“We called on MHN’s Twitter followers to send in questions. We picked the best ones and put them to Cornwell. Here’s what he had to say.”
IT’S BEEN SEVEN YEARS since best-selling novelist Bernard Cornwell retired his most famous character, Richard Sharpe of the 95th Rifles. Yet the British-born writer and celebrated godfather of historical fiction is still riding high.
September saw the release of his first non-fiction title, Waterloo: The True Story of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles. The book, a critical and commercial success in the U.K., will hit American shelves in the spring.
And next month, the eighth novel in Cornwell’s hugely popular Warrior Chronicles series is poised to take bookshelves by storm. The Empty Throne tracks the Anglo-Saxon hero Uhtred Ragnarson as he fights his way through the upheaval that followed the death of the 9th Century English king Alfred the Great. And like his previous works, this latest offering promises all of the skull-splitting action, page-turning intrigue and immersive historical detail that has made Cornwell a literary giant. And now the popular saga, which has been described as “Game of Thrones, but real”, is set to gallop onto television screens, the BBC has announced. Filming of the first installment in the series, The Last Kingdom, began in the fall.
On Tuesday, MilitaryHistoryNow.com reached Cornwell, age 70, at his Cape Cod home to talk about his recent work. Leading up to the interview, we called on MHN’s 6,300 Twitter followers to send in questions they wanted us to ask the noted writer. Predictably, readers responded with an assortment of queries. We picked the best ones and put them to Cornwell. Here’s what he had to say:
MHN: To date, you’ve written about the Napoleonic period, the American Revolution and Civil War, the battle of Agincourt and most recently, pre-1066 England. What is it that attracts you to a particular era?
Cornwell: I have no idea! I wish I knew. It’s whatever a capricious mind decides to take an interest in. For the Napoleonic period, I’d say it was the influence of the Horatio Hornblower novels, which I read as a kid. There were only 11 of them and when I’d run out, I looked up the non-fiction history. For the Saxon books, it’s probably because when I was in university, I was introduced to Anglo-Saxon poetry and became interested in the whole period. As for the American books? Well, I married an American and ended up here.
MHN: Are there any historical periods that you would like to explore but haven’t yet?
Cornwell: Oh, I’m sure. But it’s easier to say what I’ll never write about: The Victorian period. Boring people! [he laughs] I’m always asked to write about the English Civil War or the War of the Roses. And I must get 10 requests a year to do a novel about the War of 1812. None of it’s ever going to get done. I’m getting too old. There’s just so much, and life is so short. What just astonishes me and has always interested me is the relationship between myth and history. How is a real character like King Arthur elevated into myth? I mean he’s from the darkest of the Dark Ages so there’s almost no contemporary evidence about him. But how did happen [to historical figures] in the 18th Century when there are diaries and newspapers?
MHN: Regarding your recent book on the Battle of Waterloo, many are wondering if you are now getting into non-fiction?
Cornwell: I’m not getting into it – I dipped my toe into it and am getting right out again. I’ve done one non-fiction book and I promise you there will be only one. It’s done and that’s it.
MHN: Why no more?
Cornwell: Because you have to get it right and it’s much more boring. I’d always wanted to do a book on Waterloo and the bicentennial was the obvious time to do it. I’m happy to say that it’s been incredibly successful in Britain. I don’t know how it will do when it’s released in America. But I don’t really have a burning desire to do another work of non-fiction.
MHN: One of our readers wonders if it was hard to come at Waterloo from a fresh perspective and not be influenced by all the previous material on the subject?
Cornwell: It was really quite easy, probably because I’d spent so much time thinking about it. I don’t want to say “I know so much about it,” but plainly… there’s a point where you get to know a subject pretty well.
People ask me if I could go back in time and ask [Wellington] questions what would they be? I’d rather send a Victoria’s Secrets model back to do it. He’d tell her everything. All his best stories came from women.
MHN: Prior to this interview you told us that you consider the Duke of Wellington to be the most fascinating character from military history. Why is that?
Cornwell: Probably because I spent so much time with him. And also because I know he’d hate me. He detested all authors. And while I’m not going to say that he was “the perfect soldier”, because he’s not, I think what really fascinates me about him is that he was so successful as a soldier. I mean we’re talking about more than 25 major battles and not one loss. He was very unflashy. You could say that Napoleon was flashy or Stonewall Jackson (in his strategy and tactics) was flashy. But Wellington, my god, he gets it right. There was a sergeant by the name of Lawrence who wrote a very good piece about Wellington. He said: ‘we don’t actually like him that much. We don’t have to like him. But we know that we’re going to be looked after and we know that we’re going to win.’ What more could a soldier want? He wasn’t careless with men like Napoleon was and indeed as Patton was. But he’s not a very attractive character either. I mean he’s something of a snob. People ask me if I could go back in time and ask him questions what would they be? I’d rather send a Victoria’s Secrets model back to do it. He’d tell her everything. All his best stories came from women. And of course, I’m certainly also very fond of Robert E. Lee. I don’t know as much about him as I do Wellington, but he was a total gentleman and an incredibly admirable man.
MHN: One reader asks: “What are your feelings about the Sharpe TV series, specifically the liberties taken in later episodes?”
Cornwell: On the whole, I really liked it. Sean Bean was a wonderful Sharpe. But people have to remember that they [the television producers] have constraints that I don’t have. I mean, when a book I’m writing is beginning to bore me, I can wheel on 40,000 Frenchmen and have a battle and it costs me nothing. But if you’re making a TV series, these things cost a lot of money. Some people thought, although not many, that they should have stayed more true to the books. But they couldn’t be, not unless the budgets were impossibly large.
MHN: Another MHN follower wanted to ask about which authors you read.
Cornwell: Anyone who doesn’t write historical fiction! I spend 12 hours a day writing the stuff. The last thing I want to do is sit down in the evening and read it. But the people I admire most in the field that I do read are Hilary Mantel who is a goddess and C.J. Samson whose Matthew Shardlake novels I like. But you go into a bookshop in Britain and it says on books: “the next Bernard Cornwell” or one that really thrilled me was: “Better than Bernard Cornwall or your money back.” I mean, why would I want to read that? I don’t. I write the stuff. I read a lot of non-fiction and a lot of history, but when I want to read a novel, I read John Sanford. I love his books. Nice police procedural crime novels. I wish he’d right more.
MHN: Finally, One reader tweeted us: “How do you really feel about the French, seeing that you’ve killed so many of them in your books?”
Cornwell: I love the French! Why would I not? The French have been terribly good to me. Their bread is wonderful and their cheeses are to die for. And they even make good wine, I’m told. In Sharpe, I’m not going to say that they French are cartoonish, but the British have always defined themselves in their history with their wars against France. It’s a sort of love hate relationship. So I love the French, but I don’t suspect for one instant that there would ever be a statue to Napoleon in London. But there is a statue of George Washington. That tells you all you need to know.