Cornwell in 2013
23 February 1944 |
Bernard Cornwell, OBE (born 23 February 1944) is an English author of historical novels and a history of the Waterloo Campaign. He is best known for his novels about Napoleonic Wars rifleman Richard Sharpe. Cornwell has written historical novels primarily of English history in five series and one series of contemporary thriller novels. A feature of his historical novels is an end note on how the novel matches or differs from history, for the re-telling, and what one might see at the modern site of the battles described in the novel. One series of historical novels is set in the American Civil War. He wrote a nonfiction book on the battle of Waterloo, in addition to the fictional story of the famous battle in the Sharpe Series. Two of the historical novel series have been adapted for television; the Sharpe television series by ITV and The Last Kingdom by BBC. He lives in the US with his wife. He alternates between Cape Cod, Massachusetts and Charleston, South Carolina.
Cornwell was born in London in 1944. His father was Canadian airman William Oughtred and his mother Dorothy Cornwell was English, a member of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. He was adopted and brought up in Thundersley, Essex, by the Wiggins family, who were members of the Peculiar People, a strict sect who were pacifists and banned frivolity of all kinds and even medicine. After his adopted father died, he changed his last name by deed poll from Wiggins to Cornwell, his birth mother's maiden name. Prior to that, he used Bernard Cornwell as a pen name. Cornwell met his father for the first time when he was 58, after telling a journalist on a book tour "that what I wanted to see in Vancouver was my real father." There he met his half-siblings, with whom he shares many traits, and learned his genealogy.
Cornwell was sent to Monkton Combe School in Somerset. He attended the College of St Mark and St John in Plymouth and, after graduating, worked as a teacher. He attempted to enlist in the British armed services at least three times, but was rejected on the grounds of myopia.
Following his work as teacher, Cornwell joined the BBC's Nationwide and was later promoted to head of current affairs at BBC Northern Ireland. He then joined Thames Television as editor of Thames News. He was married with a daughter; that marriage ended in divorce. Cornwell first saw his second wife, a travel agent from the US, in 1978 in Edinburgh, while he worked for BBC Northern Ireland. He relocated to the United States in 1979 after marrying her, the mother of three children from a previous marriage. He was unable to get a United States Permanent Resident Card (green card), so he started writing novels, as this did not require a work permit. He later became a United States citizen.
As a child, Cornwell loved the novels of C. S. Forester, chronicling the adventures of fictional British naval officer Horatio Hornblower during the Napoleonic Wars. He was surprised to find that there were no such novels following Lord Wellington's campaign on land. Motivated by the need to support himself in the US through writing, Cornwell wrote that series. He named his chief protagonist Richard Sharpe, a rifleman involved in most of the major battles of the Peninsular War. Cornwell took the name from rugby player Richard Sharp.
Cornwell wanted to start the series with the Siege of Badajoz but decided instead to start with a couple of "warm-up" novels. These were Sharpe's Eagle and Sharpe's Gold, both published in 1981. He went on to tell the story of Badajoz in his third Sharpe novel, Sharpe's Company published in 1982. He had a seven-book deal with the publisher Collins, after linking with Toby Eady as his agent. He has stayed with the same agent, same publisher and his wife since 1978.
Cornwell and wife Judy co-wrote a series of novels, published under the pseudonym "Susannah Kells". These were A Crowning Mercy, published in 1983, Fallen Angels in 1984, and Coat of Arms (aka The Aristocrats) in 1986. Cornwell's strict Protestant upbringing informed the background of A Crowning Mercy, which took place during the English Civil War. He also published Redcoat, an American Revolutionary War novel set in Philadelphia during its 1777 occupation by the British, in 1987.
After publishing eight books in his ongoing Sharpe series, Cornwell was approached by a production company interested in adapting them for television. The producers asked him to write a prequel to give them a starting point to the series. They also requested that the story feature a large role for Spanish characters to secure co-funding from Spain. The result was Sharpe’s Rifles, published in 1987 and set when the English retreated at Corunna until Wellesley arrived in Spain, and a series of Sharpe television films starring Sean Bean.
A series of modern thrillers with sailing as a background and common themes followed: Wildtrack published in 1988, Sea Lord (aka Killer's Wake) in 1989, Crackdown in 1990, Stormchild in 1991, and a political thriller called Scoundrel in 1992.
Cornwell is a productive author, who wrote two books a year for a long time, slowing to one book per year in his sixties. He views the historical fiction as having a big story, the historical events, and a little story, the fictional plot. He noted that Patrick O'Brian, author of a series of nautical historical fiction set in the era of the Napoleonic Wars, (the Aubrey-Maturin series), said that there was “too much plot, not enough lifestyle” in both Cornwell's novels and those of C. S. Forester; Cornwell took that as a compliment, and an accurate appraisal of the difference between their styles, while appreciating the favorable comparison to Forester.
With the success of the Sharpe series, Cornwell ventured into other eras or pivotal events of English or American history, either in series or single novels. Azincourt was released in the UK in October 2008. The protagonist is an archer who participates in the Battle of Agincourt, a devastating defeat suffered by the French during the Hundred Years' War. In 2004, he released The Last Kingdom, beginning the Saxon Stories centered on the protagonist Uhtred of Bebbanburg and telling how the nation of England began under Alfred the Great. The ninth novel in the series, Warriors of the Storm, was published in 2015. He realised that few in England knew how England began, unlike Americans who have a date exact for their nation's beginning, the big story of the series. His own ancestral roots gave him the little story, the protagonist Uhtred.
Another of Cornwell's standalone novels, The Fort, was published in 2010. It tells of the Penobscot Expedition of 1779 during the American Revolutionary War, in which a small British force, sent to what is now Castine in the State of Maine, were assaulted by an army with a huge fleet sent by the State of Massachusetts.
Cornwell has been successful overall in his writing career, selling 30 million books by 2015, across all the series and individual novels, and he continues to write new novels. His series, Saxon Stories, on the origins of England under Alfred the Great inspired another television adaptation by the BBC, who find echoes of the current world situation in the stories from the 9th and 10th centuries.
The Sharpe stories
Cornwell's first series of historical novels features the adventures of Richard Sharpe, an English soldier during the Napoleonic Wars, in particular the Peninsular Wars once Arthur Wellesley was sent to lead the campaign against Napoleon's forces on the Iberian Peninsula.
The first 11 books of the Sharpe series (beginning in chronological order with Sharpe's Rifles and ending with Sharpe's Waterloo, published in the US as Waterloo) detail Sharpe's adventures in various Peninsular War campaigns over the course of 6–7 years. Subsequently, Cornwell wrote a prequel quintet – Sharpe's Tiger, Sharpe's Triumph, Sharpe's Fortress, Sharpe's Trafalgar and Sharpe's Prey – depicting Sharpe's adventures under Wellington's command in India, including his hard-won promotion to the officer corps, his return to Britain and his arrival in the 95th Rifles, and a sequel, Sharpe's Devil, set six years after the end of the wars.
He also wrote Sharpe's Battle, a novel "inserted" into his previous continuity, taking place during the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro. Cornwell mentioned in notes at the end of the books in the Sharpe series that he was initially dubious about the casting of Sean Bean for the television adaptations, but that the doubts did not last and he was subsequently so delighted that he dedicated Sharpe's Battle to him, and has admitted that he subtly changed the writing of the character to align with Bean's portrayal as now he "could not imagine Sharpe as anyone else". One of Cornwell's initial misgivings about Bean was that he did not physically resemble the black-haired Sharpe he described in the early books, but as mentioned above, thought Bean understood and acted the part perfectly. From then on, he refrained from mentioning Sharpe's hair color. Since 2003, he has written further "missing adventures" set during the Peninsular War era, based on major battles of that long campaign, for a total of 24 novels in this series.
The Warlord Chronicles
A trilogy depicting Cornwell's historical re-creation of Arthurian Britain. The series posits that post-Roman Britain was a difficult time for the native Britons, being threatened by invasion from the Anglo-Saxons in the East and raids from the Irish in the West. At the same time, they suffered internal power struggles between their petty kingdoms and friction between the old Druidic religion and newly arrived Christianity. The author has often said that these are his own favourite stories.
The Grail Quest novels
This series deals with a mid-14th-century search for the Holy Grail during the Hundred Years' War. An English archer, Thomas of Hookton, becomes drawn into the quest by the actions of a mercenary soldier called "The Harlequin", who murders Thomas' family in his own obsessive search for the Grail. Cornwell was planning at one point to write more books about the main character Thomas of Hookton and said that shortly after finishing Heretic he had "... started another Thomas of Hookton book, then stopped it – mainly because I felt that his story ended in Heretic and I was just trying to get too much from him. Which doesn't mean I won't pick the idea up again sometime in the future." He returned to the character in 1356 published in 2012.
The Saxon Stories / The Last Kingdom
Cornwell's latest series focuses on the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, England during the 9th-century reign of Alfred the Great, his fierce opposition to the Danes and his determination to unite England as one country. The series idea took shape in his mind after meeting his real father in Canada in his fifties, learning his own ancestry back to that era, to Oughtred of Bebbanburg who became Uhtred, the protagonist of the series. Cornwell realised that most English people are unaware of how England came to be, rather than say, Dane-land, in that era of multiple peoples on the island of Great Britain. The first novel was published in 2004. The series continues after the death of Alfred, as his heirs consolidate the nation. The ninth novel, Warriors of the Storm, was published in 2015, and the tenth, The Flame Bearer, in 2016. The first two books of the novel series are the basis for the television series, The Last Kingdom.
The Starbuck Chronicles
Four novels set during the American Civil War follow the adventures of the Boston-born Nathaniel Starbuck, during his service in the Confederate Army. The series goes the Battle of Sharpsburg in September 1862, and Cornwell aspired to write more some day. The series is notable for an appearance by Richard Sharpe's son as a supporting character.
Cornwell's thriller series are modern mysteries, all with sailing themes. He is a traditional sailor and enjoys sailing his Cornish Crabber christened Royalist. According to Cornwell's website, there may be no additions to the series: "I enjoyed writing the thrillers, but suspect I am happier writing historical novels. I'm always delighted when people want more of the sailing books, but I'm not planning on writing any more, at least not now – but who knows? perhaps when I retire".
In addition to his many novels, including a fictional account (Sharpe's Waterloo) of the battle of Waterloo, Cornwell published a nonfiction book, Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles, released in September 2014, in time for the 200th anniversary of that battle.
- Brown, Maggie (17 October 2015). "Bernard Cornwell: BBC made The Last Kingdom due to its 'interesting echoes of today'". The Guardian. Retrieved 19 October 2015.
- Harnden, Toby (15 September 2011). "A Page in the Life: Bernard Cornwell". The Telegraph. Retrieved 28 November 2015.
- "Cornwell Biography". Bookclubs.barnesandnoble.com. Archived from the original on 25 February 2008. Retrieved 2011-09-12.
- "Interview with Bernard Cornwell". Radio.nationalreview.com. 2009-01-21. Archived from the original on 25 August 2011. Retrieved 2011-09-12.
- "About Sharpe". Yesterday. UK tv. Retrieved 28 November 2015.
- "A word from Bernard Cornwell". Southessex.co.uk. 2002-09-29. Retrieved 2011-09-12.
- Cornwell, Bernard (1994). Sharpe's Eagle. London: HarperCollins Publishers. pp. vi–vii. ISBN 978-0-00-780509-9.
- Cornwell, Bernard (1994). Sharpe's Rifles. London: HarperCollins Publishers. pp. 7–9. ISBN 978-0-00-779651-9.
- Lafferty, Hannah (31 January 2014). "Bernard Cornwell Talks The Pagan Lord, The Challenges of Historical Fiction, And Future Plans". Emertainment Monthly. Boston: Emerson College. Retrieved 9 June 2014.
- "Warriors of the Storm". Kirkus Reviews. 22 October 2015. Retrieved 24 November 2015.
- The London Gazette: . 17 June 2006.
- "Richard Sharpe bio". The South Essex. Retrieved 2008-02-22.
- Cornwell, Bernard. "Cornwell's comment on Heretic". Author's Official site. Retrieved 2007-10-02.
- "The Author's Official site – Sharpe Books dot com". Bernard Cornwell. Retrieved 2011-09-12.
- Bernard Cornwell. "Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles". Fantastic Fiction. Retrieved 9 June 2014.
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