Over the last few months, I’ve been obsessed with Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series. I’ll confess, it was initially Sean Bean who brought me to the series. After Game of Thrones ended on HBO, I wanted more sexy, craggy-faced, Yorkshire-accented thrills. A Bean-related searched on Netflix introduced me to his role as Richard Sharpe in the British television series.
Bean is younger, sexier, and far more swashbuckling than Ned Stark in these stories, which revolve around a street-wise London thug who joins the British army to avoid a murder charge, winds up saving the life of Arthur Wellesley (later Duke of Wellington) and, as a result, is promoted to the rank of officer—a feat that would have been nearly impossible in the 1800s when such positions were restricted to the upper classes who usually purchased them.
Unable to purchase further promotions, Sharpe relies on ruthlessness, daring, and a genius for battle to continue his rise through the ranks. The majority of the Sharpe books (and yes, after I finished watching TV series, I started reading the books, and yes, they’re even better) follow his experiences during the Napoleonic wars.
As Sharpe, Bean captures the essence of the romantic alpha hero—powerful and arrogant on the outside, passionate and honorable on the inside. (Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Bean is sooo good to look at, too.) Bean, who worked as a welder before studying acting, and who has been quoted as saying, “I don’t have any problems with women seeing me as their ideal bit of ‘rough’,” seems born to play Sharpe, a tough man, imbued with an innate nobility and a sense of honor that is frequently lacking in the gentleman officers who surround him and who are supposedly born with these qualities.
But while Sharpe is a fascinating character, it is his relationship with his sergeant, Harper, that makes the series truly great. Together, they’re a swashbuckling team, who, when they’re not facing certain death, bicker like an old married couple. Unlike a marriage or a love affair, however, their relationship is uncomplicated by sexual desire or romantic illusions.
Harper is by no means a typical “inferior” sidekick, whose imperfections highlight the hero’s perfection. Harper is bigger and stronger than Sharpe, who is himself, taller than most men. He’s as good a fighter and leader, far more charming, and in general, a better judge of character, particularly when it comes to women. (Sharpe tends to be romantically naive when it comes to the fairer sex, which is a large part of the reason he goes through relationships almost as fast as he goes through cartridges.)
Harper is always ready to come to Sharpe’s aid, whether it’s with a hot cup of tea for the taciturn, morning-averse Sharpe, or a with a blast of his seven barrel gun (a Christmas gift from Sharpe). He delights in testing the limits of Sharpe’s quick temper. But he is also fiercely protective of his friend, saving Sharpe’s life on more than one occasion.
In Sharpe’s Sword (**spoiler alert**) Harper not only saves his friend from certain death and nurses him back to health, but also forges a sword to replace the one Sharpe has broken in a near fatal fight with a treacherous French colonel. At the conclusion of the book, Sharpe faces the Frenchman and kills him, in the process winning a far better sword. But he chooses to keep Harper’s sword instead. Like many soldiers, Sharpe is superstitious, seeking talismans that will protect him in battle. While the Frenchman’s blade is made of superior stuff, Sharpe sees it as steeped in evil, while Harper’s sword, forged in love, has an almost magical power to protect him.
And that, I suspect is the fundamental appeal of a bromance and the Sharpe/Harper relationship: the fantasy of finding the perfect friend. Someone who knows us better than we know ourselves, accepts us despite our flaws, and sees the good in us, even when we cannot. A friend who will laugh with us, drink with us, march with us, fight by our side, and defend us to the death. As Sergeant Harper would say, “Amen to that.”
Before turning her hand to writing commercial fiction, Joanna Novins spent over a decade working for the Central Intelligence Agency. She does not kill people who ask her about her previous job, though she came close once with an aging Navy SEAL who handed her a training grenade despite warnings that she throws like a girl. Published in historical romance by Berkley, Joanna also writes YA spy novels as Jody Novins.