The unplanned theme of this month’s reading turned out to be “Waterloo.” The famous battle, which will be marking its 200th anniversary in June, is a pivotal event of the Regency period and frequently plays a part in Regency stories, my own included.
My reading started innocently enough with what I thought was a quick dip into a military reference book to nail down once and for all which army regiment my hero Michael served with during his time in the military. One thing led to another, as it so often does, which is how I wound up taking the Woman at War course from the Beau Monde chapter of RWA. While the information about the role women played in the war was fascinating (and I’ll talk more about it in a later post), it was the basic military information provided that was of great interest to me, including tidbits like:
“It is hard for us to understand, but being an officer in the British army was very different from today’s modern army. . . . An officer could leave the battle front at any time he chose, to go on leave or resign his commission. He could also bring his wife and his whole family if he wanted, on his own dime of course. Again, the British Army could not deny him what was seen as simply one of any gentleman’s rights.”
The book list provided during the class led me to my first reading selection: Dancing into Battle by Nick Foulkes, a social history of the Battle of Waterloo. Rather than focusing on the nitty-gritty details of warfare, with its strategies and manoeuvres, the book focuses on society in Brussels in the months leading up to the fateful battle. Even for someone not particularly interested in Waterloo, it provides a fascinating glimpse at the people of the period. With Napoleon safely ensconced in Elba (temporarily, as it turned out), travellers once again were able to visit the Continent and many did so to escape the cost of living in Britain.
“Within a couple of months Brussels had become like a Jane Austen novel that had gone on a Continental holiday. The topography of the town lent itself admirably to the re-creation of the pattern of life as led in a fashionable British spa town.”
Even after Napoleon escaped and made his way back into France, gathering troops along the way and raising the spectre of war once again, the balls, theatre, hunting, etc. of British aristocratic life continued there, seemingly unchecked.
“Those who commanded and shaped the Army of the time had grown up in a culture where splendour and brutality, elegance and violence were juxtaposed and co-existed in a manner that might seem bizarre by today’s standards, but which at the time was accepted as the norm.”
The book did a very good job portraying just how chaotic those last days leading up to the final routing of Napoleon were, with civilians trying to get to safety while the military were trying to get into position. The relatively brief battlefield chapters provide a vivid picture of the horror and confusion and perseverance and bravery of the battle that, seemingly, could have gone either way almost to the end. As Wellington was quoted as saying, it was “a near run thing.” We tend to think of war as something that happens away from regular life, but this book brought it all very close to home in a very thought-provoking way.
A New Author / A Classic
My next selection, An Infamous Army by Georgette Heyer, seemed a natural choice. Since I’ve never read any Heyer before (shocking, I know) this counts as both a new author and a classic for me. Although Heyer is known for her light-hearted Regency romances, war takes centre stage in the second half of this book. The book is overflowing with historical details, garnered through Heyer’s exhaustive research. It was very interesting to “see” many of the actual people I had read about in Dancing into Battle make an appearance in An Infamous Army. She did an excellent job blending fiction with reality. I’ll have to admit, however, that I did have a bit of trouble keeping up with the cast of characters. I think everyone in Brussels makes an appearance in the book at one point or another. I should have made a chart.
Better than all of the historical detail and name-dropping, for me at least, were the little snippets of description and commentary in the story, like this:
“Any woman would have agreed that the bodice of the wretched creature’s gown was cut indecently low, while as for petticoats, Lady Worth for one would have owned herself surprised to learn that Barbara was wearing as much as a stitch beneath her satin and her net.”
And her delightful phrasing, like this:
“The Earl took snuff with a wonderful air of distraction.”
I’ve yet to reach the end of the book (it’s close to 500 pages), so I can’t comment on how the actual battle was handled just yet, but I have high hopes – for that and for a satisfactory ending to the romance too.
So, what have you read (or started reading) recently? Anything thought-provoking?