Film history: Aubrey or Sharpe?


Like many historians, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the relationship between History and historical fiction. Back in grad school, I remember this being a popular (and often heated) subject in methodology and historiography seminars, particularly when postmodernism was at its peak in questioning the very integrity and evidence-based nature of History as a discipline. 

In the Newfoundland context, I recall discussions about Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (1998), a fictional biography of PremierJoey Smallwood. These debates seemed to drag on all semester. This is a wonderful novel, but upon reflection I feel that my pleasure in reading it was undercut by semantics in class and literary criticism from the university community. Readers and critics alike were obsessed with the issue of historical accuracy. Of course, that may have been the reasonJohnston wrote this book in the first place. Even now, Smallwood’s legacy is debated passionately. Few Newfoundlanders have a balanced perspective about this “Father of Confederation.” The novel sparked controversy, which helped make it a bestseller.  

After leaving grad school, I started reading historical fiction again for fun, sans the critical analysis, of course. Strangely, this is something I could not do as a student. Perhaps the sheer bulk of heavy reading for class made pleasure reading of any kind (novels or newspapers, for example) unattractive. Frankly, it was the last thing I wanted to do in the evenings to unwind. As a historian, I doubt I am alone in having experienced this kind of strained relationship with fiction. Sometime soon I plan to re-read Johnston’s novel, more than a decade removed from those seminars. This time I will be reading for enjoyment and relaxation – no more, no less. I will leave my historian’s hat at the door and refuse to get caught up on historical accuracy. After all, this is a work of fiction, not a biography of Smallwood. There are plenty of those lying around.


In addition to just enjoying historical fiction, I envy authors like Johnston in two ways, which does not even consider their much greater sales and popularity. First, I am jealous of the interesting characters they create, and the freedom they have to create them. These characters are often based on real people, through diaries and letters that men and women left behind. Second, I envy the rich detail used to describe what life was probably like in the past – such as living conditions, relationships, authority and so on. As a historian of war and society, particularly in the 18th and early 19th centuries, I marvel at the way novelists describe scenes onboard ships, in regiments, or the streets and countryside. The reader can visualize these scenes, and even feel like she or he is actually there. In addition, when thinking about these scenes as a historian and teacher, I find them useful in trying to explain what life was like in those times. Finally, I draw upon fiction in my own work, particularly the use of narrative and storytelling, biography and descriptive detail. The “Revival of Narrative” is once again a hot topic in History circles. Indeed, this subject deserves a separate blog.

With that out of the way, two of my favourite characters in historical fiction are Jack Aubrey byPatrick O’Brian and Richard Sharpe by Bernard Cornwell. O’Brian and Cornwell are bestselling authors. They have received critical and popular acclaim, and both enjoy loyal and passionate fan bases all over the world. Aubrey and Sharpe are the main protagonists in two epic series by these writers. Each series comprises about twenty volumes. 

While Sharpe marches on, O’Brian passed away in 2000…and Aubrey with him. 

Aubrey and Sharpe are similar in many ways, but very different in others. For starters, they both live and fight in the same historical period, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars from 1793 to 1815. War is the driving force and context of both narratives. The enemy is France, oftenNapoleon himself. Both men are English military officers – Aubrey a captain in the Royal Navy, and Sharpe serving in various capacities in the British Army. 

These novels are also about friendship, dialogue and rich relationships. Aubrey and Sharpe each have a «particular» friend and confidant who serves and fights alongside of them in their many battles, and who deserve to be called main characters in their own right – the naval surgeon and spy Stephen Maturin, in Aubrey’s case, and the hulking Sergeant Patrick Harper in Sharpe’s regiments. Both companions are Irish, who are sensitive to the political and sectarian tensions disrupting their homeland in these years, which spills over into the armed forces. This is a sub-plot in both narratives. Incidentally, both friendships started badly, with Aubrey and Maturin nearly fighting a duel and Sharpe and Harper actually coming to blows. In terms of setting and geography, there are also some similarities. Aubrey rode the waves of the «wooden world» throughout the globe, but spent a lot of time in the Mediterranean. Likewise, Sharpe fought mostly in thePeninsular War (1808-14) under Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington. India was also an important place in both of their careers.    


There are some key differences worth mentioning too. I think these are reflected in the writing styles and subject matter chosen by O’Brian and Cornwell. For example, Aubrey is the son of a general and Tory politician who was born into the gentry and officer class, while Sharpe is the orphaned son of a prostitute who fought his way out of London’s gutters and up the common ranks of the Army. The latter did not happen very often. Their backgrounds and life experiences could not be more different. Aubrey often plays the violin with his friend Maturin. Sharpe has no cultural inclinations whatever and would use a violin for firewood without a second thought. While both are battle-scarred and ambitious, rising to the occasion in conflict and chaos, there is a certain ruthlessness and blue-collar image that distinguishes Sharpe, and in my opinion differentiates the two series. These differences complement one another very nicely. 

In terms of Atlantic Canadian connections, Sharpe never set foot in North America. Aubrey, on the other hand, fortuitously found himself aboard HMS Shannon for its celebrated victory over USSChesapeake off Boston on 1 June 1813. This storyline, including Aubrey and Maturin’s sojourn in Halifax and the celebrations as the warships arrived in port, is spread over two novels – The Fortune of War (1979) and The Surgeon’s Mate (1980).

Finally, both series have found success on screen. In the Hollywood movie Master and Commander (2003), Aubrey is played by Russell Crowe, while Sean Bean took on the role of Sharpe in the British mini-series Sharpe on ITV. There are rumours of more Sharpe episodes to come. Both productions were praised by critics, though I am sure their legions of fans continue to debate the choice of actors to portray these larger than life figures.  

So what are you reading? 

What are your favourite works of historical fiction? 

In addition to Aubrey and Sharpe, I recommend the “Century Trilogy” by Ken Follett. These are brilliant and ambitious novels. Don’t be scared off by their size! 

Images: Google and Wikipedia.

Source: (6 de julio de 2014, a las 19horas, horario londinense). 🙂

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