As a student of espionage, I enjoyed the books because espionage plays a significant part in the series with Sharpe often playing the role of spy and counter-spy.
I contacted the author and spoke to him. Below is my Q &A with Bernard Cornwell:
Davis: Richard Sharpe is a rogue, but he is also honorable and heroic. Can you describe Sharpe?
Cornwell: Basically, Sharpe is a villain, but he’s on our side. Obviously, the genesis of Sharpe was Hornblower (C.S. Forester’s fictional naval hero). I’ve always loved the Hornblower stories. I was looking for an interesting name like Hornblower but I couldn’t find one, so I named him after my rugby hero. The name stuck. I wanted him to come up from the ranks because that would give him problems, although many officers came up through the ranks. The idea that British officers were aristocrats is complete rubbish. You had to buy your commission and most were what we would call middle class.
Davis: Was Sharpe based on a real person in history?
Cornwell: Not at all, though his promotions are based on a real guy - Trooper Ellery, a cavalryman, obviously, who rose from trooper to lieutenant colonel in the same time span as Sharpe.
Davis: What compelled you to write a series about the Napoleonic Wars, the Duke of Wellington and a fictional light infantry officer up from the ranks?
Cornwell: The need to make money! I was a producer in television and I'd immigrated to the States because of a blond - I'm still married to her - and the U.S. Government in it's wisdom refused me a green card, so I airily told Judy "I'll write a book." I always knew that i wanted to write a "Hornblower-on-land" series. It struck me as strange back in 1979 that a couple of writers were doing really well with Napoleonic naval series in C.S. Forester's wake, but no one was writing about the army. It struck me as a gap on the bookshelf. I'd long had a fascination with Wellington and his army, so the fit was natural.
Davis: Do you feel that espionage and intelligence is a vital aspect of warfare and does espionage play a significant role in your other series of books as well?
Cornwell: Yes, maybe the most important. Espionage is an integral part of warfare, so, yes, it plays a significant role in my other books.
Davis: Espionage plays an important part in your series, as you have Sharpe undertake intelligence and espionage missions for Major Michael Hogan, an exploring officer. What was an exploring officer and what role did Hogan play for Wellington in your novels?
Cornwell: The exploring officers were just that - officers who, mounted on very good horses, rode behind enemy lines to explore their dispositions. They wore uniforms so that, if captured, they could not be considered spies. Colquhoun Grant was the most famous, of course, but Wellington had several. Hogan really is not an exploring officer; he's based more on George Scovell. Read The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes by Mark Urban. Hogan probably had more responsibility than Scovell. If Wellington didn't have a Hogan, he should have, so I invented him. My favorite tale of Colquhoun Grant is that after his capture, the French refused to parole him. He escaped their custody and fled to Paris where he lived for three months, openly wearing his uniform! When asked what uniform it was, he replied that it was the United States Army! He got away with it too.
Davis: Why do you often pull Sharpe from the battlefield and send him on intelligence missions?
Cornwell: I tell adventure stories and espionage offers plenty of scope for betrayal, murder and mayhem.
Davis: Your books have so many vivid characters in addition to Sharpe. I particularly like your villain Sgt. Hakeswill. He was a great character.
Cornwell: It was stupid to kill him off.
Davis: During the Napoleonic era the British were very good at spying, were they not?
Cornwell: The British ran a very sophisticated secret service that stretched right across Europe, quite apart from Wellington's military intelligence.
Davis: Did it help Wellington that the French were hated by the Spanish and the Portuguese who provided him intelligence?
Cornwell: Definitely, the entire population was on his side. If anything, there was simply too much intelligence coming in.
Davis: How important was intelligence to Wellington and his successes?
Cornwell: Huge! He had spies throughout occupied Spain. The partisans brought him captured dispatches, often still blood-stained, and he had sources inside France. The intelligence network was amazing, and it has never been adequately described. There was a tailor who worked at Irun, the town through which all French troops passed on their way to the war. The tailor worked on his doorstep, counted every man, horse and gun that passed his house, which was on the main road, and within days his reports were in Wellington's hands. Wellington probably knew more about the French than they did themselves.
Davis: What was the Duke of Wellington truly like, and how significant were his accomplishments?
Cornwell: He's brilliant. He's intelligent. He's a snob. He's too cold to his men and he had no small talk, but they were extremely loyal to him because they knew he did best to preserve their lives, unlike Napoleon. Wellington had an uncanny ability to spot ground, and he had a feel for what was on the other side of the hill. He stays calm in battle. He's cautious, but capable of sudden flamboyant movements, such as the attack at Salamanca. In the end, he's the only general who was capable of defeating Napoleon, albeit a close run thing. So, with Admiral Nelson, he's the begetter of Europe in the 19th Century.
Davis: You admire Wellington, clearly, and you offer a fine portrait of him in the Sharpe series, but what do you think of Napoleon?
Cornwell: I don't like the man. He was so careless with his men's lives. he said scornfully "What are a million men to me?" Napoleon was one of those generals, a bit like Patton, who really didn't care how many of his men got killed as long as he got his victory. He was a very ruthless man. He wanted to be the next Alexander the Great. He also had extraordinary charm and he was a fascinating man. He was a dangerous man because he was in love with war. Wellington was never in love with war. He didn't like war. Wars had to be fought, you had to do it well, you had to win, but it was not by itself a good thing. For Napoleon, war was a good thing, an exciting thing. I think that was the difference between them.
Davis: Are you fond of the Sharpe TV series and how do you feel about Sean Bean's portrayal of Richard Sharpe?
Cornwell: I love both.
Davis: You've said that you're not an historian, you're a storyteller, a novelist, but how accurate are the major historical events in your novels?
Cornwell: I try to make them as accurate as possible, but the story takes precedence, so I do change things, but I confess my sins in the Historical Note at the book's end. The obvious example is in Sharpe's Company. No British soldier got through the breaches at Badajoz - the feint excalade on the castle worked, against all odds - but the drama of that awful night was in the breaches. And so Sharpe had to be there, and if Sharpe is there he will get through the breach. So I changed reality for fiction, but I confessed afterwards.
Davis: Lastly, do you plan to write more about Sharpe?
Note: The above column originally appeared in GreatHistory.com in 2009.