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Obadiah Hakeswill: A Character Study May 28, 2013

Posted by Me in Obadiah Hakeswill, Sharpe Series.
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Some time ago, I joined the Yahoo Sharpe group.  Unfortunately, it is no longer a very active group, with its heyday having been several years ago.  Recently, however, I went over to browse what had been posted about Obadiah Hakeswill and found him not getting a lot of love, which wasn’t surprising.   Nor did he get any understanding or compassion which, while also not too surprising, was rather disappointing.  The consensus about Obadiah there was, sadly, pretty much of a black and white matter, with nearly all of the posters taking him strictly at face value.  No one attempted to be objective, nor did they attempt to try to see things from his point of view.

The typical comments were that he was irredeemably eeeeeeeevil from birth, that he was stupid, a coward, a bully, dirty, lacked empathy and/or a protective instinct, was someone that no one could or should love, blah, blah, blah. Another point that was frequently made was that Hakeswill and Sharpe had similar backgrounds, but that Sharpe had ended up making the right choices in life, so why couldn’t Obadiah — but, of course, with little exploration as to why this was so.  One member made multiple posts harping on the idea that he was even a failure as a bad guy, simply because he would not face Richard Sharpe directly in a mano-a-mano fight, though he seemed to give Ducos a pass for the same perceived inability!

But where others see an irredeemably evil man, I see a damaged, unloved little boy underneath the bullying sergeant, who ended up doing what he thought was necessary to survive.  The speech he gave to Colonel McCandless before he shot him in Sharpe’s Triumph, where he calls McCandless on his religious hypocrisy and said that God loves him even if no one else does, broke my heart. I saw this as a key passage about who Obadiah was underneath the bastard persona he showed to the world.

“You’d like to strike me down, wouldn’t you, sir? ‘Cos you don’t like me, sir, do you? But God loves me, sir, he does. He looks after me.”  — Sharpe’s Triumph

Another important passage was in Sharpe’s Fortress where he naively assumed that he and Clare Wall were meant to be together.  His clumsy attempts to flirt with her brought a lump to my throat; he had the same dreams as any other man and was just as human as they were.  The fact that he clung desperately to his mother’s memory, as the only scrap of loving he had ever known in his life, showed that he wanted to love and be loved, even if he didn’t have a clue as to how to go about it.

“A proper little woman, that, sir.  A flower, that’s what she is, a flower!”

“No doubt you would like to pluck her?”

“It’s time I was married,” Hakeswill said. “A man should leave a son, sir, says so in the scriptures.”

“You’re the flower of womanhood,” he told her, then watched appreciatively as she scuttled back to the kitchen.  “Her and me, sir, are meant for each other. Says so in the scriptures.”  –Sharpe’s Fortress

Now, I’m not saying that Obadiah was simply a misunderstood good guy; he was most certainly not.  But there are some serious and compelling mitigating factors in his life that can and should allow for a certain amount of compassion or pity.  I grant that he was often cowardly and was indeed a bully, but I don’t leave it simply at that — I want to know why.  As far as the other stuff goes, I could have written several rebuttals on the board, but most of these comments are between ten and twelve years old, so I am bringing my rebuttals here to my own blog, even though the original commenters will likely never see them.

Be advised that my view of Obadiah is strongly influenced by Pete Postlethwaite and his portrayal of him and by how he appears in the three India novels.  I first encountered Obadiah on film, then in Sharpe’s Tiger and that is where my affinity for him began.  Bernard Cornwell stated in Sharpe’s Story that he “quite forgot” his original description of Obadiah in Sharpe’s Company and Sharpe’s Enemy after seeing Pete in the films.  He also stated that he wrote him in the three India books with Postlethwaite’s portrayal in mind and that Pete had “greatly improved the character”.

Indeed, if my first and only exposure to Obadiah had been in the books, Sharpe’s Company and Sharpe’s Enemy, my opinion of him would likely be more in step with those on the Yahoo board.  Company and Enemy were among the earliest of the Sharpe books written and I am of the opinion that Cornwell had not yet fully developed Obadiah; that he was too one-dimensional.  The way he is written there is too much over the top. Likewise, the physical description was all wrong.

At a time, when no one in the enlisted ranks was particularly clean by 21st century standards, I found it an unnecessary heavy-handed device to make him exceptionally more dirty and un-hygienic than his peers as a way to emphasize that Obadiah is a BAD!!!! guy, in case anyone might forget.  Please! An author doesn’t need to make an antagonist deficient in every aspect of his life so that readers will remember he’s the bad guy.

And though Cornwell revisits this theme in Fortress with the nasty feet passage, it’s rather obvious that it was done here mostly for comic relief.  Indeed, in Tiger, Cornwell had previously corrected this  by having Sharpe remember how it was a “pleasure” to watch Obadiah doing drill in his spiffy uniform.

…his uniform was as smart as though he stood guard at Windsor Castle.  He performed drill like a Prussian, each movement so crisp and clean that it was a pleasure to watch…  — Sharpe’s Tiger

As for me, in my stories, I simply ignore the “dirty Obadiah” meme and write him as having the same level of hygiene as is typical for those around him.

I usually prefer books to movies, but in this case, I much prefer the filmed Postlethwaite version of Obadiah in both Company and Enemy, as I find this version far more believable.  Pete had the marvelous ability to portray Obadiah as being both menacing and oddly vulnerable at the same time.  I wish Cornwell would go back and re-write him in these two books to match the improved Obadiah of the India novels and films.  And because Cornwell admitted that Obadiah needed improvement and then made changes in subsequent novels, I mostly ignore the earlier written version in my assessment of him as well.

Now, on to my comments in response to those from the board.

First, I must point out that Bernard Cornwell wrote the Sharpe novels mostly from Richard Sharpe’s point of view.  Nothing wrong with that; it is customary to write novels from the main protagonist’s perspective.  Thus, events and people are going to be seen as Sharpe sees them and reflect his opinions.  Everything will be filtered through that lens.  Because no two people see things in exactly the same way, one perspective is never the entire truth.  Objectivity is skewed, if not altogether absent in some cases, as is likely when it comes to Sharpe’s view of Hakeswill.  Not only that, no one person can have a complete picture about another person’s life unless they have been with that person 24/7 since birth.  Things will be missing that can often change or mitigate the view of different characters.  This is true in fiction and is also often true in non-fiction as well.

So, when board members commented on Obadiah having a son in Sharpe’s Peril, they said they couldn’t imagine any woman wanting him.  But just because Sharpe hated him, doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody did, without exception, at least not with the same intensity as Sharpe.  Most of us show different faces to the world depending on the company and the situation.  I imagine Obadiah was no different and had something about him that at least one woman found acceptable, if not appealing.  Because the son had his father’s name, it’s safe to assume that he was not the product of a rape.  As the old saying goes, there is someone for everyone.

Irredeemably evil?  I don’t believe that anyone is born “evil”; that is a religious judgment.  I believe that people are born with their basic temperaments that can be affected, for good or bad, by their environments, especially in their formative years. And there are those born with severe mental illnesses or deficiencies that don’t seem to currently be responsive to treatment.   I don’t believe Obadiah belongs in the second category, because I don’t think he’d have been able to function in the army for 30+ years undetected if he had been.  Rather, I think Obadiah’s mental issues are of the first variety, a basic temperament influenced in a negative direction by a neglectful and, perhaps, abusive childhood.  And, I firmly believe that being hanged at age twelve was enough to give anyone permanent mental issues, no matter how well they survived otherwise.

In this vein, one person remarked that Obadiah deserved to be hanged for raping the vicar’s daughter by holding a poisonous snake in her face to get her to comply.  But to be more precise, Sharpe’s Company records the story as Obadiah having used the snake to make her “undress for him”; that no rape was committed.   And though it may seem to be stretching  credulity, how do we know that he would have raped the girl?  He was twelve at the time, after all.   It’s also very hard to believe that Obadiah could have threatened her with a poisonous snake without getting bitten himself; the story just doesn’t ring true.

In any instance, Obadiah could not have been hanged for this incident, as no rape occurred.  According to the website, The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, the most he could have been charged with for the incident as described in Sharpe’s Company was either Indecent Assault or, at the most, Assault With Intent to Rape, both of which were misdemeanors.   The first was an umbrella term for all sorts of sexual offenses where actual intercourse did not happen and the second for when it could not be proven whether penetration had occurred or when an attempt had failed.

Thus, the vicar had to resort to the sheep-stealing fabrication which, oddly enough, was a hanging offense at the time.   In any instance I think it would have been better to have written the reason for his hanging as actually having stolen a lamb as this is far more believable for a boy of that age, who had no doubt spent his childhood like Richard Sharpe had, by stealing to survive.    As written, it’s melodramatic and too much over the top.

Why did he attack the girl in the first place?  We can’t know for sure, nor do we know the girl’s age.  Obadiah referred to her as the “prig of a vicar’s daughter”, which seems to indicate that she was at least his age, if not older, and that she was unkind to him (not that this excuses such behavior; I only mention it to provide something that he might have seen as a provocation).

Obadiah and his mother were certainly extremely poor and both probably engaged in stealing and other feral, anti-social behavior in order to survive in a world with few job opportunities for women and no social programs to help poor children.  So, Obadiah was probably seen as a nuisance in the village where he was raised, and it’s quite believable the vicar might well have seen this incident as an opportunity to get rid of this nuisance for good, which would explain why he concocted the sheep stealing lie instead of having him charged for what really happened.  Indeed, in Sharpe’s Company, it is made clear that the vicar despised both mother and son:

“...the vicar, if he could have thought of a way, would have gladly strung her alongside her foul son”.  — Sharpe’s Company

No one is all bad or all good — human beings are too complex for that and it’s not believable in real life or in fiction. Some may tilt strongly in one direction or the other, but every “saint” has sinned and every sinner has done good at some point in their lives.

And this brings me to my next point, to answer the question of why Sharpe turned out “good” after having had a similar background to Obadiah’s and the assumption that it’s all a simple matter of making the right choices in life:

“He (Sharpe) responded to people like Colonel Mcandles(sic)
> (Tiger, Triumph) who tried to help him. In other words, he made a
> choice.” (Post from Yahoo Sharpe message board).

The key word, here, is the word similar.  While it is quite true they had similar childhoods, their childhoods were not identical. And as I’ve pointed out before, no two people react to similar events in the same way every time.  Both men grew up in poverty not knowing who their fathers were and both had to lie and steal just to survive, but this is pretty much where the similarities end.

One key difference in their childhoods is that Richard Sharpe never had to experience the trauma of surviving a botched hanging as a child.  Though there wasn’t a word for it then, I believe this experience gave Obadiah Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and was the source of most of his mental issues as an adult, as well as his unfortunate twitch.

Another important difference is that Obadiah didn’t have someone like Maggie Joyce or Hector McCandless in his life, someone to look out for him or mentor him. Perhaps young Richard learned to protect others because Maggie protected him, while no one ever protected Obadiah or showed him any empathy.  Certainly not Colonel McCandless, who professed to be such a great Christian and who recognized that Obadiah had mental issues, yet called him a “thing” in Sharpe’s Tiger, and did not show him any compassion, Christian or otherwise:

“‘And there were some good Christian men among them, too.(murdered by Tippoo’s men)  Only that thing over there survived.’ He jerked his head toward Hakeswill’s cell.”  –Sharpe’s Tiger

Nor did Obadiah have the blessing of a handsome face and a charming personality, which would have made people more likely to want to help him as it did for Sharpe at key points in his life, which served to point him toward better choices in life.    It’s quite likely Obadiah didn’t make better choices because he didn’t know what those choices were, having never had them modeled for him growing up, nor was he often, if ever, given opportunities to make positive choices.

In essence, he grew up not showing mercy, because it was never shown to him.  His mother taught him how to survive by any means possible and to “do it to them before they do it to you.”  Unlike Sharpe, Obadiah remained in survival mode, never reaching a point where he felt safe to trust anyone.  And, for many years, this served him well enough, helping him to survive in the army as a boy of twelve and to make his way up the ladder to sergeant, which was usually the highest rank that someone from his background could ever hope to attain.

And Richard Sharpe didn’t always make the most ethical choices.  Sometimes, he behaved very much like Obadiah.  In Sharpe’s Fortress, he posed as a colonel in order to murder two unsuspecting privates without “facing them like a man”, like one member of the Yahoo board several times accused Obadiah of not doing.  In Sharpe’s Trafalgar, he ambushed and murdered a man mostly because he stood in the way of Sharpe bedding another man’s wife.  And let us not forget that in several of the books Sharpe more than matches Hakeswill when it comes to stealing.

If one includes the film version of Sharpe, he is also unfaithful to Teresa. And in Sharpe’s Peril, he irrationally attacked Barabbas  Hakeswill simply for having the wrong father and would have likely killed him had Harper not intervened.  But, many people would give Sharpe the benefit of the doubt for these actions, in a way they never would have for Hakeswill.  Obadiah, no doubt, was well aware of this double standard, which made him hate Sharpe all the more.

It’s not hard for me to imagine that Sharpe could have quite easily ended up very much like Obadiah, if not for a few fortunate happenstances in his life and meeting a few people who made a big difference in the direction his life took.  After all, he did commit murder twice before joining the army and before reaching adulthood.

And saying that Hakeswill was stupid?  Don’t make me laugh.  Obadiah was as cunning as a fox and, despite not having an education beyond knowing how to read and write, he managed to outsmart and outmaneuver officers who had been to the best of schools. Despite hating his guts, even Sharpe knew better than to underestimate Hakeswill’s intelligence:

“Hakeswill had worked himself into the army’s most profitable billet!  He was milking the cow, but making sure it was the clerk’s handwriting in the ledger. No flies on Obadiah.”  –Sharpe’s Fortress

He’d learned how to work the army system to his advantage — something that Sharpe always struggled with — and had made himself a pretty comfortable spot in the army for a man of his background.  And in the film version of Sharpe’s Enemy, at least, he managed to lead the deserter’s army with an adequate level of competence.  I admit that Cornwell makes him appear half-mad in Sharpe’s Enemy and Company, respectively,  but the India novels and in the films, he’s anything but stupid.  I believe, as did Patrick Harper,  that even the business of him talking to the picture in his hat in Company as if it was his mother was calculated more to intimidate rather than being true madness.

And the repeated assertion that Obadiah wasn’t even a good antagonist because he didn’t challenge Richard Sharpe to a duel or some other sort of fight face to face, implying that it was, by definition, cowardly?  For one thing, Bernard Cornwell wasn’t writing a Superman style superhero fantasy series; he was writing historical fiction with a flawed, anti-hero protagonist who had equally complex adversaries. There’s a very good reason why Obadiah Hakeswill is one of the best-known and well-remembered fictional antagonists; the man just leaps off the pages and lodges himself into the reader’s memory.  I wouldn’t be here writing pages about him if he wasn’t.

Put simply, Obadiah didn’t confront Richard Sharpe directly for a mano-a-mano fight because he wasn’t a stupid man.  He was shorter, slighter, and older than Sharpe, and quite possibly in questionable health.  He knew he’d be working at a disadvantage if he challenged Sharpe in this way.  Instead, like any intelligent person, Obadiah worked from his strengths, rather than his weaknesses.  Obadiah was in it to win and to survive, not to impress others — he wouldn’t have lasted 30 years in the army by trying to play the hero.

This isn’t to say that Obadiah was useless as a fighting soldier, however.  Even Sharpe acknowledged this in Sharpe’s Company, when he tells Obadiah his rules in the stable after rescuing Teresa:

“First, that you fight well and that you fight to win.  I know you can do that, Sergeant, I’ve watched you!”  –Sharpe’s Company

Nor does Obadiah always attack from behind.   In Triumph, he sought out and confronted McCandless directly and showed no fear (Cornwell’s phrase). First, he told McCandless bluntly the problem he had with him and, when the other man had drawn his claymore, shot him face to face, not in the back as the original commenter implied.

I can even understand why he killed Teresa — and again, face to face.  Having dealt with her before and no doubt well-aware of her reputation as La Ajuga, he didn’t underestimate her just because she was a woman.  This was a lesson Sharpe was given over and over with several women and never really quite learned.  And, besides, she’d drawn on him first.  What was he supposed to do, trust her and let himself be killed?  Hardly.   It was a shame that Teresa was killed, but it wasn’t as if he went looking for her to do it.  He was backed into a corner and did what he needed to do to survive.

In conclusion, I believe that if Obadiah had met someone to look out for him and to mentor him at crucial points in his life, as Sharpe did and, most importantly, had he not been hanged, things could have been very different for him, too.  Before the hanging, he was no doubt every bit as salvageable as Richard Sharpe, but after the hanging he was traumatized to the point of being emotionally crippled for life.  And, even then, I like to think that the right set of circumstances and people in his life might have helped him to at least partially overcome it, despite how remote that chance would have been.  Unfortunately, we will never know, except through the vehicle of fan fiction.

Obadiah Hakeswill

Obadiah Hakeswill (far right) in Sharpe’s Company