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Prequel Problems: Sharpe’s Reading Order

By Tom Anderson

In this article series discussing the problems surrounding the writing (and reading) of prequel works, one driving question should be addressed from the point of view of the reader. What order should a series of novels, films or other media be read in, if publication order does not match the chronological order in which the stories are set?

Many people, coming to a series years after its original publication when all parts are complete, will tend to default to a chronological order. In this they are aided and abetted by the publication companies, which seem to revel in ordering series in this way—sometimes to the point of adding misleading numbers on the spines of books. Yet this order is often unsatisfying for a reader. The reader who reads a later-written prequel first and then the original work is not seeing the series as the author did, or as the first generation of fans who followed it from the start. This misses the point of what a prequel is meant to be; it should always be written with the assumption that the reader has already read the original work. A prequel might follow adventures only hinted at in the backstory of the original work (though that is a two-edged sword, remember Tolkien’s ‘distant mountains’) or it might show character development and the influences that led our protagonist to become the person they are. But these carefully signposted references will not land unless the reader has already read the original work. A reader who reads the prequel first, by contrast, will be exposed to all the inevitable flaws when they move on to the original work: all the tonal shifts, minor plot holes and character inconsistencies driven by the fact that the author was not writing with a prequel in mind at the time.

As a child my family owned multiple copies of C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series, largely because my mother was a headteacher at the time and her school had many copies of the series. I am profoundly grateful that the one I own myself does not have numbers on the spines like the ones the school had. I read the books in publication order, not because I knew what it was but because it was the order of the BBC TV adaptations I enjoyed. This meant I read the series in the order the author thought through them, with all the slightly trending tonal inconsistencies and all, and did not get the abrupt jerks of a reader reading the chronological order. The Magician’s Nephew is a full-blooded prequel that only makes sense if one has read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (and spoils parts of the latter), but this is not even the worst offence of the numbered series. A reader following the numbers will read The Horse and His Boy after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and before Prince Caspian, just because The Horse is actually an interquel set during the events briefly summarised near the end of The Lion. Never mind that it is 1) completely tonally different and mostly set in different countries, 2) follows different protagonists and the ones in The Lion and Prince Caspian only appear as cameos, and 3) therefore interrupts the continuing story of those protagonists between those two books. It was a baffling decision by the publisher.

As you may be able to tell, I have developed a profound, fundamentalist attitude that media must always be consumed in publication order to make sense, and I am opposed to even compromise positions like the now-famous ‘Machete Order’ of watching the Star Wars films. The only thing that can persuade me to compromise on this is when publication order is different to writing order. For example, Jasper Fforde wrote the first two books of his Nursery Crime series before beginning his Thursday Next series, but it was the latter that was picked up for publication. When he had assumed that the Nursery Crime books would not be picked up, he decided to use the setting as an author in-joke in the third Thursday Next book. For a brief summary, in those books there are literary agents who can enter books as they are being written, and we see the plot of the first Nursery Crime book (which eventually became The Big Over Easy after a title change) taking shape thanks to Thursday’s shenanigans. This whole sequence is written by someone (then the only person!) who knows how the book will eventually end up, and is ultimately probably more satisfying if read after the actual book (which was published later).

Aside from this though, I am publication order all the way. Why do I feel so strongly about this if I avoided it with the Chronicles of Narnia? Well, to answer that question we come to the title of this article.

Bernard Cornwell’s “Sharpe” series, both the original novels and the highly successful TV adaptation with Sean Bean, have captured the imagination of many fans. Cornwell admired the Hornblower novels of C. S. Forester (another anachronic series re-released with numbers that I consequently read in the wrong order, incidentally!) and wanted to do the same for British Napoleonic Wars-era soldiers on land that Forester had done for sailors at sea. As he recounts in the Foreword to his first Sharpe book (and first book full stop) Sharpe’s Eagle, he wanted to start with the Battle of Badajoz in 1812, but knew he would need practice as an author to do it justice. He therefore decided to start earlier and build up to it, eventually envisaging 11 novels in chronological order from the Battle of Talavera (Sharpe’s Eagle, 1981) in 1809 to the Battle of Waterloo (Sharpe’s Waterloo, 1990) in 1815.

This plan became a victim of its own success. Though Cornwell said in the same Foreword that he never dares go back and look at Sharpe’s Eagle as his first work, it and its sequels were a hit with fans. The characters of Lieutenant Richard Sharpe, a tough British officer who rose from the ranks by sheer bloody-mindedness and courage, and his loyal Irish ally Sergeant Patrick Harper, both fighting against vapid aristocratic British enemies as often as they do the French in the Peninsular War, were a winning formula. Around 1987 Cornwell began being approached by companies about a TV adaptation. However, the TV people wanted a story to set up Sharpe rather than starting in medias res as Sharpe’s Eagle does; one of the investors was also a Spanish company and wanted more representation of Spanish forces in the series. Though Spanish guerilla fighters often play a key role in the Sharpe novels, the conventional Spanish army was presented negatively, with their first (historically accurate) appearance being the incident at the Battle of Talavera where four battalions fled the field after being shocked by the noise of their own guns. Cornwell was therefore asked to create a new story which would set up the later ones and feature Spanish soldiers in a more heroic presentation. As the Foreword to the resulting Sharpe’s Rifles (1988, set in early 1809) begins, “This was the first ‘prequel’ I wrote for the Sharpe series, something I had sworn not to do.” Cornwell was clearly well aware of the problems associated with writing prequels, and for many years the way he composed the series was written with these in mind. Unfortunately, as we’ll see, around the turn of the millennium he decided to stop caring.

Sharpe’s Rifles does a pretty good job of achieving what it was meant to; besides the heroic appearance of a Spanish officer named Blas Vivar, it also sets up how Sharpe and Harper first met, initially as enemies before their bond was forged. In the original books, Sharpe is said to have won his officer’s commission from the ranks for saving the life of the Duke of Wellington when he was unhorsed at the Battle of Assaye in 1802 (the latter part did historically happen). However, here there is a tacked-on scene at the start in which he does it in the middle of the Peninsular War to clumsily provide backstory. In the Foreword Cornwell notes that he had wanted Sharpe to retreat with Sir John Moore all the way to the Battle of Corunna, but felt it was implausible, because then Sharpe would be evacuated all the way back to England and wouldn’t be there for Talavera. So he gets lost before Corunna, and stays lost and unattached to his 95th Rifles regiment for the remainder of the war—able to pop up wherever he needs to be to follow the battles of the war, rather than being limited to where a real Rifle company was. Again, it is clear that Cornwell cared a lot more about this historical realism in the books written before around 2000, when he starts featuring Sharpe at battles that would require teleportation.

The TV adaptation introduced an issue which is not strictly a Prequel Problem but an Adaptation Problem: Paul McGann had originally been cast as Sharpe, but after injuring himself was replaced by Sean Bean. Bean proved widely popular in the role, which launched his career as a major actor; though he has a reputation for his character being killed in every other piece of media he has been in, perhaps this is just to balance the scales from the body count he racked up as Sharpe. Unfortunately for Cornwell, the books had described Sharpe as a tall, dark-haired Londoner, while Bean is short, blond and speaks with a pronounced Sheffield accent. And popular though the books were, the TV series was even more so and defined the image of Sharpe in the heads of many casual and newer fans.

In this kind of situation there are a number of tacks an author can take as they write future books: 1) Ignore the TV series altogether and stick stubbornly to one’s own canon, 2) Stick to one’s own canon but have little winks and nods to the different TV conception for readers to spot, 3) Try to find a middle path, or even 4) Write the next book as though it’s in the TV continuity and abandon your earlier books altogether. Other authors in this situation include Colin Dexter of “Inspector Morse”, Jeff Lindsay of “Dexter” (!) and Michael Dobbs of “House of Cards”, examples which I may discuss further in future. Cornwell opted to largely abandon descriptive references of Sharpe’s appearance to let the reader fill in their own imagination, and to insert some backstory where after Sharpe grew up in a tyrannical orphanage in London, he was raised further in Yorkshire and acquired the accent. It’s tenuous but it was probably the right decision to throw a bone to the fans unable to picture Sharpe as anyone other than Bean.

Many of the Sharpe books are formulaic, which is not necessarily a criticism: Cornwell, first and foremost, was interested in bringing historical battles (especially the Duke of Wellington’s) into public awareness, and the series was written around that idea. Each book is titled “Sharpe’s X”, subtitled “Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Y, (Date)” (or similar) and almost always ends with “It was Sharpe’s X” as a title drop. One notable exception being Sharpe’s Waterloo, originally intended to end the series, which instead concludes with “And the world was at peace.” Sharpe also functions as a cipher to explain various unknown historical events from real life, such as being the unknown British soldier who killed the Tippoo Sultan at Seringapatam in 1799 (something which is mentioned only a few pages after Sharpe’s first appearance in Sharpe’s Eagle). That book also features Sharpe and Harper being the first British soldiers to capture an Eagle, the French Napoleonic standard equivalents, which in reality first happened at the Battle of Barrosa in 1811. Cornwell would eventually feature that battle in Sharpe’s Fury (2006), one of the cases where he had stopped caring about Sharpe being able to teleport across the map of Spain to appear at every battle. These later interquels are the worst Sharpe books in my view, and inevitably become the most formulaic—because a generic villain must be introduced and defeated in the same book and cannot have any long-term impact, as otherwise they would affect the previously-written ‘next’ book.

Sarah Sierszyn's photo of Bernard Cornwell as shared under the CC BY 2.0 licence

It is interesting, albeit depressing, to cover the slide from thoughtful prequel writing to cash-in interquel writing as Cornwell diverged further from his original plan. From 1981 to 1990, Cornwell completed that plan of 11 books from Talavera to Waterloo, with the only sidetrack being the writing of Sharpe’s Rifles as a thoughtful, well-written prequel. This was not to say there was not room for further prequel writing, as we get lots of hints about Sharpe’s backstory in the books. In 1992, even before the TV series finally began in 1993, Cornwell decided to write a post-Waterloo sequel, Sharpe’s Devil. In this, Sharpe goes to South America to rescue Blas Vivar in 1820 and becomes involved with Admiral Cochrane’s Chilean revolutionaries, as well as finally meeting Napoleon in the flesh on St Helena. Sharpe’s Devil could easily have come across as a ‘pointlessly unspooling tied-up threads’ sequel, yet it’s actually a fun adventure that doesn’t undermine anything that came before. Cornwell could probably have got away with further sequels of this type (albeit with diminishing returns) but as of 2020 this remains the chronologically last Sharpe book.

Instead, with the TV series growing in popularity, Cornwell was asked to write his first interquel to fill in another Peninsular story: Sharpe’s Battle (published 1995, set in 1811 in between the two (then) sequential books Sharpe’s Gold and Sharpe’s Company). In the end, as he recounts in the Foreword, he was unable to deliver in time, so the book diverges from the episode in the second half anyway. He did dedicate the book to Sean Bean, however, perhaps in a gesture of no hard feelings over the problem caused by varying character description. I am sympathetic to Cornwell in this case because he was clearly pushed to write the book by the TV people; however, he should have learned from this the limitations of such an interquel. This is the first glimpse of ‘self-contained villain who can’t be allowed to have any long-term impact’ in the form of Guy Loup, although the book also features an anachronic appearance from previously established villain Ducos, who’d already featured in several books before his death in Sharpe’s Revenge. Sharpe’s Battle also feels influenced by the TV series, and a reader reading them in chronological order will probably feel dizzy from the way regular characters are presented slightly differently.

Following Sharpe’s Battle, Cornwell instead turned to more distant prequels, looking at Sharpe’s established backstory. While this sort of thing is a two-edged sword, as I have previously described, it was certainly preferable to the straitjacket of an interquel. He wrote the ‘India trilogy’ of Sharpe’s Tiger, Sharpe’s Triumph and Sharpe’s Fortress; the first two go deeply into backstory events described way back in Sharpe’s Eagle, while the latter is more a tacked-on look at a historical battle for its own sake. We get to see Sharpe as a redcoat private in 1799, being tyrannised by the despotic Sergeant Obadiah Hakeswill (who becomes a recurring enemy in the later books and TV series), almost flogged to death and then imprisoned in the dungeons of the Tippoo Sultan of Seringapatam. While there, he is taught to read with a page of the Bible by the young, nervous officer William Lawford, and the two establish a lasting bond despite their different classes which shows up in the chronologically later novels. Sharpe is indeed responsible for killing the Tippoo Sultan and stealing some of his wealth. We then get to see Sharpe in 1802 saving the Duke of Wellington’s life at the Battle of Assaye and being promoted to Ensign, before the aforementioned more tacked-on depiction of the Battle of Gawilghur. The latter is a battle it would have been reasonable for Sharpe to be at, however. One slight issue for some readers with these prequels is that they necessarily come before Sharpe meets Harper in Sharpe’s Rifles, and thus the iconic duo is not present; Sharpe has a series of more transient allies instead. However, on the whole I feel these prequels work quite well, with a caveat I will mention later. Oddly enough, they are not Sharpe’s first taste of action—that was in Flanders before this, referred to both here and earlier, yet Cornwell has never depicted this in a novel.

But now it is at this point that we reach the turn of the millennium, and the wheels start to come off.

2000 saw the publication of Sharpe’s Trafalgar (set 1805), and it clear that it is at this point that Cornwell has stopped caring—as he admits in the opening to the Historical Note, ‘Sharpe really had no business being at Trafalgar’. While it is true (as he argues) that Sharpe has to get home from India to Britain around this time and his ship could theoretically have been swept up in the battle, it is getting a bit ridiculous when he gets to accompany the Captain to a conference on HMS Victory and meet Nelson. Almost as problematic for character reasons is that Sharpe falls in love with an aristocrat, Lady Grace Hale, and they have a child—both she and the child die offscreen between this book and the next, Sharpe’s Prey (set 1807) and Sharpe loses his fortune in the process. Besides being mean-spirited, I feel this is the level of backstory that it is not reasonable to invent for a prequel when it has never been even hinted at in the original books. Sharpe’s Eagle has a whole sequence in the first few pages where Sharpe reflects on the unfairness of the Army towards a poor man and that he lacks the funds to buy promotions; in this same sequence him having shot the Tippoo Sultan is brought up, and if he had really won a fortune in the process and then lost it, is it plausible that this wouldn’t be mentioned (at least in his monologue) at this point? While Sharpe has a lot of lovers in the books (he is more consistent in the TV series) we run into the classic prequel problem of it feeling unintentionally cold that he (naturally) never thinks of Grace or the child at all in the earlier-written books. In a lesser example, in Prey Sharpe moves in quite elite circles as he is called upon by Lord Pumphrey and civil servants for a secret mission, and it feels completely at odds with how he is seen in the earlier-written, later-set books, where he has no allies in the upper echelons other than Wellington and Lawford.

However, things were about to get worse. Without the excuse of needing more Peninsular adventures—the TV series had temporarily concluded in 1997, and had featured two original stories not written by Cornwell anyway—Cornwell decided to write three more interquels set during the Peninsular adventures, in 1809, 1810 and 1811: Sharpe’s Havoc, Sharpe’s Escape and Sharpe’s Fury. These manage to be the worst of both worlds; besides the aforementioned teleportation problem, they attempt to bridge the gap by featuring appearances from Lord Pumphrey and more secret missions (despite being set years apart with no appearance from him in between). The three came out in 2003, 2004 and 2007, when I was at university, and it got to the point where I actually dreaded seeing a new Sharpe novel on the shelves of the bookshops of Cambridge. If Cornwell had wanted to feature more Peninsular battles, he should have come up with a spinoff protagonist, perhaps a younger man he could then feature in post-Waterloo adventures (in 1999, Allan Mallinson would do just that with his creation of Matthew Hervey). Cornwell has already created other protagonists for other historical series, but (until the TV adaptation of The Last Kingdom) these have tended not to be as popular as Sharpe, which may have influenced his thinking.

Mercifully, there have been no other Sharpe books since 2007. There were two more TV films made in 2006 and 2008, Sharpe’s Challenge and Sharpe’s Peril, set after Waterloo and with many flaws of their own, which are not Cornwell’s fault. They are an attempt to adapt the ‘India trilogy’ despite shifting many of its events after Waterloo. Because Hakeswill died in Sharpe’s Enemy (though earlier Cornwell shared that he felt the temptation to do the sequel cardinal sin of bringing him back in the next book, thankfully resisting it) the TV producers had to invent a new backstory enemy called Bickerstaffe, whom Sharpe has suddenly always hated. The adaptation also callously kills off Sharpe’s wife after less than a year; in the books she outlives him and their son appears in Cornwell’s Copperhead series set during the American Civil War. Most bizarrely, Challenge also features flashbacks to 1803 with young Sharpe…still played by Sean Bean. That might be reasonable if ITV in 2006 had had access to Hollywood’s modern magic de-ageing CGI technology, but the result was, to quote my consultant for this article, more ‘How do you do, fellow redcoats?’

So much for the fall of Bernard Cornwell from a writer keenly aware of the problems of prequels and interquels to one who threw caution to the wind for the sake of cash-ins. However, what prompted this article is not really criticism of Cornwell for this, but rather for his publishers for only ever giving the books in chronological order at the front. When I first started reading them, it was primarily because I knew Cornwell could generally be trusted to do his research (and note where he had changed things for story purposes) and I wanted to learn more about Napoleonic warfare for the purpose of writing alternate history works. (Ironically, nowadays Amazon’s all-knowing algorithm bizarrely tends to count the Sharpe novels under Alternate History and drown out people’s AH works…I mean I suppose they technically are in that British troops didn’t capture an Eagle till 1811, or something?)

Now this was before it was possible to look up publication order on the internet, so I would have had to painstakingly go through all the books on the shelf at WH Smith’s and write down all the publication dates. Rather than doing this, I just decided to go with chronological order, starting with Sharpe’s Tiger. This was a good decision from the point of view of doing research, as that book does go into detail about military tactics and the procedure for using muskets, but it did mean I ended up with a very flawed and distorted picture of Sharpe’s character and plot arc throughout the series. All the little references to things which appear in chronologically later, earlier-published books were lost on me at the time.

One of these days, I should go back and re-read the Sharpe novels in the proper order, starting with Sharpe’s Eagle; I remember when I got to it the first time, I was feeling fatigued with the sub-par interquels and then was shocked to discover how much more life it had, despite being a cruder first novel, and understood why people liked the series so much. If I was to recommend a reading order to others, I would say to start with either Eagle or perhaps Rifles, read in publication order up to the end of the India Trilogy in 1999, and then stop. One can make a case for the later-published books if one just wants to know more about the battles, but from the perspective of making sense of Sharpe, they should be put on the same level as Lois Lane’s ‘imaginary stories’ from 1960s Superman comics. Discount them from your reading order altogether.

It was Sharpe’s Reading Order.

My thanks to Adam Selby-Martin for his input into and thoughts on this article.



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