Bernard Cornwell is the Master of Historical Fiction
Bernard Cornwell is an English-born resident of Cape Cod who, in addition to being an author, has been a journalist, and writer for television and newspaper. He has written over 40 books, with the Richard Sharpe series being made into a 16-part BBC miniseries. His books have been described as “consistently exciting…these are wonderful novels!” (Stephen King) and “…right on target.” (The Washington Post Book World). Vince Flynn, author of Extreme Measures wrote of him “Readers who haven’t discovered Bernard Cornwell don’t know what they are missing: his books are page-turners that both educate and entertain. He may well be the best historical novelist writing today…” His imagery, both in his characterization and settings, are what fascinate me, and draw me to his writing.
My first reason for enjoying Cornwell’s works is his descriptions and development of his characters. Cornwell has some of the most unique characters I’ve ever read, and he describes them wonderfully. The three most interesting characters I’ve read, are Richard Sharpe; the son of a London prostitute who worked his way up the ranks of the army to command a crack unit of sharpshooters, Patrick Harper; the Irishman from Donegal who originally hated Sharpe, but got into a fight with him, was made sergeant, and now the two are inseparable, and Obadiah Hakeswill; young Sharpe’s commanding sergeant in India, who once sentenced him to 2,000 lashes for a crime he didn’t commit, and his mortal nemesis. This is the scene in Part Two of Sharpe’s Company where Obadiah is first introduced:
“’Halt!’ Boots thudded on to the roadway. ‘Stand bloody still, you bastards! Still!’ The Sergeant cackled, ground his few remaining teeth together, turned away and immediately spun back. ‘I said still! If you want your sodding bum scratched, Gutteridge, I’ll do it with my bayonet! Still!’ He turned to the young officer and snapped an immaculate salute. ‘Sir!’
The Ensign, visibly nervous of the tall Sergeant, returned the salute. ‘Thank you, Sergeant.’
‘Don’t thank me, sir. My job sir.’ The Sergeant gave his habitual cackle, a wild, discomforting sound, and his eyes flicked left and right. The Sergeant’s eyes were blue, almost a baby blue, the Ensign decided, while the rest of him was yellow, fever yellow, a sickly cast over his hair, teeth and skin…The Sergeant cackled again, and the cackle turned into a racking cough, and the head twitched on its long, scrawny neck that had the terrible scar.”
Through Obadiah’s berating of the troops, sucking up to the Ensign, and physical description, Cornwell is definitely painting Hakeswill as the epitome of scumbags and villains. Transversely, when Sharpe is first introduced in Sharpe’s Rifles, he is only referred to as “the Lieutenant” and is sifting his way through drunken redcoats, looking for much-needed ammunition for his men. A noble act, after a city had been taken; usually a time of revelry and plundering (among other things).
The second part of his mastery of imagery is his powerful descriptions of the settings and battles. He is not hindered by the hundreds of year’s time difference between some of his series. From the poleaxes, chainmail, and burning cathedrals of Agincourt; the gaudy uniforms, sabers, and musket smoke of the Richard Sharpe Series; to the pageantry and politics of Civil War era Virginia in the Nathaniel Starbuck Chronicles, Cornwell has mastered them all. A scene from Agincourt:
“It began to rain properly. It was cold, heavy rain and, as the wind dropped, the drops fell with a malevolent intensity that made the archers hurriedly unstring their bows and coil the cords into their hats and helmets to keep them from being soaked. The English heralds had ridden ahead of the array to be met their French colleagues, and Hook saw the men bow to each other from their saddles. After a while the English heralds rode back, their gray horses spattered with mud from hooves to belly
‘No fight tonight boys!’”
This single paragraph not only describes the scene very well (pouring rain right before the battle), but it also helps show: medieval weapon care (unstringing the bows), medieval politics (the heralds), and medieval battle standards (no fighting in the mud and rain). Another great descriptive imagery paragraph is this one from Rebel:
Starbuck laughed and stepped back. Above him the hill smoked like a volcano and the shell cracked and the rifle fire splintered and the wounded limped back to the crossroads where the prisoners waited for jail and the Yankees waited for victory and the dead waited for burial. Starbuck, ignored now by the sergeant who no longer seemed to care whether he joined the other prisoners or not, sat with his back against the sunwarmed stone of the house and closed his eyes and wondered what his future held. He supposed the whole rebellion was being beaten to death in those fields, and he thought how much he would regret the premature ending of this war…”
This excerpt displays beautifully, in a melancholy way, the desperation that was felt by Confederate forces at the end of the battle of Bull Run in 1861. Starbuck has stepped aside from the battle, only to see what could be thought as hellish and desperate for his brothers in the Confederacy, and is torn between not wanting to fight anymore in his first battle, and regretting the rebellion being squashed in its infancy. Cornwell does an excellent job of relaying this to the reader.
In conclusion, Bernard Cornwell is a favorite author of mine, because of his skill in use of imagery for both his characterization and his settings. If you enjoy a broad spectrum of historical fiction, especially military history, I strongly suggest you read Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe Series or any of the more than 40 novels Bernard Cornwell has written.