In 1937, with the specter of another hideous European war looming on the horizon, Georgette Heyer’s attention turned to one of the most infamous of earlier British battles: the Battle of Waterloo, in her novel An Infamous Army. It was a far cry from her more recent focus on derring-do, mystery and comedy, and by far her most ambitious project to date, surpassing any of her previous works, even the serious historical The Conqueror. In many ways the most atypical of her works, it is also, oddly enough, perhaps the best known and most widely read Heyer novel for readers who do not generally know or read Heyer, mostly thanks to its meticulous recreation of the battle of Waterloo, which in turn eventually led to its last ten chapters becoming recommended reading at some British military colleges, and a way for others to read and learn about the battle of Waterloo.
I suspect, however, that most readers (and perhaps the military students) find themselves more enthralled by the small emotional details Heyer inserts here and there into her novel: images of men and women desperate for news of family members on the battlefield, the dancing that continues up until the very eve of battle, as the men are marching out to war, the scenes of men dying, quickly or slowly, on the battlefield. And, oh, yes, the complex romance, between an unusually passionate—for Heyer—heroine and one of the military commanders.
An Infamous Army begins a few months before the great battle, as members of the English aristocracy, for no particular reason, decide that hanging out around the British army camped out near Brussels is the ideal way to holiday. (As improbable as this sounds, Heyer repeats a historical truth.) Among the tourists: Judith, Lord Worth, and Peregrine and Harriet Taverner from Regency Buck (I was not thrilled to see any of them); Charles Audley (also from Regency Buck, but I was less irritated to see him) Lady Barbara Childe, granddaughter of the Marquis of Vidal (now the Duke of Avon) and Mary Challoner from Devil’s Cub (who, as Heyer later admitted, would have been unable to have a grandchild of Barbara’s age at Waterloo, but let’s not quibble) and who has brothers in the army; and multiple historical personages, all balancing their time between social entertainments and preparing for war.
Most of the non-battle action takes place from the point of view of the still-not-terribly-bright Judith, which at least allows readers to believe that, yes, British tourists would be that clueless under the threat of an approaching army from Napoleon. Heyer does, however, also let us see the viewpoints of less clueless characters: Lady Barbara, Charles, and, from time to time, the Duke of Wellington himself, quoting directly from his correspondence and the many memoirs mentioning him. But even Wellington tends to be outshone, at least in the first half of the book, by Lady Barbara.
Lady Barbara represents a radical departure for Heyer, a passionate adult woman that she would almost never try to paint again. Indeed, she is more like Heyer’s later teenage heroines, who tend to be excitable and passionate, than her older heroines, who tend to be quiet and practical. Like some of Georgette Heyer’s earlier teenage heroines (particularly Eustacie from The Talisman Ring), she is impatient with the social restrictions placed on women, perhaps reflecting her creator’s views on the subject—views that would distinctly change after World War II. But greatly unlike these (and later) teenage heroines, the very adult Lady Barbara is not naïve, but deeply cynical. Most notably, she chooses to flaunt society’s rules, rather than run away from them. And she is motivated, not by romance, or a desire for adventure, but by a combination of boredom, stress, and sexual desire.
In her introduction to the book, Heyer tells us that she had no wish to copy that other novel that featured pre-Waterloo Brussels society and the Duchess of Richmond’s infamous ball, Vanity Fair. Nonetheless, I cannot help but think that something of Becky Sharp went into the creation of Barbara Childe. But only something. True, both characters share a certain cynicism and become notorious in their social circles (largely on suspicions of questionable sexual behavior and gender roles). Both are willing to hurt and use people to achieve their desired ends.
Yet the two characters also have some vast differences. Most notably, unlike the social climbing Becky Sharp, Lady Barbara is very much part of the aristocracy. The granddaughter of a duke, and a wealthy widow in her own right, she can afford to shock society without worrying if she will be able to eat afterwards. (And thus we are also spared any suggestion that she might commit murder for a life insurance policy.) She may hate social restrictions, and despise them, but her birth ensures that she will stay within society.
Nonetheless, and I think notably, Lady Barbara does not gain her happy ending (and even then, this happiness is mixed with grief for her brother) until she has embraced those traditional gender roles again: waiting bleakly at home for news of the battle, helping wind bandages, helping to care for injured men. The caretaker, home role accepted, if not precisely embraced, she is able to rejoin the injured Charles.
Until that point, however, their story allows Heyer to study something she did in only a few of her novels: the relationship after the initial courtship. Most Heyer novels, after all, end with an engagement (including many of her mystery books) which does not exactly give her much of a chance to explore what happens after the engagement. Her few married couples in her mystery novels tend to be pretty dysfunctional, and her studies of marriage in her early, suppressed novels also focus on dysfunctional marriages. Here, Barbara and Charles are engaged in the first few chapters, and the issue is what happens to them after the engagement. We also get to see the marriage of Peregrine and Harriet, so hastily entered into during Regency Buck at such a young age, and the still frankly pretty inexplicable marriage between Worth and Judith.
Sidenote: reading this shortly after reading Regency Buck just emphasizes one problem: the way Judith, who did not exactly distinguish herself with common sense, tact or discretion in Regency Buck, here jumps on everyone else, especially Barbara and her sister in law, for lacking common sense, tact and discretion. And, although Judith has picked up a few brain cells between books, and is not quite as clueless, she once again proves to be an absolutely terrible judge of character—of pretty much everyone from Barbara, to her young protégé Lucy Devenish, to the Duke of Wellington. This does occasionally help out the plot, or at least minor plots (and left me extremely thankful that Judith was not left in charge of anyone’s military or medical planning), but it’s still irritating.
Heyer does give a quick nod to the ludicrousness of this by having Judith tell Barbara, all too truthfully, that she’s had her own bad moments. Pages later, however, Heyer removes any impression that she might actually, you know, realize that her character is pretty dimwitted as she assures us that Judith has good sense. Not for the first half of the book, she doesn’t. (She improves in the second half. Somewhat.) Worth, at least, is slightly less rude and emotionally manipulative, which is an improvement, but given that he still doesn’t really talk to her, I’m still not sure that they should be married.
Anyway. Heyer’s treatment of these more mature relationships is, with the exception of Judith and Worth, skillfully done. Peregrine and Harriet, in particular, have a powerful scene where Harriet quietly accepts that her relationship with Peregrine has been permanently changed. Given the social strictures of her time, she cannot end her marriage. Instead:
…they would pretend, each one of them, that it had not happened. In the end, Peregrine would believe that it had not, and Harriet would pretend, even to herself, because there were some truths it was better not to face.
The truths are that Peregrine is not dependable, and can and will fall in love with other women, and that Harriet will be treating him, in a way, the same way she does her children. Oddly, Charles and Barbara, who seem much less well matched, and who fight bitterly in the middle of the book, have, it seems, a better chance for long term happiness. Worth, alas, is still saddled with Judith, but then again since he’s the sort of guy that will head to a battlefield littered with dying people with a nicely sprung carriage and a) fail to bring these dying people anything helpful and b) return with just one person and then demand that everybody drop everything else and focus on this one person and fail to, you know, RETURN TO HELP ANYONE ELSE, I’m not inclined to feel too sorry for him.
In fact I think that An Infamous Army might be a better book without either Judith or Worth. But the key word is might. Heyer’s use of multiple points of view is effective, and she can and does use Judith to convey the tensions and the hell of hearing explosions, but not knowing how the war is going. The sections from Judith’s point of view are more personal, more engaging, than the dry, factual voice of the omniscient narrator who relates the battle scenes, except when the action pauses for a death scene.
But for all its occasional emotional power, not something I usually associate with Heyer, this is not a flawless book. The battle scenes, at least from my point of view, can get dull until interrupted by a Tragic Death or Wounding. The sudden appearance of Dominic and Mary, from Devil’s Cub, which Heyer later said she threw in to please fans, also strikes an off note: Mary is as practical as ever and Dominic as impetuous, but they are a throwback to an earlier, happier novel, and for all of their practical assistance, it makes no sense for them to be in Brussels at all. (Particularly since they arrive after most of the English tourists have fled or are trying to flee Napoleon’s oncoming army.)
And, always eager to prove herself a meticulous researcher, Heyer again spends way, way, way too much time listing various real historical personages in Brussels and Waterloo at the period, and then, a few pages later, listing all of them again. I am not really certain, to name just one example, just how many times we needed to see Lady Caroline Lamb’s name, or realize that yes, yes, Heyer had read the letters and memoirs of Lady Georgiana Lennox (later Lady De Ros). Also, the focus, as always for Heyer, is on aristocrats, although one or two regular soldiers make an appearance, and a rather nasty sideplot focuses on a vulgar member of the middle class, a protégé of Judith (I told you, Judith is not that bright), who refuses to help out the wounded because oooh, wounded, scary and she’d just be so terrified, and it turns out has been lying to pretty much everyone throughout the book.
But that’s about as lower class as it gets: although Heyer briefly mentions it, forget any focus on those who, like Thenardier, spent quality time on the battlefield looting corpses, or died among the infantry. Though Heyer does manage to slip in some of the more entertaining scandals about these aristocrats, including the tidbit that the British cavalry leader the Earl of Uxbridge, whose leg later became the subject of a Wikipedia article, had seduced the Duke of Wellington’s sister in law.
And for all of Heyer’s attention to detail and careful reconstruction of the battle, and its apparent remarkable accuracy (I don’t know enough about Waterloo to judge), somehow or other, the battle scenes, apart from the cavalry charge led by the Earl of Uxbridge, fail to come to life for me. The prebattle scenes work a bit better—particularly Heyer’s unpleasant reminder that one of the most likely fates for a British soldier was pneumonia, since most spent the night before the battle in cold, wet conditions—and her descriptions of soldiers catching hens to try to supplement their lack of an evening meal is telling. But these moments are few and far between, and I find reading the last half of the book a struggle. (No wonder it had to be assigned in school.)
Perhaps because, for all of her interest in war, and growing fear of its approach, what Heyer knew was the homefront and waiting for news, not battlefields. And thus that is the part of the book that works: her study of the way war can both stress and clarify relationships. Without Waterloo looming before them, Barbara Childe and Charles Audley might not have broken off their engagement, but without Waterloo behind them, their marriage would not have been as strong.
This is neither a pro- nor anti-war novel; rather, it is a war novel about quiet determination, and the ways people act in the face of approaching death, with a quiet confidence that whatever hell faced them, the British would prevail. (Along with a touch of advice for those dreading the return of a worldwide conflict: don’t let the last words you say to someone leaving for a battle with a high death count be angry ones, and don’t lie about your marital status.) These were thoughts Heyer would need to cling to strongly in the following decade.
After that post, I think it’s time to skip a lot of books:
Royal Escape: How Heyer, or anyone else, for that matter, can make the dramatic escape of Charles II of England from England dull is beyond me, but dull, dull, dull this book is. I barely managed to finish it the first time through, and a quick glance convinced me it wasn’t worth a second read. Skip.
The Spanish Bride: The retelling of the true life romance of Captain Harry Smith (who had made a cameo appearance in An Infamous Army) and his wife, Juana; it’s not quite as dull as Royal Escape, but runs a close second. Just read Smith’s autobiography (available for free online) instead.
A Blunt Instrument: For a change, something we’re skipping that’s not dull. Quite possibly Heyer’s best and most original mystery (although if you’ve read her other mysteries, you will probably guess the murderer without difficulty), with several hilarious and brilliant moments, but since I can’t talk about it without discussing and revealing the murderer, I’m skipping it here.
No Wind of Blame: Another mystery. In this case, the actual murder method was designed by her husband, leaving most readers and even Heyer herself at a loss to explain how the murder was actually done. (Let us just say that things are complex and leave it there.) And don’t even get me started on the motive and Heyer’s failure to provide adequate information about said motive earlier in the book. If this is mostly a failure on a mystery level, however, this is one of Heyer’s most hilarious contemporary books, with some particularly sharp observations on social climbing and social structures in Britain between the wars. Just try to forget it’s a mystery, and read it as social criticism and comedy instead; you’ll be much happier.
Next up: The Corinthian.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.