With 21 Sharpe novels to his credit (the first in 1981), Bernard Cornwell has hardly neglected other historical periods, having devoted his storytelling skill to multi-volume sagas on Arthurian Britain, the era of King Alfred, the Hundred Years War, and the American Civil War, among other subjects. His most recent book is The Burning Land.
British soldier Richard Sharpe first thrilled PBS viewers in the early 1990s. Now actor Sean Bean is back again as the redoubtable, if older, Napoleonic-era rifleman, created by English historical novelist Bernard Cornwell. In March, 2010, Cornwell spoke with Masterpiece's Richard Maurer from his home on Cape Cod, where he now turns out one book a year and is an avid actor in a local theater company.
Select a topic from the list below to see Cornwell's thoughts, or choose Show All to see the entire interview.
The Sharpe Television Series
Did the success of the Sharpe TV series affect your subsequent Sharpe books and the way you depicted him?
Yes, it did. Ever after the first series, I always heard Sean Bean's voice whenever I wrote Sharpe or his dialogue. And I still do. On the other hand, I don't see Sean Bean as Sharpe, and that's not a criticism of Sean. In the first books Sharpe is always described as being black haired, and of course Sean is fair. That's probably why I don't really see Sean. But I hear Sean's very distinctive Yorkshire accent, which delights me to no end. I think Sean makes an absolutely wonderful Richard Sharpe.
It's interesting to speculate how Sharpe history might have changed had Paul McGann not broken his leg, since he was originally cast as Sharpe.
It was terribly bad luck for Paul, but it had an interesting effect among British women fans, of which there are many. There's an iconic picture of Sean wearing a shirt and his green jacket and holding a rifle. His clothing is unbuttoned almost to his belly button. There's lots of good Sheffield chest showing, and it has become a very popular picture. But the only reason he's doing it is because when he took over at the last minute they didn't have time to get his new uniform, so for the first week he had to wear Paul McGann's costumes, which were too small for him.
The History Behind Sharpe
The two new Sharpe films are set in India around 1817. There are British army troops but also quite a lot of soldiers employed by the East India Company. What's going on?
What's going on is that in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the occupying power of India was the East India Company, which was enormously wealthy because of its trading. You have to think of this as rather like a modern corporation that raises its own army. That army was mostly native troops, but a lot of the officers were European. It's very confusing that that army wears a uniform very similar to the uniform of the British army. Essentially the East India Company is doing the bidding of the British government; or the British government is doing the bidding of the East India; they're hand in glove.
Both films have very young teenage English officers in charge of troops. Was this common?
It was not uncommon for boys of fifteen or sixteen to get an ensign's commission. They would have been a junior officer under a far more experienced captain and probably another lieutenant at least.
Sergeant Harper carries a truly fearsome looking firearm. What is it?
Oh, the seven-barrel volley gun! It was in fact made as a naval weapon; it wasn't meant for soldiers at all. The distinguishing feature was that they had seven barrels clustered, fired by a single flintlock. The idea was that marines and sailors would carry this thing high up in the rigging of warships and fire down on the enemy deck, drenching the enemy with an awful lot of bullets. But they very quickly discovered that the kick broke people's shoulders. So it was changed from rifled to smooth-bore to lessen the recoil. To be honest, it's a completely impractical weapon. As soon as it's fired, it's out of the battle for the next three minutes for reloading, so I can't actually believe that anybody in their right mind would carry one, but I just liked the idea.
Do you have readers who take you to task for historical details they consider wrong?
Most of the corrections I get are from nice people. I remember very early on in the Sharpe series, the world's greatest expert on the bayonet — there has to be one, by the way — wrote to me and said, "You've got the details of this bayonet wrong." He wrote extremely charmingly, and we become very good friends. His advice was hugely useful on other weapons. No one is going to get it all right. You hope to get it right. But for instance, I put snowdrops in one of my Arthur books, and sure enough someone wrote, "There were no snowdrops in Arthurian England."
Each of your novels ends with a historical essay about the actual incidents and sources behind your story. What do you believe is the historical novelist's responsibility to history?
I think those afterwords are absolutely necessary, because I am not an historian; I am a storyteller. Whenever the demands of the story clash with the dictate of real history, the story is going to win, because my job is to entertain; it's not to educate. But I do understand that for many people, as it was for me when I was young, historical novels are a gateway to history; and they will persuade people, I hope, to go on to read the real history. I think that once you finish a book, it's incumbent upon the historical novelist to tell people where he changed history and maybe why; and also where they can go to discover more about the period. So, yes, I do think that my job is to serve history and to serve historians — but to do it by doing a song and dance.
Cornwell's Writing Career
Have you given any thought to writing more lengthy pieces of non-fiction?
Oh, God, no! With non-fiction you have to get it all right. At least my way, if I make a really terrible mistake and have Robert E. Lee carrying a tommy gun, I can say, "Well, it's just author's license. This is fiction!"