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Georgette Heyer is probably best remembered for her Regency romances, though she freely admitted that she held these books in some contempt as her true passion was serious history. An Infamous Army, originally published in 1937, showcased both her ability for wonderful romantic storytelling and her in depth knowledge of early nineteenth century English history. On the surface they may be light, frothy and romantic but at their heart is well researched history and a wonderful sense of time and place. These books are like Jane Austen with extra pizzazz.
Of all her so-called Regency romances, An Infamous Army is the most historically detailed and truth to tell the romance takes something of a back seat to the action taking place on the battlefield at Waterloo and is used more as a device for explaining the progress of events and battle stratagems. In her foreword to the novel, Georgette Heyer says she has used Wellington's own words both spoken and written wherever possible and there is also a formidable list of books she used for her research.
In the Summer of 1815 even with Napoleon marching towards the city, Brussels is a place of parties, balls and soirees. The Duke of Wellington and his entourage are at the centre of all these glamorous occasions but one person attracting more than passing attention is the beautiful and headstrong young widow Lady Barbara Childe. On their first meeting, dashing Colonel Charles Audley proposes to her, but even their betrothal doesn't calm her wild behaviour leading to disapproval from Charles's family.
Not until the Battle of Waterloo is raging just miles away, civilians fleeing and the wounded pouring back into the town does Barbara finally discovers where her heart truly lies but will war be the beginning or the end of her love story?
To Heyer fans this book is frequently regarded as a very loose sequel to These Old Shades and Devil's Cub in that the heroine, Barbara is the great granddaughter of that old roué The Duke of Avon and granddaughter of his son, Dominic, the current Duke. It could also be regarded as a sequel to Regency Buck, as the other leading protagonist, Colonel Charles Audley, is the younger brother of the Earl of Worth and he along with other leading characters from that earlier novel appear in this one too.
An author's biggest difficulty when writing a historical novel centred around real events is managing to incorporate fictional characters alongside real people and Georgette Heyer has very cleverly solved this problem by making her hero, Charles, an aide de camp to Wellington himself which, of course, puts him in the thick of all the action.
Getting the other characters to Brussells proved much easier because it seems that war at that time was between armies and civilians were left largely undisturbed, making it relatively safe for the military and diplomats to take their wives and daughters with them on their campaigns. The battle of Waterloo goes down in history as the last one to be fought on the old traditional lines of two armies squaring up against each other on a battlefield, soldier against soldier. Sadly, after Waterloo, war became much more universal and the next major conflict, the Crimean War, dragged innocent civilians into the mess and became the nasty, senseless thing that war is today.
Besides being a first rate storyteller, Georgette Heyer was also a mistress at characterisation and her lead protagonists here are fully rounded and believable characters. Lady Barbara Childe as the somewhat wild young widow probably owes more than a passing nod to Lady Caroline Lamb, though she never takes matters to the extremes that lady did. She's a difficult character to empathise with in many respects, certainly in the beginning and particularly with regard to the rather heartless way she treats the hero through a good deal of the book. There are reasons for her behaviour, however, and these are explained to the reader as the story progresses and I found myself warming to her eventually.
Charles Audley is a much easier character to get to grips with. He's easy-going and handsome, of course, and as a soldier whose life has been on the line since joining the army, just like Barbara he's a bit wild. He's been attached to Wellington throughout the Peninsular War and as one of his most trusted aides, is frequently present during top level discussions. Although on the face of it, he and Barbara make an unlikely pair, it soon becomes apparent that they have far more in common than simply a wild streak.
The cast of supporting characters are every bit as well drawn as the principals and for a Heyer fan such as myself, it's great to catch up with characters from previous books. Barbara's grandfather, was himself the hero of an earlier book and it's great to discover that he's turned into such an irascible old man, albeit one with an enormous soft spot for his grandchildren. Charles' brother, The Earl of Worth was also the hero of his own book and he and his wife play quite a prominent role in this story too. This satisfies the reader by continuing storylines from previous books allowing them to see what happened to the hero and heroine and at the same time creating a completely new story with new lead characters
It's often mentioned on various Georgette Heyer fan sites that this book was used at Sandhurst as a teaching aid because Georgette Heyer's description of the battle of Waterloo was so exceptionally accurate. I can't say whether that is true but what I can say is that she certainly describes the action in great military detail whilst keeping the story alive by putting her hero at the heart of events.
In fact, the military descriptions could well put off some readers as it's very detailed but personally I found this added great authenticity to the story, which demonstrated that this may have been a glamorous period but war at that time was bloody and brutal.
This is an enjoyable historical novel which has a wider appeal than many of her more frothy romances.
Because it's published as romance, this book is primarily aimed at women but the fact that the love story takes a subsidiary role in this book, to my mind, makes it just as accessible to men as to women, especially those with an interest in Wellington and Waterloo.