Bernard Cornwell: “Don’t worry, darling. I’ll write a book.”

November 4, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, writers, writing.

When Bernard Cornwell followed the woman he loved back to America from his native Great Britain and married her in 1979, he asked the U.S. government to grant him a Green Card so that he could be employed. His request was denied.

“Don’t worry, darling,” he told his wife. “I’ll write a novel.”

More than 40 years later, he has more than 50 novels to his credit and is still writing. All but one are historical novels full of action, conflict, and adventure — perfect for television and movies, of which there have been several.

Cornwell chief creation is Richard Sharpe, a British soldier during the Napoleonic Wars who sees action on almost every front, even the naval battle of Trafalgar. Sharpe first appeared in 1981 in two novels published that year, Sharpe’s Eagle and Sharpe’s Gold. In all, there are currently 24 novels in the Sharpe series. A new one hasn’t been published since 2004. Cornwell has recently let it be known that he is thinking about bringing Sharpe to life again.

The Sharpe character received widespread fame in 1993 with the airing of the ITV series Sharpe. The main character was played by Sean Bean. At first, Cornwell had doubts about whether or not Bean could portray the character as Cornwell had envisioned him, but he soon realized that Bean was the perfect fit for his character. In fact, in subsequent Sharpe books, Cornwell said he envisioned Bean playing the character as he was writing them. (Several seasons of the Sharpe series are available on BritBox.)

Inspired by C. S. Forester‘s Horatio Hornblower novels which he enjoyed as a young reader, Cornwell was surprised to learn that no one had written a similar series about the British Army. He decided to fill that gap and worked for the next two decades to do it.

Cornwell was born in London in 1944 and was adopted by an Essex family that was part of an obscure religious sect. He was a history major at University College London and began teaching after graduation. He tried to join the British armed forces but was rejected because of his near-sightedness. He then worked for the BBC in their news department, was married and divorced, and while on assignment in Edinburgh met Judy, a visiting American. 

They fell in love, but she could not immigrate to Great Britain. She had three children by a previous marriage.  So, Cornwell went to America but was denied a Green Card. Writing novels, he reasoned, didn’t require a work permit, so that’s what he did.

In addition to his Sharpe series, Cornwell has written the Warlord Chronicles, a trilogy of books set in the Britain of King Arthur; the Grail Quest novels, set in the 14th century during the One Hundred Years Wars; the Saxon Stories, set in the 9th century during the time of Alfred the Great; and the Starbuck Chronicle, a set of four novels about the American Civil War. In addition, he has a modern thriller series that all have a sailing theme.

Cornwell’s one non-fiction book is Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles, which came out in 2014 to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the battle. Three of his early novels, Coat of Arms, Fallen Angels and A Crowning Mercy, were co-written with his wife Judy. Since being denied his Green Card, Cornwell’s books have sold well over 30 million copies. Now in his late 70s, he is still writing and still planning new works.


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