tad on the ho hum side. There were parts I really did enjoy and there were parts that I could have skipped. So should you read it? Well, it depends. If you are working your way through the series, like I am, then I guess it is probably the thing to do. But if you are a casual reader with no interest in reading the lot then don’t bother, Cornwell has written far better books than this one and it would be a shame to spoil your opinion of him.

6.5/10.

“Flash for Freedom!,” by George MacDonald Fraser

10 Jan

“Flash for Freedom!” by George MacDonald Fraser (332p)
1848-1849: The Atlantic Slave Trade and the Underground Railroad

The third instalment in the late George MacDonald Fraser’s popular Flashman series is Flash for Freedom!. Written in 1971, this third book, continuing the false-memoir of a Victorian hero who is a really a down right bastard, sees Flashman tell of his first visit to the United States in 1848. There, he deals with the slave trade and the difficulties in beating it with the Underground Railroad, meeting a number of interesting people along the way, like a young Abraham Lincoln.

Beginning almost immediately where Royal Flash finished, Flashman is back in England after his nightmare in Germany with Otto von Bismarck. All he wants to do is do what Flashman does best – drink, gamble, whore and enjoy himself and his wife’s pregnancy. But his malevolent father-in-law has other plans and wishes to have Flashman elected as a member of parliament to push his own agenda. So he arranges for Flashman to be taken to a party of political types, including Benjamin Disraeli, to meet and greet and make an impression. He does this as he always does and bluffs his way through, putting on a show for members of the Tory party that he could be a possible MP. But as is often the case for Flashman things go wrong, and so one night during a game of cards an old nemesis returns to get some revenge on him. Outraged, Flashman strikes out and almost kills the man, thus creating a scandal that would need him to be out of England for awhile again. So Morrison, his father-in-law, sees him placed on a supposed merchant ship as a worker and is whisked out of England within a matter of days of the scandal.

However, Flashman is in for a rude surprise when he settles into life aboard the merchant ship, captained by the eccentric Latin-sprouting John Charity Spring. The ship, the Balliol College, is no ordinary ship – it is a slave-runner. Flashman is thrown into the world of the still thriving Atlantic slave trade and becomes complicit in all those crimes. He is forced to accompany them to the Dahomey coast (modern Benin) where Captain Spring has arranged with the local tribal king, Gezo, a purchase of a few hundred slaves in exchange for a number of European goods, namely weapons. But during the meeting Spring tests the patience of the king’s famed Amazon warriors too much and they react violently when he tries to buy six of them, and a bloody chase sees Flashman and the rest of the crew of the Balliol College run for their lives to the ship. They escape, just, and head for the Mosquito Coast (modern Nicaragua) to unload the slaves and receive payment. Along the way Flashman details the horrors of life aboard for those slaves and creates an image of the dirty, cramped and stinking hell those people endured before more of the same on land. Flashman finds himself hating it more than he has ever hated anything else and is beyond relieved when the slaves are unloaded. The journey is almost over and only requires the transport of less than ten slaves-turned-prostitutes to the United States, which is illegal, when they are spotted and captured by the United States Navy.

As ever, Flashman thinks on his feet and immediately assumes the identity of a secret Royal Navy agent on board who had been spying on Captain Spring. He bluffs his way out of capture and is taken aboard the American vessel, immediately being taken to Washington. In the American capital he bluffs his way through a number of glaring eyes, save for one, belonging to Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln can sense Flashman isn’t who he says he is, but lets him go anyway, and allows Flashman to be taken to New Orleans for the adjudication of the Balliol College as a witness. But that would almost certainly reveal Flashman’s true identity and so he does what Flashman does best in that situation – he runs! Holding up in New Orleans for a few days, he is soon taken in by members of the infamous Underground Railroad, for his assumed identity is plenty well known. Flashman is roped into smuggling a former slave on the run, a slave who is also highly educated and whose intelligence is valued highly. He tries, but it, as usual, goes wrong and he flees to a secluded plantation in northern Mississippi where he takes work as a slave-driver for a few months, but that also goes wrong when the owner of the plantation catches Flashman in the middle of something (or, rather, someone) and he is forced to run again. This time he has another running slave with him, a woman named Cassy, and the two flee across the southern states, creating even more trouble, to the Mason-Dixon Line and Ohio.

They almost make it to Ohio via paddle steamer until they are spotted by slave-catchers and forced to run again, fleeing across half-frozen lakes and rivers and into friendly territory. In Portsmouth, Ohio they find refuge with Lincoln, in town for a debate on abolitionism. Lincoln sees Cassy a safe passage north and out of the United States to Canada, but does Flashman a real turn and orders him to return to New Orleans and be a witness against Captain Spring, which would almost certainly reveal Flashman’s complicity in all those crimes as well. With no way out he returns to New Orleans and sits the trial, only Flashman doesn’t exactly play ball with the United States government this time and ruins their case against Captain Spring. The story is later continued in Flashman and the Redskins.

This is a truly great novel and one of the best in the Flashman series. It is full of twists and turns that leave the reader flying through the pages at a very quick rate. The supporting cast in Flash for Freedom! is excellent, though. Fraser went to great lengths to create a supporting cast with so many interesting distinct personalities that are fleshed out. Each person Flashman meets has their own voice which gives the novel a fulfilling touch. In many ways Flash for Freedom! is a social commentary on pre-Civil War America and heavily covers the slave issue and abolitionism. I don’t doubt Fraser spent an immense amount of time researching to properly construct the pro/anti-slave sentiments throughout the novel and he certainly had a very good understanding of the system and how it worked. So in that respect is an enlightening look into pre-Civil War America told within the scope of a simple yet very enjoyable plot with a wonderful cavalcade of supporting characters helping Flashman along his way. I very much loved it.

Lastly, with the novel’s subject being the Atlantic slave trade and, in effective, a social commentary of a country hurtling toward a civil war over the slave trade, it is little surprise that during Flashman’s time aboard the slave-ship and in the American south there is a hell of a lot of racist dialogue. “N****r” appears throughout, as it should. As good as Flash for Freedom! is I would not recommend any person who becomes uncomfortable with that word and the sort of racism to be expected read this, for it will most definitely put you off it. It doesn’t bother me because “n****r” doesn’t have that impact on me due to where I was born and raised, but I completely understand why some people will not like hearing it. All the same, Flashman explains the hell that those people would have endured aboard the ship and then hears it himself from the runaway slaves he meets in his travels, and it is an eye opening experience for him and the reader. When he meets slave owners, slave runners and slave catchers it gives readers an idea of what life must have been life in that part of the world then and the sort of people who happily committed such violence against fellow humans, despite them not being considered human. He sees the racism they receive and it changes his character a little, but all the same it is very much there and will probably upset people sensitive to it.

9.5/10.

“Master and Commander,” by Patrick O’Brian

26 Dec

“Master and Commander,” by Patrick O’Brian (401p)

Following the death of C.S. Forester in 1968 publishers sought a replacement to the acclaimed Hornblower series of high-sea adventure tales, and so British author Patrick O’Brian was tasked with succeeding Hornblower with his series, the similarly acclaimed Aubrey-Maturin novels. Master and Commander is the first in the twenty part series, depicting the budding friendship between Captain Jack Aubrey and his ship’s doctor best friend, Stephen Maturin, as they trawl across the Mediterranean in King George’s Royal Navy.

It is 1800 and Jack Aubrey, a shipless lieutenant in Port Mahon, Minorca, is wasting away in port. Aubrey meets Stephen Maturin, a poor half-Irish and half-Catalan doctor and natural philosopher, at an evening concert at the Governor’s Mansion. The two of them do not quite get along during this first encounter. A duel almost occurs when Jack Aubrey gets elbowed by Maturin to stop humming while the string quartet is playing. Later that evening, on his way back to his living quarters, Jack Aubrey finds out that he was promoted to the rank of Commander and has been given a command. His joy overcomes his animosity towards Stephen Maturin and they quickly become good friends. The ship’s surgeon having left with the previous captain, Maturin is asked by Aubrey to sign on in that post. Although Maturin is a physician, not just a mere surgeon, he agrees, since he is currently unemployed.

Also introduced into the story are Master’s Mates Thomas Pullings, William Mowett, midshipman William Babbington, and James Dillon, Sophie‘s first lieutenant. Dillon has a secret background as a member of the United Irishmen which crosses with Stephen’s own. Aubrey improves Sophie‘s sailing qualities by adding a larger yard which allows him to spread a larger mainsail. She then is sent to accompany a small convoy of merchant ships. During their journey east, the new captain, Aubrey, takes the opportunity to get to know his sailors and work them into a fighting unit. As he does this, he and the crew explain many naval matters to Maturin (and to the reader) since the doctor has never served aboard a man-of-war.

After the convoy duties, Lord Keith allows Aubrey to cruise independently, looking for French merchants. After a number of prizes are taken, they meet and defeat the Cacafuego, a Spanish frigate, losing a number of crew, including Dillon, in the bloody action and gaining the respect of other naval officers. However, Captain Harte, the commandant at Mahon, has a grudge against Aubrey because he has been having an affair with his wife. His malevolence ensures the victory brings Aubrey and his crew no official recognition, promotion, or significant prize money. On her following escort duty, Sophie is captured by a squadron of four large French warships after a pursuit and a brave but hopeless resistance. The Battle of Algeciras begins, and after a short period as prisoners of war, they are exchanged, missing the fighting. Back at Gibraltar, Aubrey must undergo a court-martial over the loss of his ship, but he is cleared of the charges.

When the movie adaptation of this series – Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World – was released I was keen to see what’s what and started reading this, but put it down as I found the intensive naval jargon a confusing mess and too difficult to get into, so I just gave up and read something else instead. Now, some five years later, I decided to give it another chance now that I’m a few years older and a little more well read. Reading it now it is easy to see where the high praise for O’Brian comes from because it is very much a good read with an interesting setting, backed up by a simple plot. The characterisation is very strong and developed with all the main characters having their own voice and personality – Aubrey is big and bluff and jovial while Maturin is a different sort, an intelligent secretive man totally out of place aboard a nineteenth century man of war. The supporting cast are equally well set out and interesting with their own unique personalities and backgrounds. It is obvious O’Brian knows the period well and has paid an intensive level of attention to making sure the novel is as close to the reality of the Napoleonic Wars at sea is possible, so all in all, it reads not as a novel about that period but rather as a novel in the period.

But as I said when I reviewed the first novel in the Hornblower series, naval fiction is not for everyone. It is hard to recommend because it is so technical and there is so much to consume and nowhere is this truer than with Patrick O’Brian. It is a maze of jargon and things that are difficult to remember. O’Brian tries to get around this when Maturin is given a tour of the Sophie, where most of the important things are explained, but even then it is given in the manner that you should just know this, and that is that. His style also doesn’t help to create an overly thrilling novel either with long passages of relatively uninteresting descriptive narrative or a style of dialogue that is very flowery. I consider myself to have a pretty good vocabulary but at times I had to reach for the dictionary. Combined with the often multi-page sections of dull narrative and a distinct lack of action, it can be a difficult to novel to get completely absorbed in. It is still clear why O’Brian’s novels are held in such high esteem and I respect that a lot, but I don’t think it’s for me, not yet.

7/10.

“Sharpe’s Fury,” by Bernard Cornwell

14 Oct

“Sharpe’s Fury,” by Bernard Cornwell (371p)
Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Barrosa, Winter 1811

The most recent novel in Bernard Cornwell’s acclaimed Sharpe series is Sharpe’s Fury. Written in 2006 this falls eleventh in the chronological order, and tells the story of the Battle of Barrosa in 1811.

Sharpe and his men are detailed to blow up a pontoon bridge just over the border in southern Spain, but their mission goes awry when a French regiment of the line intercepts them, stranding Sharpe and a small number of riflemen on a broken pontoon with his superior officer. Sharpe is infuriated that the colonel of the French regiment, Henri Vandal, broke the agreement they made and kept his prisoners, among them the likeable Lt. Bullen. They eventually make their way to the last remaining Spanish city not in the hands of France: Cádiz. There, Sharpe finds something else to keep him occupied because anti-British conspirators in the city are blackmailing the British ambassador to Spain, who just so happens to be the Duke of Wellington’s youngest brother Henry Wellesley.

Two years prior Henry suffered the indignity of his wife running off with Lord Harry Paget, later Lord Uxbridge of Waterloo fame (whose fictional daughter is the mother of Harry Flashman), and was now a love-stricken divorcée. Henry had written a series of love letters to his new mistress, a high-priced whore named Caterina Blázquez, and those letters had fallen into the hands of a group, led by a manipulative priest named Montseny, wanting to blackmail the British out of Cádiz by publishing them in a newspaper, so Britain must get them back before the true identity of the author is made public.

Sharpe is chosen by the embassy’s official to get them back – Lord Pumphrey is he, the effeminate diplomat that Sharpe met in Copenhagen (Sharpe’s Prey). Working together Sharpe and Pumphrey eventually destroy the newspaper and retrieve most of the letters, thus sparing Henry Wellesley the embarrassment of his private life being made public. The final third of the novel then takes Sharpe and his small number of riflemen – Harper, Hagman, Perkins, Harris and Slattery – to the Battle of Barossa, as Sharpe wants to get revenge on Col. Henri Vandal for taking Bullen prisoner. As Graham’s allied forces battled Marshal Victor’s French side into a relatively pointless yet bloody draw, Sharpe eventually makes his way across the battlefield to meet Vandal, capturing him amidst the scenes of Sgt. Patrick Masterman’s capture of an imperial eagle.

This is one of my least favourite Sharpe novels. I just found it hard to care about Sharpe’s Fury and the whole time I felt as though I would have rather read something else, like I just wanted it to be over so I could tick it off the list. Yes, of course, it has all the usual expectations of any Sharpe novel – the Battle of Barrosa is told excellently, the villains are good, and the intrigue in Cádiz was quite interesting. I liked that part. Henry Wellesley made for an interesting character, so different from his more illustrious brothers, and I was delighted to see Lord Pumphrey return, as it is a great character. But overall I just struggled to care, I found myself having little interest in the novel as a whole, partly because I somewhat knew what the outcome would be. As a big fan of Sharpe and Bernard Cornwell I persevered and eventually finished it, but I shan’t remember much about it after the letters were retrieved, or have any real interest in reading it again.

I wonder if Cornwell himself cared all that much about this one either – it came in between two novels in his current Saxon series, so it is entirely possible he only wrote it to appease Sharpe fans wanting another novel. I find Sharpe’s Fury difficult to recommend for anyone to read. It offers nothing to Sharpe’s overall story due to the constraints of the ten novels that follow it; the author can hardly add a new dimension or part of his story when ten more novels succeed it, so readers won’t miss out on much if they skip it. I guess one thing that was different about Sharpe’s Fury is that a senior officer in Sir Thomas Graham did not come across as a big-headed incompetent idiot, making it a nice change from the usual description of officers in Sharpe novels. If you are interested in reading it then you know what to expect and it is interesting enough for what it is, but for casual fans not interested in reading all twenty-one don’t bother, go and read one of the better ones. You will not miss much.

6/10.