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Sharpe's flogging

Posted at 01:03 on 12 Jan 2010 by Pandora / Blake

Tags: films and TV, meta-analysis, other pictures

I've just started reading the first book of the Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell - the ones that were made into a tasty TV BBC costume drama starring Sean Bean. The first book, Sharpe's Tiger, predates the first plotline of the TV show, presumably because it's set in India and they didn't have the budget.

The villain, Sergeant Hakeswill, is one that reappears in the TV episodes Sharpe's Company and Sharpe's Enemy, in which he gets Sharpe's friend Harper unjustly flogged. The whipping in the BBC version is somewhat anticlimactic Of course, a flogging with authentic blood and gore would be too much for the BBC (although inconsistently, they're happy enough to include a certain amount of blood and gore in the battle scenes).

I know that actual military floggings were far more horrific. Thanks to poor medical care (and a lack of will in carrying what knowledge they had out responsibly) a small sentence could be lethal due to the chance of infection; but even without that factor, a sentence of one or two hundred lashes could easily kill someone. The leather thongs tear the flesh away from the bones and the flesh is shredded to ribbons. I found the flogging scenes in Naomi Novik's Temeraire books far more realistic, and simultaneously more sensitive: 40 lashes is seen as a severe sentence which the captain is unwilling to give out; he forces himself to watch it, suffering all the while; and the miscreants stay in the sick bed for several weeks afterwards. By contrast, the scene in Sharpe's Tiger is extravagantly, sensationalistically, horrific: Cornwell's only aim is to heighten the anticipation and horror, and few of his characters show any humanity or sensitivity.

Anyway, I tucked into the first book delightedly, pleased to be able to read about characters I have long loved. I love Cornwell's other historical fiction and I had high hopes. But the first section of the book is all about how horrible it is to be flogged (and how horrible it is to be a soldier in every other way, but with a perverse fixation on the flogging) and then how horrible Hakeswill is, and how Hakeswill is definitely going to get Sharpe flogged and how horrible that's going to be. I knew Sharpe did get flogged in this book because I'd been spoilered by the TV show, but the sensationalistic anticipation about how awful it was going to be was so unbearable that I did something I very rarely do. I skipped ahead.

I skipped ahead, past all the other plotlines, past how Hakeswill achieves it, to the flogging itself. Which was, if anything, even more horrific and extreme and gory than I had imagined, partly because Sharpe is given a sentence which massively exceeds the maximum historical sentence of 1 200 lashes. Of course no-one could survive that, so of course he is saved by an even unlikelier sequence of events. The unrealistically excessive sentence and the equally unrealistic rescue were just as disappointing as the weedy, unbelievable flogging shown on screen in the TV show.

The more brutal tortures used as disciplinary methods in historical contexts are not always interesting to me: the naval horror stories are mildly fascinating, and their background presence adds tension to any naval scene, but I wouldn't want to read a detailled account of one actually being carried out; I certainly wouldn't want to read an account from the perspective of the victim. I was expecting Sharpe's flogging to be slightly sexy, and when the first anticipatory hints were dropped in the opening pages my heart definitely started racing. But my horror and dismay quickly overtook any erotic fear I was feeling, and the actual scene turned me right off.

British military floggings were horrific and gory and brutal, and often just a slow and agonising death sentence. In my fantasy life, they far more often appear as the-threat-which-is-never-carried-out, or as vague background texture which is never made explicit. I squirmed during the scene in the Temeraire series, but I think that level - 40 lashes viewed by sympathetic characters - represents the most extreme edge of my interest in actually imagining the experience of a flogging in any empathic detail. More than that and it's like any other torture porn - mildly fascinating in the abstract, but increasingly disgusting and upsetting as more detail is included, all the more if it's based on real events.

Am I just getting more sensitive as I age? Is it that the more real, historical brutality and gore I learn about, the less interested I am in including it in my fantasies? I'm not sure how much I was ever interested in scenarios this extreme. And while I get much more upset and angry about real-life rape and assault these days than I used to, I still fetishize similar acts in a consensual/fantasy setting. So I'm not sure that's it.

When I think about it, I've always shied away from reading about this sort of thing in detail - but when I was younger, that reticence was characterised by a squirmy, guilty, shameful excitement. I didn't read more because I was excited by the idea, and I was ashamed of being excited. These days, that shame isn't there: so I look deeper, at which point I discover that I lack the stomach for depictions of real atrocities carried out against real people, and often can't prevent myself from imagining the experience, which is upsetting and not particularly erotic. Any eroticism is in the hints, the anticipation, the subtlety; the breath-quickening idea rather than the blood-soaked reality.

Mostly, I think I'm disappointed that Sharpe's flogging was too over-the-top for me to take it seriously. I'd wanted to get really into it, feel his fear and then get all gooey over how brave and tough he was for enduring it. As it was, I felt my brain shutting down, and I skipped through the pages as fast as I could. But even if the scene had been more realistic, I still doubt I would enjoy immersing myself in an account of one of the more believable, but no less horrible or lethal floggings with sentences in the hundreds which were carried out in reality.

Your mileage may vary, though, so if backs flayed to the bone are your kind of thing, this book is definitely for you.


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