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.