Long ago, when I was first figuring out what I liked to read, I came across some novels by Georgette Heyer, and alas, found them a bit too much for me to wade into. But now I am much older, and starting to get annoyed with a lot of writing that I enjoyed long ago. Experience I guess, and to help me ease over the reading slump, I decided that this was the year that I was going to take on that classic writer, Georgette Heyer.
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English born and bred, Miss Heyer crafted what could be called the modern historical romance in the early 1930's. But unlike what is now called 'historical romance' today, she took the time and care to know the Regency period inside and out, especially in what people did and how they behaved. Over the decades many authors have tried, and failed, to reach that same level of skill, and only a few have managed to get to that point.
In An Infamous Army, Miss Heyer takes the reader to the city of Brussels just as Napoleon has escaped from Elba, determined to retake Paris and become Emperor of France once again. To the English, who have been flocking to the Continent in search of long-denied holidays, Boney's escape has caused some consternation. Some have fled back to England, and all over Europe armies and allies are being summoned to the Belgian city.
Among those staying in Brussels are Lord and Lady Vidal, viewing the upcoming fracas as a minor inconvenience. Along with many other English aristocrats, life in Brussels has a hothouse quality, with balls, receptions and concerts to while away time before Napoleon and his armies arrive, if at all. Among them as well is Lord Vidal's younger brother, Colonel Charles Audley, who is an aide to the very impressive Duke of Wellington, the victor of fighting the French in Spain and Portugal, and really, the only one who can beat Napoleon on the field of battle.
But a scandal is about to erupt over Brussels when the notorious widow, Lady Barbara Childe, arrives and decides that she is going to enjoy herself to the full. With her blazing red hair, green eyes, and gilded toenails, Bab is a sharp-tongued brat determined to wreck as many men's hearts as she can gather up in her pretty hands. She's also wealthy and well-connected enough so that no one can really cut* her, but she is certainly is causing a lot of talk.
And Charles is smitten by her from the start. While they indulge in nearly continual verbal sparring, there is clearly something between them. The problem is, while Charles would certainly love to have her for his own, Bab is still carrying on and flirting with any man, married or not, who will stay still long enough to for him to fall into her clutches. Too, Bab seems flighty and unstable, but once the trouble starts, we get to find out that there's much more to her than making a scene...
I was very surprised by how much I started to like this one once I got past the initial start of the book. Barbara Childe, for the most part, is one of the most mouthy, bratty heroines that I've come across in fiction, and I kept wondering what was it that Charles Audley could see in her? She deliberately strings him along, flirts with other men in front of him, and all the time he never does loose his temper or leave her. Eventually, that all made sense, but oh, did it take a while!
But the real star of the novel is the final third of the novel, where the reader gets a front row seat to the Battle of Waterloo, and how the English and their Allies very narrowly won. It's quite a read, and much more than just dry narrative of whom is shooting who. There's plenty of narrow escapes, emotion when finding a dying comrade or friend, and a very good look at the horrors of warfare.
That's where Miss Heyer shines in her writing. She never slips over into hyperbole or silliness, and her characters behave like believable, sensible people most of the time without the saccherine perfection that most authors these days think that romance readers want. (NB -- we don't!) The historical details are accurate, and the author thoughtfully included a bibliography for those who want to find out the real story about Waterloo, and the remarkable Duke of Wellington.
For those who are curious, characters from three other of Heyer's novels make a reappearance in this: These Old Shades, Devil's Cub, and Regency Buck. While it is not necessary to have read these before reading An Infamous Army, it does help to explain some of the complicated relationships.
All in all, this was a great read. It took a while for me to get into it, as the first fifty pages were spent trying to keep track of the various characters, and moving rather slowly. However, once Charles Audley and Barbara Childe met, the intensity gets ratcheted up quite a bit, and the last third, with the battle of Waterloo as the star, I found impossible to put down.
Four stars over and a must read for anyone who does not mind a bit of romance mixed in with their military fiction.
Many thanks to the Books CL Pestyside for adding this to the database for me!
* ' The cut direct' was a form of social ostracism, usually performed by a social superior to an inferior who has dared to sully the festivities by their appearance or behaviour. The cutter met the eyes of the cuttee, said not a word, then turned away with a cold demenour. To be cut was a devastating blow that few could survive socially.
Other novels by Georgette Heyer:
An Infamous Army
1937, 2004; Arrow Books, RandomHouse Publishing UK