November 28th, 2019


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Two Waterloo novels: One of the 28th, by G.A. Henty; A Close Run Thing, by Allan Mallinson

Second paragraph of first chapter of One of the 28th:
"Yes, it's just right; neither too light nor too heavy. It's rather thick, and I shouldn't be surprised if we get it thicker; but that again don't matter." For in those days not one ship ploughed the waters of our coast for every fifty that now make their way along it. There were no steamers, and the fear of collision was not ever in the minds of those at sea.
Second paragraph of first chapter of A Close Run Thing:
Hervey’s rose did not remain in his shako beyond the convent’s courtyard, for as his troop formed threes and wheeled into column he saw Sister Maria at an open window near the arched entrance. Breaking ranks and trotting over, he stood at full stretch in the stirrups and presented her with the deep-red bloom whose petals were no longer primly clasped. And she in turn presented him with a smile equally open, and a sign of benediction.
Back in 2015, I reviewed several books featuring the Battle of Waterloo, but didn't get around to either of these, which then bubbled to the top of two of my piles simultaneously this month. They are very different. One of the 28th is a classic boys' adventure published by the prolific G.A. Henty in 1890; the copy I have was a Christmas present to my great-uncle Maurice in 1902 (he would have been thirteen, and grew up to survive getting gassed in the first world war, living until 1956). It comes with some glorious illustrations by William Heysham Overend, which I make no apology for including here. In each case, click to embiggen - particularly recommend the third and fourth, "Mabel is Seized with a Fit of Shyness" and "Ralph has an Undesirable Partner".
The Privateer Captain Hails the Boat
The Boat Went Down from under his Feet
Mabel is Seized with a Fit of Shyness Ralph has an Undesirable Partner
On the Track of the Red Captain Mrs. Conway Discovers the Will
A Target for the Enemy At the Moment of Victory

One of the 28th is a standalone novel, whereas A Close Run Thing, published in in 1999, is the first in a series of thirteen (so far) chronicling the adventures of Matthew Hervey, the latest of which came out last year. I would be astonished if Mallinson had not read Henty before starting to write. There are some clear similarities between the books - both the protagonists are from middle-class family backgrounds (Hervey's father is a vicar, so is Ralph's prospective father-in-law), struggling to rise in the officer caste of the army; both protagonists fall in love and get married at the end of the book (sorry for spoilers); both novels feature questions of inheritance; and in both, the protagonist and his comrades are sent to Ireland - indeed, both to Cork - to keep order during the interval between Napoleon's exile to Elba and the Hundred Days.

But the take of the two books on Ireland is very different. By superior intellect and judgement, Ralph Conway of the 28th manages to capture a Galway ruffian and liberate the locals from the tyranny of untaxed liquor distillation, er, well. Hervey on the other hand gets into trouble for defending the local peasants against eviction, having got himself sensitised to the Irish situation by reading Maria Edgeworth. I don't find either scenario particularly believable, but I do find it interesting that both authors felt they needed to invoke Ireland in some detail to set the scene for the later phases.

One of the 28th also has a glorious parallel plot where Ralph's mother's ex-boyfriend has died, leaving his estate to Ralph and to the local vicar's daughter, but his evil sisters have managed to prevent the will from being found and continue in possession of his property - until Ralph's mother disguises herself as a senior housemaid and successfully locates the missing document. (See picture above.) This is after Ralph has spent the first few chapters a prisoner of the French in the West Indies. It's all quite implausible, but entertaining.

A Close Run Thing is more consciously a Bildungsroman (in fairness, Henty's characters are so two-dimensional that it is unfair to expect character development from them). Hervey is constantly getting into trouble, mainly for doing the right thing and therefore annoying the wrong superior officers, and a lot of the book involves those disentanglements as well as developing his relationship with his girlfriend. (There's also a surprising amount of theology.) Mallinson here is following in the footsteps of Cornwell/Sharpe and O'Brien/Maturin.

When it comes to the actual Battle of Waterloo, both have pretty detailed accounts of the fighting, drawn from the usual sources. Mallinson goes into it in more depth, but wears it a bit better because he has been giving us military detail all through the book (especially about horses). He also puts Hervey, who conveniently speaks German, into a crucial role in liaison between the Prussians and Wellington. Henty's detailed account of the battle is a jarring deviation from the tight-third of most of the book, especially since Ralph himself is more at the worm's eye than bird's eye point of view, rather like Stendhal's protagonist in The Charterhouse of Parma.

However Henty redeems himself a bit by having Ralph's arm shot off during the battle. Hervey gets through unscathed, though dearly beloved comrades are killed in front of him.

I think Vanity Fair remains my favourite Waterloo novel, but these two both round out the literary reception of the battle a bit, from opposite ends of the twentieth century. You can get One of the 28th here (without Overend's illustations, I fear), and A Close Run Thing here.

One of the 28th was my top unread book acquired in 2012, and the non-genre fiction book that had lingered longest on my shelves. Next on those piles respectively are The Cage: The fight for Sri Lanka & the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers, by Gordon Weiss, (if I can find it), and The Ghost of Lily Painter by Caitlin Davies (which will wait until I have finished all unread books acquired in 2012). A Close Run Thing was my top unread book acquired in 2015, and next on that pile is Babayaga, by Toby Barlow.