The title of this post refers to the Duke of Wellington's unkind nickname for the motley collection of national armies under his command in 1815 at Waterloo. It is also the title of a novel by Georgette Heyer of whom I have always been an enormous fan. She is often categorised as the inventor of the 'Regency Romance' genre which is a shame as this really does not do justice to this formidable woman's writing. Though her stories may be romances with Darcy type heroes and Bennett type heroines, they are rather more than that. The historical research that went into the background of all her books was breathtakingly thorough - to read a Heyer novel is the perfect way to find out how English high society of that time lived and behaved.
An Infamous Army is a novel about the battle of Waterloo with a love story attached, not the other way round. Some 70+ pages are given over to a description of the campaign at Waterloo and it is incredibly detailed and totally fascinating. By this stage of the book the reader has become totally involved in the main protagonists and their fate, and that of their friends, makes these pages wholly absorbing. This account of the the Battle of Waterloo is so highly thought of that it has been used at Sandhurst Military Academy in training. Heyer's son remembers being taken, as a child, to the United Services Institute, where they found a model of the battle and his mother began to describe it to him, too absorbed to notice the arrival of a party of school children whose mistress told them to hush and listen to her.
It must have been very galling to an author of this calibre to find her books filed in the public library under 'Romance' and put next door to Mills & Boon and Medical Romances. Georgette Heyer became quite bitter during her life at the way she was dismissed as a trivial writer. You will see from the old Pan paperback imprint on the right, just how her publishers tried to sell this book in the sixties. The original edition, of which I have a copy, was published by her long term publisher Dutton with the covers that are now highly sought and much prized by collectors. I have a whole shelf load of these as they used to be withdrawn on a regular basis when I worked for Camden libraries many moons ago, and I grabbed them and took them home. I am very glad I did now.
One of the most poignant moments in An Infamous Army takes place at the Duchesss of Richmond's ball in Brussels on the eve before the Battle. English society, the 'ton', had flocked there for the season as it was THE place to be and a hectic social whirl had taken place in the months before Waterloo. As the ball was at its height, they heard the news of Napoleon's imminent arrival and all the men immediately said goodbye to their sweethearts and wives and left the glittering scene to go to war.
The writing of this post was triggered off by the receipt this morning of The Literary Review. A new book has just been published Dancing into Battle: A social History of the Battle of Waterloo by Nick Foulkes. The review is called A Sound of Revelry and is a quote from Byron's 'Eve of Waterloo' section of Childre Harold's Pilgrimage
"There was a sound of revelry by night/ and Belgium's Capital had gathered then/Her beauty and her chivalry and bright/the lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men"
Wellington had gathered round him a staff of young officers who had fought with him in the Peninsular War. They were all of the upper class, apparently the Duke of Wellington did not approve of upstarts rising from the ranks (though of course the Sharpe books of Bernard Cornwall were based on this very premise) and there was plenty of time for partying and having fun. According to the review 'Foulkes captures the frenetic mood of nervous pleasure-seeking and growing tension in the city as the armies massed before the action'. He also gives a clear exposition of the battle and its aftermath. I shall be most interested to see this book's bibliography, if Georgette Heyer isn't in there somewhere I shall be very surprised.
I think I have now found a worthy purchase for my Amazon gift voucher which was a birthday present last week and which I am simply dying to spend...