Sharpe’s Return: Bernard Cornwell Interview

Oliver Webb-Carter

Our editor managed to gain an audience with the master novelist to chat Sharpe, Wellington, Napoleon and more.
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Sharpe’s Return: Bernard Cornwell Interview

One crisp morning towards the end of 2021, I found myself walking with some trepidation through Covent Garden. I had a meeting with the author whose work I had been reading since the age of 10, and without whom it is unlikely I would be doing what I’m doing now. As I arrived at the agreed location, a few minutes early, I noticed a gentleman seated outside and enjoying a small cigar. It was him. Keen to avoid eye contact and thereby an awkward start to what was to be a momentous encounter, I dived into the nearest coffee shop.

Sean Bean as Sharpe

Bernard Cornwell, now 77, published Sharpe’s Eagle in 1981, and it was an immediate success. Centred around its grumpy hero, Richard Sharpe, Eagle was the first of 22 novels and three short stories (more about that later). The latest, Sharpe’s Assassin, came out just before Christmas. Cornwell has sold more than 30 million books, and Sharpe has filleted his way through countless Frenchmen, seduced many a beauty, but with the new novel has reached peace and contentment in the arms of Lucille, his French third wife. That is until Boney appears, humbugs Wellington, and Sharpe is called for one more battle at Waterloo. In Assassin, with the battle won, he is tasked with ensuring Paris is free from threat before the victorious allies arrive.

Through Sharpe I was introduced to a love of history which, as a homesick schoolboy, opened up a whole new world. Whilst reading the opening lines of Assassin, I immediately felt comfortable, as if getting into a soft feather bed. Did it feel the same for the author? “The moment I started writing it I felt comfortable, so I know what you mean. It was very nice being back with Sharpe and Harper.” I was conscious that in my interview, I didn’t want to ask questions that have been asked many times before, and can easily be found in newspapers, YouTube and elsewhere, but I had to get the big one out the way: is Sharpe’s Assassin a one off? After all, there is no ‘Sharpe & Harper will march again’ at the end of his entertainingly informative Historical Note. “Probably not, but I never know. I always wanted to write a few more Sharpes so I think there will be another one or two. By that [Sharpe & Harper marching again] I meant there’s nothing in their future but there’s something in their past. I suppose I could have written Sharpe and Harper might retrace their steps…”

We are meeting in the large first floor sitting room of a hotel, with plenty of people milling around. Cornwell is relaxed on a sofa, and I’m seated to his right in an armchair. When I arrived he was polite, friendly and softly spoken. As I checked my BlackBerry to ensure we’re being recorded, all that was running through my head was, ‘Do not bugger this up.’ This was as much directed at my mobile as myself.

In the new novel, there’s a darkness to Sharpe, more so than in his previous outings. Indeed, he commits a murder that’s more brutal and unforgiving than I had noticed in the earlier books. Does he have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? “I think so, yes, I always thought he had a touch of PTSD. I can’t see how you wouldn’t. You had all these guys who did literally fight for the best part of 15 years, through some of the most gory, horrible battles and I just can’t believe they didn’t have nightmares about it. Picton, undoubtedly suffered from it, and he had nightmares before he left England to go to Waterloo. He jumped into a grave in Wales to see how it felt. Poor Picton. So I’m sure Sharpe suffered from PTSD.” The murder is not the sign of a healthy man. “Whoever said Sharpe was healthy? I remember a long time ago someone telling me, he was American, he said, ‘I read Sharpe’s Eagle and Sharpe just murdered those guys and I knew he was a different hero, so I stuck with him,’ so I do give Sharpe the odd murder.”

One element to Sharpe that is under-appreciated is his love of good food. This passion reappears in Assassin with a dinner of Pheasant Consommé, Poulet Marengo and Sparrow Dumplings. Earlier novels have given mouth-watering descriptions from the simple breakfast of crusty bread, ham, mustard and fresh butter with General Nairn, to the more advanced Elizabeth David inspired Christmas dinner in Sharpe’s Enemy. Sharpe has quite a refined palate, doesn’t he? “Really? I don’t remember! He has acquired a palate which Lucille gave him.”

First edition of Sharpe’s Eagle.

Back in the 1970s, when Cornwell was at the BBC, he had a stint in Northern Ireland. The enormous Patrick Harper, great friend of Sharpe, is an Ulsterman, from Co. Donegal, and the Irish are a constant and hugely positive presence in the series. Not only is this good historical fiction – there were plenty in Wellington’s army – but it’s a part of his stories I’ve always loved, but wanted to know why? “I was [in Ireland] and absolutely loved it, fell in love with the place. I was originally asked to go by the BBC on attachment…I just loved it and I loved the people. Harper is actually named for a friend of mine, we called him a bad boy, he was a sticky, from Belfast.”

Now it’s at this point in the interview I’m thinking, is it going well? Is it deserving of the readers of Aspects of History? The food question didn’t seem to go that well. And Cornwell, as polite and tolerant as he has been thus far, doesn’t seem that engaged with what I’m asking him. Nor should he. He doesn’t need to do this interview. He’s sold more books than Frenchmen blasted by Harper with his seven-barrelled volley gun.

I try a different approach. It’s a weird question, so don’t judge me. Twenty years before this meeting, I had heard rumour of a Sharpe short story available online called Sharpe’s Christmas. This sent me down a rabbit hole of Sharpeophilia. I stumbled across a story that was pure smut. Total filth involving Sharpe, Harper and La Marquesa (the wife of the slain El Marques de Casares el Grande y Melida Sadaba – one of the great names of historical fiction). Had he heard of this?

Cornwell’s expression changes, and a naughty grin emerges, “No, but I want to find it! Perhaps it should have been called 50 Shades of Rifle Green?.”

I had been thinking of Sharpe’s Porn, but Harper Collins most likely would need final sign-off. Cornwell continues, “The sexiest scene in Sharpe is where he searches La Marquesa for fleas. I don’t think it’s pornographic.”

This rather immature question has changed the atmosphere, at least it did for me, and I feel more relaxed sense Cornwell now knows that whilst he’s dealing with an imbecile, at least I’m a well-meaning one.

Cornwell is an enthusiastic actor, having played many Shakespearean parts at his local theatre over the years, including Prospero and Sir Toby Belch – complete with MCC tie. He’s now helping to put on the Cape Cod Shakespeare Festival. What part, had he been offered it, would he play in the Sharpe TV series? “I’ve never thought of that, I’ve no idea. I think one of the officers who Sharpe buggers about.”

If Sharpe were in Napoleon’s army, would he have been a Marshal by 1815? “He’d have been a Brigadier. If he’d had been a Marshal the French would have won [Waterloo]. I think Sharpe did as well as he possibly could in either army. Several of Napoleon’s generals were very low born. There was a man called John Elley and Sharpe’s promotions are an exact copy of his [chronologically]. Elley joined as a trooper and ended up as a Lt. Col at Waterloo. And Sharpe was promoted at the exact same timescale.”

The TV series made Sean Bean a star, an absolutely perfect piece of casting which was literally by accident since the original choice Paul McGann (of Withnail & I fame) broke his ankle playing football on set. “There was a rumour I didn’t want Sean Bean, totally untrue. Even ended up on Wikipedia. I edited it out, but it was there again within a week. Finally, I wrote to the Wikipedia gods, and said, ‘look, this is a lie.’ And they’ve kept it out ever since.”

One of the great characters of the novels is Hakeswill, played brilliantly in the TV series by the late Pete Postlethwaite. Cornwell adores the character, “stupidest thing I ever did [killing him off].” Was that why he wrote the prequels set in India, to revive Hakeswill? “Part of it, but really I think the spur for the Indian novels was the TV series. People wanted more Sharpes; ok, let’s do India.”

Sir John Moore

In 1990 Cornwell wrote his first prequel, Sharpe’s Rifles, set just after the battle of Corunna in January 1809 when Sir John Moore defeated Marshal Soult, but was killed as the fighting subsided. It’s one of the great what ifs – had he survived, he’d have commanded the British Army in Spain, not Wellington. Would Moore and Sharpe have had a frosty relationship?

“I think it would have been a slightly warmer relationship. I think Moore was a slightly nicer man. Moore was an extraordinary man. I put him in another book I wrote, The Fort, when he was 18-years-old and fights his first battle. He’s completely foolhardy. A fascinating man. Set up the Light Division; I’m sure Wellington was very grateful to him. It’s like Wolfe, another interesting man. I was reading quite a lot on Wolfe this last year. Whether I’ll ever write I don’t know, but the thing that fascinated me most is…Lord Ligonier was the British commander-in-chief in North America at that time, he was like me a septuagenarian, and the combined age of his four mistresses was 58! He was a Jeffrey Epstein figure. My history fact of the year!”

Wellington & King Alfred (Alfred features in Cornwell’s Last Kingdom series with Uhtred as his hero), does he think they are similar characters? “No, but that’s a very interesting question, isn’t it? Alfred – almost the first thing that springs to mind is piety, and then you add to that, chronic disease, incredible intelligence. I think Wellington is far more practical. The great thing about Wellington is that he’d actually commanded a company, a battalion, a brigade. He knew exactly what all the components did, and how they worked. You add to that an acute tactical sense which he showed again and again. Really Wellington is the complete soldier, but a lousy politician. Alfred, I suspect was rather a good politician. Alfred won his wars through the exercise of intelligence, and I don’t believe for one moment that statue in Winchester where he looks like a Second Row Forward! He does look fantastic, but that’s myth. He did lead in some battles, but he’s not an Uhtred or a Sharpe. He wouldn’t last two minutes, but he was incredibly intelligent and pious.  I don’t think the Duke was pious.”

I let Cornwell know that I studied the Peninsular War for my A-Level special project because of Sharpe. He’s delighted. We discuss how Wellington was so effective because of his mastery of logistics. This prompts a story I wasn’t aware of, “My total favourite…is before [the battle] Vitoria. Wellington had sent his officers all through the Galician mountains to set up depots of food. And they had done these deals with the big landowners and…agreed they’d have so much flour and so much whatever when the army came…they got to a point when an officer was sent off to the landowner to say, ‘OK we need the food now’. [He] comes back to Wellington empty-handed. Wellington says, ‘What’s the problem?’ and the officer says, ‘Well, the landowner expected me to bow to him. I told him, I’m an English gentleman and I don’t bow to anyone’. Wellington says, ‘we’ll soon see about that’. He gets on his horse, belts off. He comes back, and the food rolls in to the camp. The officer asks, ‘what did you do?’, and Wellington says, ‘oh I just bobbed down.’ It’s absolutely typical. You do what is necessary.”

It’s when we discuss history that I feel Cornwell is most engaged. I mention the battlefield of Salamanca which I had visited as a teenager. The battle is a great example of Wellington as an attacking general. “That’s right, Salamanca and Vitoria are the two attacking battles, and Assaye is a great attacking battle. I think he knew his reputation was as a defensive general which I think he rather bridled at that judgement. Salamanca was a glorious piece of work. A strange way to put it, I think…who was the French general who lost an arm at Salamanca?” I pluck a name out of distant memory, Marmont. “Yes, that’s him. He was quite good until he lost his arm [at the battle]. And Wellington was quite tactless when he introduced him to the gunner who took his arm: ‘Mon cher Marshal, I’m sure you’d like to meet Gunner Watt?’ Soult was there. What a scene. All the defeated French generals, with Wellington.”

Wellington at Salamanca

Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon the Great is mentioned, “I liked his Napoleon, I think he deserves its title. I think he was a great man.” I ask him if he thinks Europe would have been better off if Napoleon had won at Waterloo? “Yes, probably,” he laughs, “What a terrible question to ask! He was a great administrator. Pretty well enlightened. We should have had a united Europe under Napoleon, including Britain, and none of this nonsense over Brexit. We’d be a département! My feeling about Napoleon is that he was an incredibly clever man, really clever, and got bored incredibly easily, and the one activity that totally fascinated him was warfare because you risk everything…When he gets it right, he gets it beautifully right. The campaign of 1814, although he loses it, is a work of genius. Switching troops around, and defeating people…I think he’s the ultimate gambler and war is the ultimate gamble…if they’d let Napoleon back in Paris, [and make him] stick within his frontiers, it wouldn’t have lasted. He’d have found a reason to cross.”

Our meeting comes to an end, as it must. Cornwell was enormously generous with his time, I got more than the hour allotted. His knowledge of the period is vast, evidenced by his successful non-fiction Waterloo, and he tolerated me with great humour. As I leave, he kindly agrees to sign my copy of Sharpe’s Assassin, and I walk away happy in the knowledge that Sharpe and Harper will march again.

Aspects of History Issue 10 is out now.