The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard was published in 1896 while Adventures of Gerard followed in 1903 (these tales had started appearing in the Strand magazine in 1894 and the final Gerard story dates from 1911).
Etienne Gerard is a hussar officer in Napoleon’s army who has been described by no less a judge than the Emperor himself as having both the stoutest heart and the thickest head in La Grande Armée.
Conan Doyle took his historical fiction seriously. He considered his works in this genre to be his greatest achievements. On the other hand he was always a commercial writer and entertainment was the first priority. The best of his historical novels, the two Brigadier Gerard collections and the two novels about Sir Nigel Loring, The White Company and Sir Nigel, manage to be both serious historical fiction and amusing and outrageous yarns.
This ability to be amusing while taking his subject matter seriously is a rare accomplishment and one is tempted to make comparisons to George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels (such as Flashman and the Mountain of Light). There are differences of course. Gerard is genuinely brave, even if he is at times a fool. Flashman is a coward. But there are definite affinities. Conan Doyle adopts a mock-heroic style, with Gerard (who narrates the tales) treating his own idiocies as acts of extraordinary martial skill and glory. They are both men whose fame as soldiers is not entirely deserved. Gerard is a brave and well-meaning but not very intelligent bungler who has occasionally managed to do heroic things mostly by luck, although he considers himself to be a brilliant officer. Flashman is a coward and a scoundrel who has occasionally managed to appear to have done heroic things mostly by luck. So in both cases the author is taking a rather sceptical view of military glory.
The Crime of Brigadier Gerard presents Colonel Gerard with a fine opportunity to win honour. His mission is to singlehandedly scout out the Lines of Torres Vedras, the formidable line of fortifications that Viscount Wellington had constructed to defend Lisbon. Marshal Masséna has personally selected Gerard for the mission. It does not work out quite as planned. Gerard finds himself in the midst of something far more important than mere military manoeuvres - he blunders into a fox hunt. The English of course cannot possibly do without their fox hunting even in Portugal so they have imported both foxes and hounds. Gerard however does not quite appreciate just what a solemn occasion this is.
It’s a typical Gerard story, with Gerard doing his best to be heroic whilst being blissfully (and amusingly) unaware of what is actually happening.
How Brigadier Gerard Lost His Ear takes place in Venice, which Napoleon’s army is energetically and efficiently looting. The Venetians are outraged and some are exacting private vengeance on the French invaders. Gerard almost finds himself a victim of such private vengeance, although in his case there is more involved. There is a lady involved. Gerard of course will do anything for a lady. In this instance what he has to do is rather surprising. Another fine story.
Gerard is often heroic and often absurd and in Brigadier Gerard at Waterloo he manages to be both at the same time. It’s also a story in which Gerard’s delusions about his own importance reach ridiculous but rather touching extremes. He is entrusted by the Emperor with a vital mission which cold determine the outcome of the battle. Of course it doesn’t but it does give Gerard the opportunity to save the Emperor. The fact that this ends up being a futile lost cause adds a further touch of melancholy amusement (and if you think melancholy amusement isn’t possible you need to read this story).
The Brigadier in England covers the period Gerard spent in England after being captured. Much of this time was spent in congenial surroundings at the home of Lord Rufton. Gerard spends his time leaning to play cricket (a most bloodthirsty game, or at least it is the way Gerard plays it) and getting mixed up in a complicated romantic intrigue in which Gerard as always doesn’t quite understand what is going on although he thinks he does. An amusing little story.
How the Brigadier Joined the Hussars of Conflans tells us of Gerard’s first day with the regiment that was to be so important to him. Gerard immediately makes himself ridiculous with his outrageous boasting, and then proceeds to demonstrate that he really is as brave as he says he is, almost singlehandedly capturing the city of Saragossa. Some fine swashbuckling here.
How Etienne Gerard Said Good-Bye to his Master is a poignant and quixotic tale of an attempt to rescue Napoleon from St Helena. You have to admire Gerard for refusing to abandon his allegiance to the Emperor. All the Gerard stories are recounted by the elderly Gerard some time in the 1850s or thereabouts and he never wavers from his loyalty. How Etienne Gerard Said Good-Bye to his Master is a poignant and quixotic tale of an attempt to rescue Napoleon from St Helena. You have to admire Gerard for refusing to abandon his allegiance to the Emperor. All the Gerard stories are recounted by the elderly Gerard some time in the 1850s or thereabouts and he never wavers from his loyalty.
The Marriage of the Brigadier was the last of the Gerard tales to be written (in 1910, several years after the publication of The Adventures of Gerard) but chronologically it’s the first of the stories, taking place in 1802. In peacetime Gerard finds time for love, and he discovers true fear. He fears no man, but an enraged bull is another matter. And the bull acts as an unexpected match-maker. A slight but amusing story.
The Gerard stories are an absolute delight. Gerard is a buffoon but he is a brave buffoon. His belief in his heroic stature never wavers and is sublimely unaffected by reality. The Adventures of Gerard is highly recommended.