Bernard Cornwell is a master of historical fiction. Chris Bond talked to him about his new book on the Battle of Waterloo and his unplanned route to literary fame ahead of his visit to Yorkshire.
IT’S more than 30 years since Bernard Cornwell sat down and began writing about Richard Sharpe – a rough and tough English soldier who rises through the ranks during the Napoleonic wars.
Of all his literary creations Sharpe is unquestionably the most famous – helped in no small measure by the hugely popular ITV series.
At its peak, more than 10 million viewers tuned in to see Sean Bean and his motley-looking crew performing heroics against the French. It made a star of the Sheffield-born actor and brought Cornwell’s books to a whole new audience.
Given all this it’s perhaps not surprising that Cornwell has turned his attention back to the real-life events that spawned a fictional hero. In Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles Cornwell casts a forensic eye over a battle that would define 19th century Europe.
A lot of water may have passed under the bridge since then, but Cornwell says we shouldn’t underestimate the significance of the battle in British history, one that rivals Agincourt and Trafalgar in the British imagination.
“The Battle of Waterloo ended more than 50 years of warfare between Britain and France, it puts to an end Napoleon’s revolution and it meant that Britain effectively ruled the world for the rest of the century,” he says.
“Add to that drama two of the greatest soldiers of any age – Wellington and Napoleon – and you have one of those pivotal moments in history.”
Next year marks the bicentenary of the battle, which will no doubt see a flurry of historical re-evaluations and fresh biographies. But Cornwell himself has long been interested in the Peninsular War, which culminated at Waterloo.
For those whose history is a little rusty, the battle was between an Allied coalition, under Wellington’s command, and Napoleon’s Grand Army. The two sides clashed in June 1815, in what is now the heart of Belgium (back then it was part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands).
In the end it was a decisive victory for Wellington, perhaps his greatest, but as Cornwell points out for a long time the outcome remained in the balance. “Both armies were a similar size but Napoleon had the better army, it was more cohesive and it had more veterans. He held all the cards but he misplayed them.”
All battles are violent but Waterloo was particularly brutal with an estimated 65,000 casualties on all sides. In the end the Prussians charged in on the side of the Allies, swaying the battle in their favour. “The outcome was undecided until very near the end and then suddenly it became a rout,” he says.
As well as the battle itself he is fascinated by the two main protagonists, Wellington and Napoleon, and the differences between them. “Napoleon knew what to say to his men, he could communicate with his soldiers,” he says.
“Wellington had no small talk, but he cared very much about the lives of his men and he was always in the thick of the action.” Unlike Napoleon, who surveyed the battlefield from a safe distance.
Cornwell is best known for his historical novels although some people might be surprised to learn that this is his first non-fiction book. He enjoyed the experience but admits he has no plans for a follow-up. “It’s a very different style of writing and one of the main differences is you don’t have to find a plot. So it’s good to have done one but I don’t have a great urge to write another one.”
Cornwell, who turned 70 earlier this year, is one of the most prolific writers in the business and 2014 has already been a busy year. As well as writing his first non-fiction book, the latest installment of his best-selling series The Warrior Chronicles – The Empty Throne – hits the shelves next week.
This follows the recent announcement that a TV adaptation of The Warrior Chronicles has been commissioned for BBC 2.
Next week he’s here in Yorkshire when he will be appearing at the Harrogate History Festival in conversation with Mark Lawson.
His own life is almost as intriguing as that of one of his characters. Born in London in 1944, his father was a Canadian airman and his mother was in Britain’s Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.
He was adopted by a family in Essex who belonged to a religious sect, called the Peculiar People. He escaped, as he puts it, to London University and, after a stint as a teacher, he joined BBC Television where he worked for the next 10 years.
He began as a researcher on the Nationwide programme and ended as Head of Current Affairs Television for the BBC in Northern Ireland, with a certain Jeremy Paxman and Gavin Esler working for him. It was while working in Belfast that he met his wife future wife Judy, a visiting American. “I had a perfectly respectable job and I was all set to stay in that career right through to retirement – and then I met this beautiful blonde,” he says.
The pair fell in love, however Judy was unable to move to Britain for family reasons so Cornwell went to the States, where he was refused a Green Card. “I very airily said I would come and live in America and write books for a living. I’d never done it before so it was a bit stupid, thinking about it, but it worked.”
He moved across the Pond to work as a writer, a job that didn’t need a permit from the US government. He started writing, turning to his youth for inspiration.
As a teenager he was fascinated by adventure books, particularly the Hornblower novels by CS Forester.
“I enjoyed historical fiction, that was my favourite reading so when it came to write my own books the choice was made.”
It proved an inspired one and since the publication of his first novel, Sharpe’s Eagle in 1981, he has written more than 50 books and sold over 20 million copies worldwide.
Today he’s regarded as a consummate storyteller, but he plays down his writing talent.
“I was lucky to find the right agent, so there’s been an immense amount of luck involved,” he says.
“I’m not an historian but I am a storyteller and that’s what people want, they want a good story.
“There are some excellent history books on the Peninsular War but they probably aren’t going to keep you awake at night wondering what happens next.”
This is where the historical novelist takes over and with his Sharpe books he hit the jackpot. It has proved to be the highlight of a prolific career that includes The Starbuck Chronicles, set during the American Civil War, and his Grailquest trilogy.
Cornwell has now written more than 20 books chronicling the heroics of rifleman Sharpe, and whereas some authors find their most famous creations become something of an albatross around their neck, he views the success of Sharpe and the subsequent television series with nothing but gratitude.
“Sean [Bean] was terrific and so was Pete Postlethwaite [who played the villainous Obadiah Hakeswill]. There were so many good actors in that series and I loved what they did with it.”
It reached the point where he heard Sean’s voice when he was writing Sharpe, rather than the voice he originally heard.
“Sean was a revelation, he was the perfect Sharpe, although someone keeps going on Wikipedia and saying that I didn’t want Sean for the part – which is a total invention.”
Cornwell, who still lives in Cape Cod with his wife, doesn’t harbour any literary pretensions and believes the key to his books’ success lies in the storytelling.
“I don’t care if it’s crime fiction, romantic fiction or historical fiction it’s all about the story.
“When I’m writing a book I end up throwing away about 95 per cent of the research because it’s all about the story – and that’s what I do, I tell stories.”
• Bernard Cornwell will be appearing at the Old Swan Hotel, Harrogate, at 9am on October 24, as part of the Harrogate History Festival. He will also be featuring at the Historical Fiction Awards on the opening night, on October 23. Yorkshire Post readers can Buy One Get One Free for the Awards and Opening Party night, normally £12 per person.
For tickets and details of the full programme visit www.harrogateinternationalfestivals.com/history or call the box office on 01423 562 303 and quote ‘Yorkshire Post offer’.
The Empty Throne, published by Harper Fiction, is out on October 23, priced £20.