Although I had read three other Georgette Heyer novels before this one, those were all detective stories, instead of the historical romances that she’s more well-known for. I found this one in a bookstore a few weeks ago and thought that it would be a good introduction to Heyer’s other body of work – although her mysteries aren’t the best I’ve ever read, her characters are always well-formed and the writing is witty and clever, so I was looking forward to seeing how she applied this skill to another kind of story. (A quick note: although this book is technically part of a series, it functions very well as a stand-alone novel, to the point where I didn’t even realize that I was reading a book from a series until I went to write this review)
Brussels, 1815. The summer of love. While the Congress of Vienna winds down, English and French society congregates in Brussels for endless parties, balls, and general rich-people fun times. Off in France, Napoleon has escaped exile and is gathering an army, but no one is overly worried about this, because parties. The cast of characters is vast (and apparently consists almost entirely of real historical figures who were involved in the Battle of Waterloo), but our main characters are Barbara Childe and Colonel Charles Audley. Barbara is a widow who, having been freed early on by her husband’s death, now has an amount of freedom that most women of the time can only dream of, and uses that freedom to the best of her ability. Barbara scandalizes the town by wearing revealing clothing, painting her toenails gold, swearing like a soldier, and having a series of very public affairs and generally not giving a single flying fuck what anyone thinks. Needless to say, I loved her from the get-go. Enter Colonel Charles Audley, an aide-de-camp to Wellington. He falls in love with Barbara and proposes to her, and she’s like, “sure, this could be fun.” The way Heyer develops Charles and Barbara’s relationship is very nicely done, and equal parts delightful and heartbreaking: Barbara, subconsciously afraid that she doesn’t deserve a man as good as Charles, tries to sabotage the relationship by behaving badly, like she’s constantly daring Charles to break up with her. For his part, Charles handles things beautifully – he wants Barbara to be the decent person he knows she’s capable of being, but in the same breath says that the last thing he wants is to tell Barbara what to do with her life. Basically imagine what would happen if Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler were actually concealing decent human beings under their protective layers of anger and cynicism, instead of just being a borderline-sociopath and a smug asshole. Barbara and Charles are the best, and we get to spend a few hundred pages watching their romance develop before the Battle of Waterloo hits, and everything goes to shit.
The research that went into this book, a seemingly-fluffy story of love during war, is staggering. I know very little of the Napoleonic wars, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of Heyer’s version of the Battle of Waterloo, but it certainly felt accurate. The battle takes up a significant portion of the story, with Heyer giving us an almost blow-by-blow account of the battle. She manages to give us a technical overview of the battle, while also showing the horrific reality of war (there are several brief scenes and images during the battle that still haunt me, as they very well should). It’s a significant departure from the romantic shenanigans and gossip of the rest of the book, and readers can expect some kind of whiplash from the change in tone. But if you’re reading the book, you know that the sudden depictions of war and all its brutality don’t come out of nowhere: throughout the book, the war looms in the background, and the approaching battle is always present. It starts out subtle:
“The balls, the concerts, the theatres continued, but picnics were added to the gaieties now, charming expeditions, with flowering muslins squired by hot scarlet uniforms; the ladies in open carriages; the gentlemen riding gallantly beside; hampers of cold chicken and champagne on the boxes; everyone lighthearted; flirtation the order of the day. There were reviews to watch, fetes to attend; day after day slid by in the pursuit of pleasure; days that were not quite real, but belonged to some half-realised dream. Somewhere to the south was a Corsican ogre, who might at any moment break into the dream and shatter it, but distance shrouded him…”
and then the war is on people’s doorsteps, even as they’re trying to ignore it and keep having parties and pretending that everything is fine:
“From scores of faces the polite company masks seemed to have slipped. People had forgotten that at balls they must smile, and hide whatever care or grief they owned under bright, artificial fronts. Some of the senior officers were looking grave; here and there a rigid, meaningless smile was pinned to a mother’s white face, or a girl stood with a fallen mouth, and blank eyes fixed on a scarlet uniform. A queer, almost greedy emotion shone in many countenances. Life had become suddenly an urgent business, racing towards disaster, and the craving for excitement, the breathless moment compound of fear, and grief, and exaltation, when the mind sharpened, and the senses were stretched as taut as as the strings of a violin, surged up under the veneer of good manners, and shone behind the dread in shocked young eyes. For all the shrinking from tragedy looming ahead, there was yet an unacknowledged eagerness to hurry to meet whatever horror lurked in the future; if existence were to sink back to the humdrum, there would be disappointment behind the relief, and a sense of frustration.”
It’s beautiful and powerful and I loved every single character – I definitely need to seek out more of Heyer’s romances, and soon.
Verdict: four out of five stars