Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

The Battles of Waterloo

In anticipation of today's anniversary, I read three classic fictional treatments of the Battle of Waterloo, with the intention of writing them up in good time. Of course, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and I'm now writing them up on the 2052 Thalys from Paris to Brussels, which will complete the journey in 85 minutes, rather quicker than Napoleon would have managed in 1815 even if he had won. (And finished the post after a drink with a couple of Irish friends who are in town for the re-enactment.)

If it will help you to get in the mood, do play this music while you are reading this post.


It is a lesser known work of Beethoven, combining Rule Britannia, God Save the King (as he then was) and the French military tune Marlbrough s'en va-t-en guerre (known in English variously as For He's A Jolly Good Fellow and The Bear Came Over The Mountain) along with martial drumbeats and cannon fire. Strictly speaking it celebrates one of Wellington's other victories rather than Waterloo, but it isn't too historically inappropriate, and the 1812 Overture won't do because there was no significant Russian presence.

Sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.

The Charterhouse of Parma, by Stendhal, was recommended to me by NATO's Assistant Secretary-General, Jamie Shea as his favourite literary treatment of the battle. I can see what attracts any fan of nineteenth century French literature about the novel, a Bildungsroman of a spoiled aristocratic young man who runs into political and romantic trouble on the Italian/Swiss border in the 1820s. There is a particularly good poetic highwayman, and daring escape from the titular chapterhouse. Those wanting to read about Waterloo won't get the tactical blow by blow account of other writers. Our hero runs away to Belgium to fight for Napoleon at the start of the book, and gets caught up in the battle and its aftermath, experiencing it as an incomprehensible maelstrom of carnage, chaos and petty crime, before returning home a little older and not much wiser. It's probably fairly realistic in terms of the experience of most soldiers in any war, and sets up the central character's naïveté for the rest of the book. It wasn't quite what I was looking for.

Sharpe's Waterloo is the culmination of an eleven-book series of novels about a British officer during the Napoleonic wars. It was recommended to me by Professor Brendan Simms, author of The Longest Afternoon, a factual treatment of the fighting around La Haye Sainte during the battle. I've read two other books by Cornwell, but none of the other Sharpe books, nor have I seen any of the TV series starring Sean Bean (I understand that, unlike some of the other things I've seen him in, he survives to the end). It concentrates very much on the few days leading up to and immediately following the battle, with Sharpe attached to the Prince of Orange, dealing with his own lover, his estranged wife, his arch-enemy (who is his estranged wife's lover), also the incompetence of his superiors, and the little matter of Napoleon's troops. Cornwell gives Sharpe licence to gallop around the battlefield to see what is going on at all stages, and he actually (of course) plays a crucial role in two minor but well-known historical footnotes.

I had expected to enjoy it a bit more than I did. Too many of the characters were fairly flat - the Dutch Prince and the ex-wife's lover are just awful, and there is a story about the Prussian chief of staff, Gneisenau, deliberately delaying Blücher's arrival, which I haven't seen elsewhere. And there was a bit of a sense that after the previous ten books building up to this, Cornwell was himself eagerly anticipating the saga being over (though it did' stop him writing further prequels and sequels). It's no huge surprise that virtue triumphs and evil gets its just desserts, in Sharpe's personal life as well as on the battlefield.

Not being completely satisfied with the recommendations I got from Messrs Shea and Simms, I cast around for another novel dealing with the battle, and came up with Georgette Heyer's An Infamous Army. Heyer is of course one of the twentieth century's most prolific and best-known romance novelists, and many people whose opinions I respect hold her in high regard. It's not a genre I know, and I'd never previously read any of her work. I understand that An Infamous Army is fairly standalone in Heyer's historical timeline, with just a few characters shared with other books - the second written of her famous Regency romances.

I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed it. Heyer's focus is on the aristocratic Englishwomen accompanying the British forces to Belgium, and there is of course a central love affair - between two fairly mature characters, a widow and a veteran soldier - to satisfy those who aren't into the military stuff. But I think she does a very good job of portraying the geopolitical situation of Napoleon's return and the uncertainty of where or how the Allies might respond, much better than I have seen elsewhere in fiction, starting from the spring of 1815 and going through to the day after the battle ends. She has her characters go for a picnic to Waterloo in an early chapter, which of course gives her an excuse to set up the topography of the battle without forcing the pace. My only gripes are that while she's very convincing about the battlefield, her Brussels geography feels a bit more wobbly; and I'm also not convinced that the Duke of Wellington and the Duchess of Richmond would have addressed each other as "Duke" and "Duchess" (formally, it should of course be "your Grace"; informally, they would surely have had nicknames for each other).

In particular, this 1937 novel has a conviction about the horror of war that I did not find in Stendhal or Cornwell. The Englishwomen at the centre of the narrative switch from partying to nursing with dismay but also determination. Heyer was born in 1902, and her father fought in the trenches of the first world war; by the time she wrote this, the next global conflict was looming, and it's impossible not to read the shades of Guernica and the foreshadowing of Dunkirk and Nornandy between the lines of her Waterloo. This was my first Heyer novel, but it won't be my last.

Those were the three books I read in the last month. But it would be remiss not to mention three other books and a play that include the Battle of Waterloo, one of which I read decades ago, the others more recently.

Fans of the musical of Les Miserables may be surprised to learn that the Battle of Waterloo occupies an extended flashback in the original novel. The relevance to the plot is that it is on the battlefield, after the fighting is done, that the young future inn-keeper Thenardier loots the dying father of Marius, thus condemning the latter's son to a future of poverty and falling in love with Thenardier's estranged foster daughter Fantine Cosette. It's one of my favourite books, and I will reread it again soon, but the depiction of the battle itself is accurate only in the broadest possible terms with the elements which are crucial for Hugo's story simply invented.

Doctor Who has visited Waterloo twice in spinoff literature. The 2005 novel World Game, published just as the show returned at last to TV, takes the Second Doctor in a brief interlude between his trial and his regeneration on a mission to prevent history from being perverted by the mysterious Players. Terrance Dicks has great fun with melding various bits of leftover continuity, though a couple of the tropes he uses are rather annoying. 

Much more successful is the Sxth Doctor audio The Curse of Davros, which brings together Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor, Terry Molloy's Davros, and lovely audio-only companion Flip (played by Lisa Greenwood) to the battlefield in 1815. Without giving away any spoilers, I'll just say that Colin Baker is presented with rather more challenging material than the Sixth Doctor sometimes gets, and rises to it rather well. And  Flip (played by Lisa Greenwood) is lovely. (Did I say that before?)

I think my favourite literary treatment of Waterloo will always remain Thackeray's in Vanity Fair. From the military point of view, it's thoroughly unsatisfactory - the battle mainly takes place off-screen, with the central characters stuck in Brussels waiting to hear the fate of their menfolk. But in terms of capturing the spirit of a bygone age, and how that one day of fighting and mass slaughter marked a turning point both for the history of Europe and for the individual lives touched by it, I think it can't really be improved on; and Georgette Heyer says so too in her introduction to An Infamous Army. If you want to commemorate the battle with a book this weekend, I recommend Thackeray's Becky Sharp rather than Cornwell's Richard Sharpe.
Tags: battle of waterloo, bookblog 2015
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