Sunday, August 27, 2006

Sharpe's Integrity

Sharpe's pretty but vain and silly young wife Jane has been tempted into leaving France, where Sharpe is busy battling Napoleon's troops, and running off to London with all of Sharpe's money by her new friend, a war widow who has been supporting herself as kept woman since her husband died. The widow has presented the trip as a kind of vacation, an extended shopping spree, meant to teach Sharpe a lesson for breaking a promsie to Jane.

Once back in England, the widow contrives to push Jane into the arms, and then into the bed, of another officer of her acquaintance, a man who is as down on his luck as the widow and needs to find a rich woman to keep him. Together the officer and the widow manage to spend all of Jane's money.

Pretty soon, as happens to all pretty but silly and vain wives who betray their hero husbands, Jane finds herself broke, friendless, alone, full of remorse, and facing the choice between death and a life as a prostitute.

Trapped inside by the rain yesterday, the teenager and I watched a couple episodes of the Sharpe TV series starring Sean Bean, including the one I'm describing here, Sharpe's Revenge.

The TV movies, like the Bernard Cornwell novels they're based on, are gritty but thrilling high-adventure yarns with enough realistic touches and historical details to hide the tale tale and soap opera absurdities at their core. As stories they have more in common with Arthurian romances than with their other nearest model, Alexander Dumas' historical adventures. Which is why it isn't surprising that Cornwell has been working on a series of novels about Camelot when he's not been writing about Sharpe.

Dumas was far more of cynic than Cornwell is and, I think, his cynicism gave him a far more sympathetic insight into human nature. In scenes between his greatest hero, D'Artagnan, and his ostensible villains, Richelieu or his successor, Cardinal Mazarin, you understand why either cardinal is a great man running a whole nation and why D'Artagnan is a nobody, stuck in the lower rank of officers, and not likely to go higher on his own. You also understand why D'Artagnan is still a hero and the Cardinal still a villain.

In any meeting between Sharpe and a historical figure like Wellington, understanding what makes Wellington Wellington depends on the real Wellington's reputation being carried into the novel by the reader.

I've been reading Twenty Years After, Dumas' first sequel to The Three Musketeers, and, while I know I have Terry Pratchett on the brain these days, the first scene between D'Artagnan and Mazarin reminded me so much of encounters between Sam Vimes and the Patrician that I'm convinced that Pratchett is a better student of Dumas than Cornwell. Vimes is a bit smarter than D'Artagnan---and it's to Dumas' credit that he deliberately makes D'Artagnan a little dense---and the Patrician is much more of a benign despot than Mazarin, but in both Dumas and Pratchett you understand why the hero is just a good soldier or a good cop and the tyrant is a great politician.

Cornwell's heroes and villains (except for Obadiah Hakeswill) aren't all good or all bad, but their range of thought is limited and their motivations are fairly simple and confined to the moment, plot-necessitated desires to get from here to there in as straight a line as possible.

I enjoy the novels, even more than Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series (Sorry Tom, sorry Mr Shakes), and the movies are lots of fun, mainly because of Sean Bean, I think, but I don't read the one or watch the other to learn very much about human nature. They don't usually bear reading or watching in that way, while with Dumas and O'Brian you can take your eyes off the duels and the battles, intrigues, plots and counterplots, and look at the characters as people and see people busy being people, being human.

But there's a moment in Sharpe's Revenge...

Jane has just realized the desperate nature of her situation and she pleads with her friend the widow for help and advice. The widow simply laughs at her and suggests that if all else fails Jane can set up shop as high priced whore.

The scene is one of the most true to life in the whole series.

In the movie it's probably all due to the work of the two actresses and the director; I'll have to go back to the book to see if it's there too, although the books and the movies don't always match up scene for scene, plot point for plot point. But what's true to life here is that the widow is not simply being cruel, nor is she, as a similar character in a similar situation in a soap opera or hack romance would be doing, throwing aside her mask and revealing her real evil self.

The widow has in fact been Jane's friend up until that point. She's been Jane's friend only because of Jane's money and she's enjoyed ruining Jane because it makes her feel better about her own life as essentially a prostitute to bring another woman down to her level, but she hasn't known that's what she's been up to. In her mind she has been Jane's friend.

And now that Jane is not worth being friends with anymore she rejects her as if she, the widow, would never have had anything to do with such a weak and foolish and immoral character as Jane.

She has completely forgotten herself.

And Jane, terrified, frantic, begging for help from help from a woman she knows can't help her and wouldn't be likely to help if she could, insulted and outraged at the widow's suggestion that she sell her body to stay alive, has completely forgotten herself too.

In her mind, she is not the runaway wife, and thief, who has spent the last few months sleeping with a man who is not her husband---and, it's implied, having other kinds of sexual adventures on the side---she is the same little girl lost Sharpe rescued and married several episdoes ago.

And the widow, who after she sweeps out of the room in self-righteous triumph, congratulating herself on her own superior virtue and character, is going to throw herself into the bed of the first half-way presentable rich man she finds, is thinking of herself as a respectable middle class woman true to the memory of her war hero husband.

And that's exactly how the actresses play their characters in the scene, as two "good" women, each suddenly discovering that her friend has led her astray.

I think this is true to life because it fits with my own theory that people are guided mainly by their appetites and their vanities and what looks like virtue in them is usually just the luck of their circumstances---they are good because there's no reason for them not to be, and not many temptations either. They have fallen into a moral life the way a twig falls into a stream and they are carried along with the current. When they climb out of that life and find their way into another they usually get themselves into trouble because they have no experience guiding their own behavior.

I also think that most people move from one stream to another and then back without even knowing it. They don't "know" what they are doing, they "know" only what they are telling themselves they are doing.

Quoting myself here:

People feel themselves to be virtuous. They don’t need to be good to believe they are. They just need to sound good to themselves and to their friends and fellow hypocrites. They are very adept at thinking good thoughts about themselves. This is becoming a regular theme of mine. I've used the example several times of adulterers who can, without a twinge from their consciences, sniff scornfully at other people cheating on their spouses. These hypocrites are able to do it without a blush because they have very carefully arranged their thinking about what they are doing in bed with someone they're not married to so that the words adultery, sin, right and wrong, and possibly even sex never cross their minds.

But all kinds of sinners, cheats, frauds, hypocrites, and thieves feel morally superior to other sinners, cheats, frauds, hypocrites, and thieves simply because they've managed to talk themselves out of thinking of their own misbehaviors and crimes as what they are. They've carefully selected vocabularies that allow them to talk past what they're actually doing and even describe it in terms that turn it into, if not virtue, then not vice.

Neither Jane nor the widow know themselves for what they are or what they've been. It wasn't the case that either was deluded or psychotic while they were busy in bed with men they weren't married to. It was the case that while they were, they found words to describe to themselves what they were doing in a way that made it feel right. And because the words didn't match their actions, neither the words nor the actions were real to them. They themselves weren't real to themselves. All that was real was their appetites and their vanities. Which is why it's so easy for both of them to drop the old words, forget what they've been, who they've been, and adopt new vocabularies and new selves on the spot.

Scenes of this kind of psychological complexity aren't rarities in the Sharpe novels---the TV movies don't have as much time to explore character---but they aren't high on Cornwell's list of priorities. I don't think they were high on Dumas' list either, he just seems to have been able to work them as a matter of course, possibly because he was writing at a time when readers were more patient and didn't mind lulls in the action and digressions from the main plot, but more likely becauce it was temperamentally congenial to him to work that way.

Still, one of the strengths of the Sharpe novels is that Sharpe is a reflective character. He isn't an intellectual character, so his moments of reflection are often coarse, simplistic, and incoherent. But he is always thinking about what and who he wants to be. The novels chart his moral progress from street rat and thief to officer and gentleman.

Sharpe has decided, half-consciously at first, that he wants to be a certain kind of man, a different kind of man, and he figures out quickly that becoming that man isn't just a matter of changing his circumstances. He isn't an officer and a gentleman just because he gets promoted. (Another of Cornwell's themes is the virtue of egalitarianism, and there are plenty of characters who don't practice it and are therefore quick to remind Sharpe that his rank is just a penny stamp to them.) And he figures out that being a hero isn't the same as being good. He wants to be both.

And this is something Cornwell shares with Dumas and Pratchett, an understanding that character, as the word is used to describe the habits of decency and virtue, is an artificial thing. You have to construct it. You make it up, you make yourself up, and you do it with words. The right words. The exact words. You have to be always telling yourself the truth about yourself.

Which is not at all easy.

Vimes and the Patrician are better men than D'Artagnan and Cardinal Mazarin because they are more honest with themselves. They are better able to describe themselves to themselves. They have set their minds to being specific kinds of men and they work at it partly through constantly comparing what they are to what they want to be.

This is not to say that Pratchett is a better writer than Dumas (not being able to read Dumas in French, I'm not in any position to make that judgment), because Dumas deliberately and expertly shows D'Artagnan and Mazarin failing in the act of self-reflection.

D'Artagnan is just not a sophisticated enough thinker, possibly not a smart enough person, to understand himself in the way Vimes understands himself.

And Mazarin is too vain and too greedy and too afraid and too insecure and too crazy with lust for the Queen to think straight, let alone honestly enough to understand himself.

In his comment on Robin's Last Arrow, Mike Schilling reminded me that by the end of The Man in the Iron Mask Aramis isn't much of a hero anymore. But as it turns out none of the Musketeers, including D'Artagnan, is the hero he once was.

They are all overwhelmed by history and overmatched by the doings of the unheroic but "great" men whose tools and dupes and opponents and obstacles they've more or less accidentally become.

In short, their story is a tragedy.

Bernard Cornwell seems to have completed Sharpe's story. All the Sharpe novels he's turned out since Sharpe's Devil have been set in Sharpe's youth, "before" the series began, or they've been placed in gaps in the timeline of the original set of novels. He's been filling in rather than advancing the story.

Perhaps someday he will get around to writing the story of Sharpe's death and maybe it will be a tragic story. For now though Sharpe's tale is one of triumph.

Nothing had changed despite the banging of guns and clangor of swords, but even that did not matter, for [Sharpe] was full of happiness, and he was at peace, and he was going home. For good and forever, he was going home.

Sharpe wins in the end by becoming what he set out to be, a good man and a hero.

This is fine. Some stories should end happily. It just seems to me that Sharpe gets there through some cheating on Cornwell's part.

Sharpe really isn't smart enough to manage it on his own. It's not simply the case that Cornwell has to make him impossibly lucky. It's that Sharpe doesn't seem to have the intellectual wherewithall to have made the leap from street urchin and thief to an aspiring officer and gentleman.

Cornwell has shown that it's the change in Sharpe's circumstances that begin the change in him, which is true enough in life. But it does seem more a case that the change in his circumstances have allowed his innate superior virtue to shine forth rather than a case of Sharpe deciding to take advantage of the changes.

Which is all just to say that I prefer Dumas the cynic to Cornwell the romantic.

I think Dumas is more true to life.


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