January 29th, 2021


Georgette Heyer and the battle of Waterloo

I can just imagine some people sneering at the very idea of reading a book by a romantic novelist as a painless way of learning about Waterloo. Let me tell you that Georgette Heyer’s research for An Infamous Army was impeccable. The story begins in Brussels where not just troops but fashionable English people fill the town. Naturally there is an apparently ill-starred romance but Waterloo is central. While all is still quiet, a group of the main characters set off on a day’s pleasure excursion in the nearby countryside. While there, they have pointed out to them Quatre Bras, the hollow road and the houses of Hougoumont and La Haie Sainte. For them, it’s a charming view. For anyone knowing anything about the coming battle, the names suggest impending doom.

Whether it’s ladies’ fashions or troops’ uniforms, you can bet that every detail will be correct. This is also true of Heyer’s description of the battle, which tallies with everything I’ve ever read about it. This is not pretty reading, as she doesn’t spare the reader the gore, while giving a vivid account of the fog and chaos of war. As Andrew Roberts said, Wellington was ‘here, there and everywhere’, rallying his men. At the end of the book, the love story is resolved but, fittingly, Heyer ends with Wellington writing his reports.

I’d also strongly recommend a social history of the period, Jenny Uglow’s In These Times, which I reviewed here in 2014. It’s about what it was like to live in Britain during years of fighting. Some people may be surprised to learn how much support there was in England for Napoleon.