“He’s on good form, actually. I’m starting Chapter Three this afternoon.”
Bernard Cornwell is king of his genre. And he’s just proclaimed that his most important subject — the character who propelled a then-novice author to the throne of epic historical fiction and kept him there over a series of bestsellers — is doing well and is on the march again.
Richard Sharpe, hard-as-nails veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, has unfinished business.
Not surprisingly, Cornwell is cheery at the prospect — and he reckons fans will be too.
“I think there’s a lot of people who would like another Sharpe,” he says. “I’m not saying this is the last one, because I don’t think it is.”
Cornwell first flagged his interest in a potential return of the scarred rifleman when we chatted last year. This week’s affirmation (“That’s coming true!” he exclaims when asked) will be a comfort to readers grappling with the looming farewell of the writer’s other best-loved character: Uhtred of Bebbanburg, hero of the hugely popular Last Kingdom novels and Netflix adaptation.
This month sees the release of War Lord, 13th and final outing for Uhtred, the Saxon warrior whose quick wits, sharp sword and rough-edged charm cut a swath through Viking-era England.
It’s not just the loveable strongman’s many fans — female and male — who will find the parting a wrench.
“There’s a certain sadness,” says Cornwell without hesitation, “because I’ve lived with him for 16 years.”
Nevertheless, he says, it’s time.
War Lord culminates with the Battle of Brunanburh, fought between the Anglo-Saxons and an alliance of Vikings, Scots and Britons; and seen by historians as one of the most significant battles in British history because of its lasting impact on the political landscape.
Uhtred is in thick of it — and he’s paid his dues, in Cornwell’s view.
“This book ends with the biggest battle in the series. I have put him through the mill. He deserves a rest.”
Unlike Sharpe, Uhtred won’t be coming back. Nor are there plans for any spin-offs featuring other characters from the Saxon Stories, as the 13-novel series is known.
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But the adventure isn’t over, as the Netflix adaptation starring Alexander Dreymon has recently been renewed for a fifth season. Cornwell is an avid viewer.
“I love it,” he says, “It’s terrific.”
He is supportive of any differences between screen and page versions, noting, “I would say it’s added value. They are using their imagination as well as mine.”
Cornwell’s books — he’s written more than 60 of them, selling more than 30 million copies worldwide and acquiring an OBE for his achievements — are made for visual drama. Sharpe was brought to life on TV by Sean Bean and the screen option for Cornwell’s own pet favourite — his Winter King trilogy, a grittier and realistic take on the Arthurian legend set in Dark Ages Britain — was snapped up by a production company a couple of years ago.
The author is cautious about its progress, however.
“I always take the view that these things will never happen. It’s very nice that a production company wants to do it, and they write you a cheque for it; then you forget about it because it’s probably never going to happen.
“But there is a production company looking at it and I believe they’ve even got some early scripts. It would be nice if it does get made.”
For now, Cornwell’s focus is the return of Sharpe, 14 years after the soldier last appeared in print in Sharpe’s Fury.
Born in London, like his creator, Dick Sharpe comes from the wrong side of the tracks and in his youth escapes to the army, where he finds a talent for warfare and intrigue, without losing his humanity — a mix that makes him something of an accidental ladies’ man.
The next novel is set in Paris, in the immediate aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815 (for the record, ABBA were wrong — the French emperor did NOT surrender at that blood-soaked Belgian field, which is why there is more work for Sharpe, whose experience of the battle was told superbly in Sharpe’s Waterloo).
“It begins the next day,” says Cornwell. “Immediately after Waterloo there was enough going on to keep him busy.”
The title is still undecided — “Sharpe’s Croque Monsieur?” Cornwell suggests with a laugh — but inspiration will come.
Cornwell’s enthusiasm for, and knowledge of, that period are top-rank. In 2014 he wrote a critically acclaimed factual account of Waterloo and is fascinated by its protagonists. Asked which historical figures he would invite to a hypothetical dinner, he nominates its victor the Duke of Wellington (who appears regularly in the novels, tolerating Sharpe as a useful if crude weapon) then in a cunning Cornwellian move, reaches back a century and summons Nell Gwyn, dazzling actress and mistress of the fun-loving King Charles II.
“Wellington wouldn’t have been interested in talking to me but he was very interested in charming women — so I could just sit back and listen as he told her everything.”
While discussing historical hypotheticals, I ask Cornwell where he would go if given the chance to time-travel.
“I want to go back and see Shakespeare on stage at the Globe Theatre in London,” he says, noticeably avoiding the squalor of Uhtred’s time.
It’s another passion point: one of Cornwell’s many standalone sidesteps from his big series, 2017’s Fools And Mortals, was set in Shakespearean London and he is currently reading Maggie O’Farrell’s award-winning Hamnet, about the playwright’s son — a rare venture into historical fiction as a mere reader.
For now, in this time of COVID, hypothetical travel may be the closest that US-based Cornwell and wife Judy will get to favourite destinations like London, India and Sydney – annoying for an author who likes to research his locations.
The usual book tours are being replaced by online events which the 76-year-old tackles with as much enthusiasm as he can muster. “Zoom,” he chuckles. “Should be called Doze.”
Former journalist Cornwell has been a US citizen for 37 years since moving there for love and discovering a talent for writing due to lack of a work permit — debut novel Sharpe’s Eagle was the result.
His chief respite from coronavirus gloom at home in Cape Cod is the yacht he co-owns with a friend. Getting out on the water is also a break from a US news cycle dominated by the approaching presidential election and its associated bitterness.
No fan of the incumbent, Cornwell sees the vote as “a referendum on Donald Trump” and firmly wants Biden to win.
Wrapping our conversation on that note, I am reminded of our chat a year ago when Cornwell suggested the growing popularity of historical fiction is probably because people want escapism, in despair at the antics of “the assholes in Washington and London”.
With no change in the seats of power, and the added pressure of coronavirus, I would suggest that in 2020 people need that fictional escape route twice as much.
So double down Bernard and step up Uhtred of Bebbanburg, Richard Sharpe and the rest of the Cornwellian cohorts — all your countries need you.
War Lord by Bernard Cornwell, published by HarperCollins Australia, is on sale October 21.
BOOK OF THE MONTH
A world away from Anglo-Saxon England, wartime Australia is the setting for our new Book Of The Month, the extraordinary All Our Shimmering Skies by Trent Dalton. Head to booktopia.com.au and enter code SHIMMERING at checkout to receive 30 PER CENT off the RRP of $32.99. And visit the Sunday Book Club group on Facebook to talk books, books and more books. Bliss!