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Peter Stanley uses Anglo-Sikh war as backdrop for a historical novel

28 February 2015 No Comment

Review of ‘The Cunning Man’
By Peter Stanley
Bobby Graham Publishers, 338pp, $29.95

HAVING enjoyed historian Peter Stanley’s many works of nonfiction, one turns to this historical novel with enthusiasm but also a degree of trepidation.

There’s little doubt Stanley is one of Australia’s leading military historians. ‘The Cunning Man’ was born of research for another project. It is squarely based on his detailed and painstaking doctoral research into the lives of European soldiers in early Victorian India. In 1998, Stanley’s PhD about the subject was published in a widely acclaimed book, ‘White Mutiny: British Military Culture in India 1825-75’.

Given Stanley is such a distinguished and accurate historian, it is disconcerting to find that on both the front and back covers of this well-produced work, the last word in the title of London University’s Erica Wald’s ‘Vice in the Barracks’ is misspelt as Baracks.

This is hardly an auspicious beginning to Stanley’s nonetheless intriguing book, which centres on events during the First Anglo-Sikh War of 1845-46 and in particular on what happened in Firozpore in the Punjaub (usually spelt Punjab) on December 10, 1845. In fact, ‘The Cunning Man’ also deals with crucial military events in the Punjab that occurred later that month and the following year.

In essence, Stanley’s historical novel is compressed into a simple narrative arc — concerning a man, a woman, and a war. The historical background is that the East India Company and the Sikhs, who then inhabited the last unconquered state in India, were on the brink of war. In the novel, this threatens to embroil Stanley’s leading characters.

In some ways, it is a tad confusing that the key characters in this book, and also some of the minor ones, are fictional yet based on prototypes Stanley uncovered and knew well from his historical research.

However, once I dived into the text, the two key protagonists in particular, Sergeant-Major Nelson Mansergh of the Bengal Horse Artillery and his unrequited love, Julia Bracken, soon took on a life of their own. They especially come alive when Stanley writes about Mansergh scouring the Punjab to find the so-called Cunning Man and also to document what seemed to be an organised conspiracy among the Company’s European soldiers.

Even though he is by no means a great writer of dialogue, perhaps his finest piece of writing in the book occurs when Mansergh’s search for the Cunning Man culminates in the ferocious battle of Feroz’Shah (sometimes spelt Ferozeshah) on December 21-22, 1845.

In real life, Sir Hugh Gough and governor-general Sir Henry Hardinge led the British forces, while the extremely able Lal Singh commanded the Sikhs. Although the British were ultimately victorious, as Stanley documents in the sixth and final part of this sometimes brutal novel, the battle of Feroz’Shah was one of the hardest-fought encounters in the history of the British Army.

‘The Cunning Man’ is a powerful story of friendship, love and loyalty, and of history, romance, mutiny and betrayal. Indeed it is difficult to disagree with Wald’s relatively low-key assessment that Stanley’s engrossing book is “an engaging military mystery.

At the book’s end, there is an extremely useful three-page glossary of key Indian words and phrases used throughout the novel.

It is well worth the effort to track down this fascinating book, and to savour it as a work of well-written and clearly conceived faction.

Ross Fitzgerald is professor of history and politics at Griffith University and the author of 36 books.

The Weekend Australian, February 28-March 1, 2015, Review, Books, p.20.

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