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'Sharpe's Eagle' is an historical novel by Bernard Cornwell. Set in July 1809 during the Peninsular War and featuring the Battle of Talavera it is the 8th (chronologically) in the Richard Sharpe Series. As the first of the series to be written the events in this novel do a great deal to establish Sharpe's legacy as a hero.
This is Bernard Cornwell's first novel, written as a means of providing him with an income while living with his American fiance in her home country where he could not get a work visa.
Cornwells plan '"to write a series of tales about the adventures of a British rifleman in the Napoleonic Wars"' and he had wanted to start with the Siege of Badajoz but on reflection, he felt that this was too ambitious for his first novel and so decided to start with a couple of easier books as a warm-up. Cornwell also wanted to find a task just as impossible as the taking of Badajoz for his first adventure, and so the capture of a Regimental Eagle from a French Regiment provided the challenge the author felt necessary to establish the reputation of both Sharpe and his close friend, Sergeant Patrick Harper.
Explanation of the novel's titleThe eagle of the title refers to the French Imperial Eagle presented to each regiment by the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte himself and carried at its head into battle. The soldiers of the French Imperial Army pledged to defend the eagle to the death and to lose it would bring shame to the regiment. In the novel Sharpe vows to capture one to restore the honour of his disgraced regiment and to secure his promotion.
The following is a description of the key plot elements of the novel of 'Sharpe's Eagle'. Although much of the novel's complexity is omitted in the TV version, the major plot elements are the same. For a summary of the TV movie, see the link listed above.
Prior to the Battle of Talavera, Richard Sharpe and his small group of thirty Riflemen are attached to the newly arrived South Essex Regiment. Commanded by the cowardly and bullying Lieutenant Colonel Sir Henry Simmerson, the South Essex is a raw, inexperienced unit that has been drilled mercilessly with frequent use of the lash. More suited for ceremonial parades than genuine combat against the veteran armies of France, Sharpe takes it upon himself to shape the inexperienced and poorly-trained redcoats into full-fledged soldiers. His real problem turns out to be the officers, most of whom appear to be in the lap of Simmerson, including his nephew, the arrogant Lieutenant Christian Gibbons, and his best friend, Lieutenant Berry. The situation is further complicated by the rivalry that emerges between Sharpe and Gibbons for the affections of Josefina Lacosta, a Portuguese noblewoman abandoned by her husband after he fled to Brazil. Only two appear to have any real experience: Captain Lennox, a veteran of the Battle of Assaye, where Sharpe himself won his commission; and Captain Leroy, an American Loyalist who fled with his merchant family to England during the American War of Independence.
Making his way to the town of Talavera, General Wellesley dispatches the South Essex, alongside Sharpe's Riflemen and the engineers of Major Hogan, to blow up the bridge at Valdelcasa, so as to protect the army's flank as they march. Assisted by a Spanish regiment of equal number, the Regimento de la Santa Maria, the seemingly straightforward mission becomes a disaster when both Simmerson and the Spanish cross the bridge to engage four squadrons of French dragoons. A combination of arrogance, poor training, flawed leadership and elementary tactical errors results in the two regiments being routed by the French, with hundreds of men killed and wounded, Lennox brought down by the enemy, and the loss of the King's Colour. As a dying request, Lennox asks Sharpe to take a French Eagle, 'touched by the hand of Napoleon' himself, so as to erase the shame of losing their own standard.
Distinguishing himself during the skirmish after rallying several broken companies of the South Essex against the French and capturing one of their cannon, Sharpe finds himself gazetted Captain. However, he still must do much to confirm this rank in the company of an officer corps still largely drawn from the aristocracy and the ranks of English gentlemen who look down on Sharpe's low birth. Even worse, Sir Henry has made Sharpe the scapegoat of his follies, and intends on ruining Sharpe's career via his political connections at Horse Guards. Only by capturing an Eagle can Sharpe stay in the army, let alone keep his promotion. The Rifleman also makes an enemy of Gibbons and Berry when he takes Josefina under his protection, and the two begin a relationship. Later in the novel, when Josefina is raped by Gibbons and Berry, Sharpe swears vengeance, murdering Berry in a nighttime skirmish against the French.
At the height of the Battle of Talavera, Sharpe must decide whether to fulfill Lennox's request or avoid this insane task. In true heroic form Richard Sharpe rises to the challenge and avenge the loss of the colour with the capture of a French Imperial Eagle during the height of the battle. Leading the Light Company and his Rifles into the fray, Sharpe and Harper manage to break a French regiment and take an Eagle, while Simmerson is replaced on the field by Sharpe's old friend William Lawford as Commander of the South Essex. Slaying Gibbons in the aftermath (who had attempted to murder Sharpe for his prize), Sharpe parts with Josefina as she returns to Lisbon, while he officially takes his place as Captain of the Light Company of the South Essex, the regiment's honour restored.
*Richard Sharpe – the main protagonist, currently Lieutenant
*Patrick Harper – Sharpe's longtime ally
*Captain Lennox – who makes the 'dying request' of Sharpe (in the TV adaptation, he was a Major)
*Sir Henry Simmerson – bully and Commanding Officer of the South Essex
*Christian Gibbons – Lieutenant and nephew of Simmerson
References or allusions
References to actual history, geography and current scienceSharpes story is '"intimately linked"' with the real life story of Sir Arthur Wellesley who appears in this book and would be appointed Viscount Wellington of Talavera as a result of the events related. The novel features the real life Battle of Talavera that occurred during the early stages of the Peninsular War. Although no Eagle is reported as having been taken during this battle, the rest is fairly accurate and it provides an excellent historical insight into the life of soldiers at the time as '"much of the detail in the book is taken from contemporary letters and diaries."' In reality the British first captured an Eagle during the Battle of Barrosa in 1811, which Cornwell would later cover in 'Sharpe's Fury'.
In reality, the 95th Rifles missed the Battle of Talavera, despite marching in 24 hours they arrived too late.
References in other worksCornwell would go on to write a series of books about Sharpe and he and many of the other characters from this book would reappear in the next in the series 'Sharpes Gold'.
A 1993 TV adaptation of the same name was produced by Central Independent Television for the ITV network in the UK starring Sean Bean as Sharpe, Daragh O'Malley as Harper, Assumpta Serna as Teresa Moreno(alias La'guija or "The Needle"), Brian Cox as Major Hogan, David Troughton as Wellesley, Daniel Craig as Lieutenant Berry, Gavan O'Herlihy as Captain Leroy and Michael Cochrane as Simmerson.
* 1981, UK, Harper Collins ISBN 0-00-221997-2, 9 Feb 1981, Hardback
* 1981, USA, Viking Press ISBN 0-670-63944-3, 9 Feb 1981, Hardback
* 1994, UK, Harper Collins ISBN 0-00-617313-6, 1 April 1994, Paperback
* 2004, USA, Signet ISBN 0-451-21257-6, August 3, 2004, Paperback
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