Tuesday, August 11, 2015
An Infamous Army - Georgette Heyer
The scene is Brussels in the summer of 1815. A group of English army officers & their families have taken houses in Brussels as the army under the Duke of Wellington faces the prospect of Napoleon's re-emergence on the political scene after his escape from Elba. Napoleon has been gathering troops & acclaim on a triumphant journey through France & the allies - English, Prussian & Belgian - are readying themselves for his next move.
Judith, Lady Worth & her husband, Julian are the centre of a small circle that includes the Duchess of Richmond's daughters, Lady Worth's young brother, Peregrine & his wife, Harriet, & Lady Worth's protégée Lucy Devenish, an heiress with middle-class connections. Judith thinks that Lucy would be a perfect wife for Lord Worth's brother, Colonel Charles Audley, an aide-de-camp to Wellington. However, when Charles arrives from Vienna, in advance of Wellington's arrival from talks with the Allies, he is immediately smitten with the notorious young widow, Lady Barbara Childe.
Barbara is still only in her 20s but was married off to an older man by her relations. Fortunately she was soon widowed & she has vowed never to be trapped by marriage again. She & her brothers, George & Harry, had been brought up by their reckless father & all three have a streak of wildness. Barbara's beauty & wit have inspired a string of admirers but, when she meets Charles at a ball, & he proposes marriage almost straight away, she's intrigued in spite of herself. Barbara's other chief suitor is Etienne, Comte de Lavisse, suave, confident & very sure of his own appeal. Barbara's sister, Lady Vidal, favours the match because Lavisse is rich & Barbara has no money at all. Charles, with only his salary, is not a suitable prospect in her point of view but Barbara, who thinks nothing of scandalizing society by painting her toenails to match her gown & riding alone in the early morning, is headstrong enough to ignore her sister's advice.
Charles & Barbara become engaged, much to the consternation of both their families. However, Barbara seems determined to sabotage her relationship with Charles by continuing her rackety lifestyle. The last straw is when she entices Peregrine away from his wife because Harriet snubbed her. The engagement is broken & the situation is still not resolved when Napoleon's army crosses the Belgian border & the allied army marches towards Waterloo for the final confrontation.
I was a little daunted when I read that this book had been used in courses on Napoleonic history at Sandhurst. There's certainly a very detailed description of Waterloo & I think it is possibly too long & too detailed. However, I was listening to the audio book read by Clare Higgins & I did find it interesting. If I'd been reading the book, I may have skipped a few pages. Heyer lets us see several characters - Charles, George, Harry, Lavisse - during the battle which kept me interested. The portrait of Wellington is also very well-done. His loyalty to his staff, his family as he calls them; his frustrations with the politicians & army chiefs in London & with his allies in Brussels; his ability to flirt & attend parties in the midst of his preparations for war & his very moving anguish after the battle as he surveys the scene & comes to terms with the many lives lost.
Charles is a true Heyer hero, kind, gallant, loyal, steadfast. Barbara wouldn't be my idea of a friend but Heyer makes her understandable by showing how her background & unfortunate early life have shaped her present behaviour. The most moving scenes in the book are when Barbara & Judith help to look after the wounded men returning from the battle of Quatre Bras, the day before Waterloo. Like any description of war, these scenes reinforce the real cost of battle to the men who have to engage in it. Judith comes to respect & admire Barbara & realises that she has many good qualities that have been hidden under her pose of flippant disregard for the conventions. An Infamous Army is an absorbing novel, one of my favourite Heyers - although I tend to think every Heyer I read is my favourite, until I read the next.