London: Heinemann, 1937.
Heyer is best known for her several dozen light and humorous romances set in Regency England, but she also was capable of far deeper and more complex historical writing. Before Heyer, the best known and most highly regarded fictional account of the Battle of Waterloo was in Thackeray’s classic Vanity Fair. (Victor Hugo wrote about the battle, too, in Les Misérables, but he was writing from the French viewpoint.) More recently, Bernard Cornwell, justifiably famous for his rousing and highly accurate battle scenes, did a marvelous grunt’s-eye view of the battle in Sharpe’s Waterloo. So how does this novel fair, compared to those?
Heyer’s approach focuses much more on the tension-filled events of the previous three or four months leading up to the climax at Quatre Bras and Waterloo. Brussels was filled with high-ranking English civilians and officers’ families who were taking the opportunity of Napoleon’s exile to Elba to travel to the Continent for the first time in a generation. The Peace Conference was under way down in Vienna and the victors were celebrating. When the Emperor re-entered France and proclaimed his return to the throne, gathering his old subordinates around him and being cheered by most of the French people, the Allies were caught unprepared (the best and most experienced English regiments had already been sent across the Atlantic to fight the Americans). But the frenzy of balls and society picnics in Brussels foreshadowed a similar mood in Paris in 1940, as the Germans were tooling up to invade. It’s that atmosphere, alternating between complacent boredom and near panic, that Heyer captures so well.
There are two stories here, actually. The first one we observe from afar, in a sense: The arrival of the Duke of Wellington, the filtering into town of his subordinate senior officers, and the gradual acceleration of the preparations to confront Napoleon. Nearly everyone in this plot-line is a real historical figure and Heyer does an excellent job of describing their personalities and styles and the often touchy ways they interact — especially the English, Dutch, and Prussians, all of them suspicious of each other. The other story, which we see close-up, is the awkward and often painful off-again-on-again romance between Col. Charles Audley, the eldest and most experienced of Wellington’s aides — the Duke regarded them as his “family” — and the young widow, Lady Barbara Childe, who was raised badly by her father (her mother having died when she was small) and has become an unbridled and ungovernable “wild child.” Charles falls irretrievably in love with the beautiful and lethally sexy Lady Barbara almost at first sight — a trope which has always seemed improbable to me, but I suppose it happens — and proposes to her within hours of meeting her. And Barbara accepts, for reasons she doesn’t really understand herself, because she certainly doesn’t intend to stop flirting or deliberately shocking people or behaving with complete lack of propriety. Charles says he doesn’t want a tame, dutiful, obedient wife, but Barbara, who seems to live for scandal, is more than even he can handle and things, naturally, go awry. The story of their relationship is complex and multilayered and Heyer’s examination of their competing personalities is first-rate — and far more interesting than in most of her lighter romances. The supporting cast here, in the form of Col. Audley’s brother, the Earl of Worth, and his sister-in-law, Lady Judith Worth, née Taverner, and Judith’s brother, Sir Peregrine Taverner and his young wife (all of whom first appeared in Regency Buck), are also very well done.
In fact, there is a great deal of very good writing everywhere in this book. But most notable is Chapter 17, which describes the Duchess of Richmond’s famous ball on the night before Napoleon’s final approach, with its descriptions of the Highlander infantrymen, accompanied by their pipers, dancing reels for the attendees (most of them would be dead the next day), the news being brought in by mud-stained young gallopers, the more junior officers immediately hurrying off to rejoin their regiments, the Duke of Wellington determinedly showing a cheerful countenance and then asking for a map, and finally the regiments called from their billets and sorting themselves out in the center of town, forming up, and marching off in the dawn to leave Brussels empty and silent. All this provides some of the most moving and affecting descriptive writing I have ever read. Equally mesmerizing is the picture she paints of high-born ladies of fashion forgetting their complexions and their intramural jealousies and intrigues and getting down in the dirt and the blood to care for the wounded who manage to stagger back to Brussels, “toiling as their scullery-maids had never done.” Beautiful stuff. In fact, the only section of the book that isn’t quite up to scratch is the detailed order of battle in which the author indulges between Quatre Bras and Waterloo itself; it’s a result, I’m sure, of her insistence on meticulous research, but it could have been considerably shortened and summarized with no loss whatever to the story. My recommendation is to go to Cornwell’s Sharpe for the strategy and tactics, the blood and guts, of one of the most important military engagements in Western history — but read this marvelous book for the psychology and the personalities on the Allied side of the battle and of the period leading up to it.