The Spanish Bride and I

18 Sep

One of the great joys of reading books set around real life events and/or people, is that the story doesn’t have to end when the book does. You can always look it up, read more, perhaps discover little connections that you take in other directions, sometimes to other great books. My love for Jane Eyre, for example, led me to Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, which made me revisit my old copies of Charles Dickens with renewed or rather newfound appreciation (really – so much better to read as an adult! I don’t know why poor little kiddies have it thrust upon them).

However it is a much more common practice to find a book that you like, and then read every single book written by that author. It was in this manner that I first read Georgette Heyer’s The Spanish Bride a great many years ago (well, okay, fifteen or so years ago) and although I enjoyed it, I immediately set it aside and went searching for more of what Heyer described as her lighter work: her historical romances, and her Regency ones in particular. In fact, she pretty much invented the Regency sub-genre.

These were, to put it simply, fabulous. They were smart, funny, feminist but in an entirely period appropriate fashion, and meticulously well-researched romances that concentrated more on the romance than on sticky-out body parts. According to her biography, she really wanted to write historical biographies more than historical romances and in a way, she trained for it all through her writing career. Indeed, so meticulous and well-crafted was her work, she was in such command of the period and its events, that one of her novels set at the Battle of Waterloo, An Infamous Army, was actually made required reading at Sandhurst.

Digression: I must say, however, that if My Lord John, the first and only finished volume of her long cherished House of Lancaster series is an example of what was in store for her reading public, I’m very glad she found it necessary to write her bread-and-butter romances and historicals because I found that book incredibly dull. And I enjoy that period of English history! Even Royal Escape, which I dislike on principle because I really can’t stand anybody from that period (they’re all awful!), was better than this.

But while many of her books make glancing references to the Napoleonic Wars (people are always returning from them or going off to join them), the most intriguing of them all, in my opinion, was The Spanish Bride.

While An Infamous Army and other novels were works of fiction where real life provided context and background, The Spanish Bride is a true story, featuring real people taking part in real events. And unlike, say, The Conqueror, it features no fictitious sideplot and relies heavily (exclusively? She doesn’t provide a full list of sources, just the major ones) on written accounts left behind by the people who appear in the novel.

Its chief source, as Heyer acknowledges in the book, is the Autobiography of Sir Harry Smith, the protagonist of the story. She called it excellent – and having read my share of dull military autobiographies, not to mention nineteenth century puff pieces, I agree: it is excellent and shockingly close to The Spanish Bride. Not that I’d expect less from a woman who once bought a letter written by the Duke of Wellington so she could model her dialogue on what he actually sounded like.

Unlike Smith’s Autobiography, however, Heyer’s work only spans three years: from the second and brutal seige of the Spanish town of Badajoz to Waterloo. In those three years, we follow the lives, adventures, and most of all the romance of Juana Maria de los Delores de Leon, whom we first meet as 14-year-old refugee from Badajoz, and the English officer she marries within a few days of their meeting, Harry Smith.

The very fact that Heyer manages to make the marriage of a 14-year-old to a 25-year-old sound romantic and destined to be, rather than creepy and gross should tell you that you’re in the hands of a master character artist. And as the book progresses, you forget how young Juana is because of that touch of “old soul” she has about her in spite of being a completely believable overdramatic teenager, and how absolutely awesome she is, in a way that girls her age today are simply not portrayed to be. When, towards the end of the book, she announces herself to be seventeen, it comes as a bit of a surprise.

Stirring as this story is, especially if you’re a military enthusiast interested in Britain’s campaigns against Napoleon and America, there is so much more to it when you place the man and his story within a larger context of Empire and English society.

Even as a child, for example, I couldn’t help but notice that the English in The Spanish Bride didn’t really like any of their allies. Sometimes, individuals are singled out for praise but in general the Prussians, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Spaniards and the French seem like bumbling idiots or pompous assholes. In fact, the French, in spite of being the enemy, come off a bit better than the rest of them although the Portuguese are treated with a rather condescending affection. There is also the odd mention of “beetle-browed Scots” and brogue-laden Irishmen. (I guess the Welsh weren’t too interested in fighting for the King?) All of which reminded me about this post by Apu.

Even more interestingly, further reading tells you strange little factoids about the people who appear in the book. The Colonel Colborne, for example, that Harry and Juana love so much turns out to be a jolly gent who endeared himself (not) to Canadians by setting fire to as many villages as he could find. So famous was he for this charming custom that the Quebecoises dubbed him “le vieux brûlot” i.e. “the old firebreather”. It’s doubly ironic given Harry’s disdain for what happened at Washington and his mania for the “compassionate” warfare methods employed by Wellington (which sounds silly now but when you think about it in 19th century warfare terms, it’s largely true).

And then there’s Harry’s India connection. I’d never heard of the Battle of Aliwal but it was apparently a “turning point of the First Anglo-Sikh War” and Harry Smith was the man who engineered the victory for the British (fun fact! the Governor General of the time was Henry Hardinge whose grandson Charles Hardinge was a Viceroy and is remembered in India today due to his foresight in naming a college in Delhi after his wife. Yeah, I got nothing. End fun fact.). In fact, his celebrity in defeating the (till then) feared Sikhs pretty much earned him a free pass through scandal and disapproval for the rest of his life.

Digression 2: There is apparently a Sikh version of the Battle of Aliwal, which Wiki says they lost because they couldn’t get their act together long enough to fight like a unit after the death of Ranjit Singh. But the link appears to be dead. If anyone has a link or suggested reading or any other info they’d like to share, it’d be most welcome.

Oddly enough, Harry Smith never intended his Autobiography to be published as it was. He considered it a little too explosive and sensitive as it was as frank as it could be in recording his opinions about his fellow and commanding officers. He thought that perhaps someone might fictionalize it, change the names and details and present it as a story set during the Wars. He never pursued it however, and it wasn’t until 1901 that a great-nephew found them by chance and had them published with minimal editing, all people mentioned in the book being dead and safe from hurt feelings. And 39 years later, Heyer wrote her version of his story. The Spanish Bride is, in fact, a strange sort of autobiography: one man’s words couched in another woman’s narrative.

I love it.


Posted by on September 18, 2008 in Books, Entertainment, Review


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18 responses to “The Spanish Bride and I

  1. bollyviewer

    September 18, 2008 at 5:08 pm

    North and South is awesome – have you seen the TV version starring the delicious Richard Armitage? Dont see how Jane Eyre directed you there, though.

    I love how you summarize Heyer’s Regency novels – they were such well-crafted and well-written stories about properly developed characters and most importantly – so feminist (YEY!!!). I read The Spanish Bride long ago – right after I discovered Georgette Heyer. Compared to her Regency romantic-comedies I found this one a bit heavy going. Dont think I thought of the historical connotations at all – will get my hands on this and re-read!

  2. Space Bar

    September 18, 2008 at 8:34 pm

    Excellent post! I love the Spanish Bride too, as do I My Lord John (by the way, even that was an incomplete book, though it seems too substantial to be incomplete. Her husband extended and ‘completed’ it after her death).

    And I didn’t know about Smith’s India connection, which should make for great reading. Thanks!

  3. Pooja

    September 18, 2008 at 10:32 pm

    I love Heyer too – for all the reasons you mentioned and then some. Though I’ve heard a majority of her works, The Spanish Bride has somehow stayed below the radar.

    So, thanks for bringing it to the forefront.

  4. Pooja

    September 18, 2008 at 10:35 pm

    Uh, I meant ‘read’ her novels.

    (Ack, I actually hate audio books).

  5. apu

    September 19, 2008 at 12:03 am

    Very interesting post. I’ve always really, really liked the Georgette Heyer romances, for the way she takes it so far above the usual he-meets-her-they-exchange-smouldering-glances genre. Her romances are great at capturing the total atmosphere of that society… I haven’t however read The Spanish Bride – I always steered clear of it on the fear that it would be “too historical” and not enough of a novel; your post tempts me to amend that.

  6. pitu

    September 19, 2008 at 1:24 am

    Um *shifty eyes* You’ve been tagged! Blame Kanan 😀

  7. Shrabonti

    September 19, 2008 at 2:36 am

    Hello Georgette Heyer fan! I love you already 🙂

    I echo Apu — I have read all (and own most) of the Georgette Heyer romances, though I’ve felt a strange reluctance to read any of her more historical work except An Infamous Army. But now I will manfully pick up The Spanish Bride.

    Have you read any of her detective fiction? Not so good, actually.

    AND, which are your favourite Heyers?

  8. M

    September 19, 2008 at 9:20 am


    Picture an unfit maami-type jumping up and down going me-too-me-too 😀

    LOVE Heyer so much, she’s actually spoiled me for reading any other regency-type books…I own all her regency era ones (yes, even Lord John) and am working on the mysteries…which BTW aren’t as bad as painted. Some are actually pretty entertaining.

    Spanish Bride…yeah, I remember being 14 and reading it for the first time..took a while for the fact that the bride was *my* age to sink in. There are some more pictures of Harry and Juana online – I remember finding them once when googling.

    My personal favourite is Frederica, but yeah, TSB is a great read as well. I actually found the romance in An Infamous Army rather distracting – the battles were described so well and Barbara was somewhat irritating! 😀 But worth it for the small glimpse of Dominic at the end.


  9. memsaab

    September 19, 2008 at 12:41 pm

    I loved Heyer too, am v. glad to find like-minded company since I was mocked for it 🙂 But they were so much more than “romance” novels with their meticulous details of the Regency period.

    Will need to find this and read it 🙂 Thanks for the info!

  10. meena

    September 19, 2008 at 1:13 pm

    Amritha, omg freaked me out because that is exactly how I discovered Heyer. Read spanish bride as a teenager and hunted every heyer I could find after that 🙂
    I havent yet found her equal in the way she develops secondary/tertiary characters in every one of her books.

    ..she is part of the reason I took to going through british history – john of gaunt through prince regent.

    My lord john was the only book where the characters dont come to life. if it wasnt for the period detail it would be hard to believe it was heyers work.

    Reading the same books much later in life with a different perspective ruined some classics for me – (Rudyard Kipling, I hope you are turning in your grave!)
    still colonialism (and damn british insolence) and all – still have some faves. another of these faves was Shadow of th Moon by MM kaye. Liked it over her more popular Far Pavilions.

  11. Amrita

    September 19, 2008 at 3:52 pm

    Bollyviewer – have i seen the BBC version? I OWN the BBC version. lolz. Gaskell was I think the first person to write a biography of Charlotte Bronte. and she also wrote a number of her novels, esp North and South in serialized form for Dickens’ magazine. Thus the connection. TSB has grown to be one of my favorites over the years, although I was in the same boat as you at first.

    Space Bar – it’s right up your alley! I wonder if her husband was also responsible for “deadening” the book? Or maybe she only added in the character work at the end and what we got to read was her research? I guess we’ll never know.

    Pooja – you’re not alone on the audio book hate. I guess its good for people who commute? “shrug” Give TSB a whirl, you might like it.

    Apu – it IS a historical and less of a romance than her Regency books but she very deftly weaves it in, imo. Its not like The Royal Escape or My Lord John if that’s what you’re thinking. And yes, her books are about an entire culture and world. Love them!

    Pitu – et tu? Oh well, seeing as it’s the highness’ first tag… 😀

    Shrabonti – right back atcha! I have read her detective novels and I think plot wise they’re hilariously bad, but the characters and the occasional romance are just as deftly written as ever. My favorites? Gosh, pretty much every book but TRE and MLJ really. But must reads top five include: Frederica, These Old Shades, Devil’s Cub, Bath Tangle and Simon the Coldheart. The first four never change but the last position is filled by pretty much every Heyer book. I have to do a post about them one of these days.

    M – HAhahaha! I feel exactly the same way! Frederica was my first Heyer romance and i’ve never looked back although i was a little younger when I read TSB so it didn’t creep me out as much. Plus, I have excellent disbelief suspending abilities honed by years of Bollywood. I too didn’t care for Babs and thought Charles could have done far far better but it’s nice to know Vidal and Mary went on to live happily ever after. Yay!

    Memsaab – noooooooo!!! What cretins they be! 😀 You have excellent taste!

    Meena – Oh lord, Kipling! I hated him as a child on some instinctual level and hate him now that I’m all grown up. But yes, that’s pretty much how my trip through history has taken place as well. And as for MM Kaye – come to my arms! That is absolutely my favorite historical romance set in India. Period. I was like, obsessed with it is how much I love it. Alex was my idea of a Prince Charming for years. Still is in some ways. 😀

  12. mystic margarita

    September 19, 2008 at 5:44 pm

    Our school had a library full of Georgette Heyers and, needless to say, I devoured them all. Loved the Spanish Bride, The Black Moth, Devil’s Cub, Foundling, Frederica…ahhh..the list goes on!

    Very nice post, Amrita – you re-awakened my love for GH, need to go check some out from the library asap! 🙂

  13. A Cynic in Wonderland

    September 22, 2008 at 2:29 am

    Ok i loved heyer. and every few years i take them out and read them again. and it never fails to amaze me how well researched they are – i have actually gone onto the net to figure out the characters and its all there.

  14. Shrabonti

    September 22, 2008 at 3:17 am

    OMIGOD ALEX! I didn’t even know anyone else was aware of him! He was my first true love, and at age 16 that was just so powerful that the pimply boys simple failed to impress. Really, I think reading Shadow of the Moon at that age saved me from having silly crushes on silly boys.

    meena, I completely agree SOTM is much better than Far Pavilions. Its still my all-time favourite book on some levels.

  15. Amrita

    September 22, 2008 at 12:50 pm

    MM – Oh, I was sooo happy when I discovered my school library had all the Heyers I couldn’t find at the bookstore! I used to borrrow the library cards of my friends who weren’t readers and check out books on them.

    Cynic – It really is the best part! Apparently when some other woman was ripping her off and she complained, the other woman’s publisher asked her to prove she was being ripped off and she promptly sent him documentation that she’d unearthed several bits of slang (now commonly scattered through Regency romances) by herself. She’s awesome!

    Shrabonti – Oh, the fantasies I had about Alex!!! Totally feel you on how he kept the silly crushes away coz I was the same. *scampers away to find a copy of SOTM to read*

  16. apu

    September 23, 2008 at 12:22 am

    my favourites are these old shades and the devil’s cub. btw, are there any other such heyer novels that work as a sequel? I think I’ve read them all, but just asking, in case I’ve missed any…

  17. Space Bar

    September 23, 2008 at 9:21 am

    Apu: Devil’s Cub and Regency Buck come together in The Infamous Army; Beauvallet is a descendent of Simon the Coldheat (The Malvalets become Beauvalet at some point).

    And These Old Shades is called that because most of the main characters are based on the first book she wrote – The Black Moth.

    Of course, all the books have recognisable characters rearranged, same plot points, so in a sense they’re all sequels of each other!

    (And I love every one of them, I need hardly add.)

  18. Amrita

    September 23, 2008 at 11:40 pm

    Apu – what Space Bar said 😀 plus people like Beau Brummell, Horace Walpoole and the Duke of Wellington appear in more than one book as people the characters know or discuss and there’s even a glancing reference to Harry Smith in The Unknown Ajax, which is one of my favorites.

    SB – Me too! The Great Roxhythe is the only book of hers I haven’t read, mainly because all the used copies of it I could find online cost a bit more than I wanted to spend. But one of these days….

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