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Wednesday, July 16

The Spanish Bride: A Georgette Heyer Historical Novel

Inquiring readers, this Georgette Heyer novel was reviewed by my co-founder of Janeites on the James, Miss Anne. She will be the first person to admit that she is addicted to reading Ms. Heyer's novels before she nods off to sleep. In fact, Miss Anne's collection of Georgette Heyer's novels is more extensive than my own. (And that is saying something.) Here, then, is her review of one of Georgette Heyer's most acclaimed historical novels, The Spanish Bride, recently reissued by SourceBooks.

Few Romance novelists of any era would set an Author’s Note citing the main works of reference she used in researching the book, beginning with the autobiography of the romantic hero of the novel and including diarists whom we will meet in the pages, as well as Wellington’s Dispatches. And possibly no other Romance novelist would start her story – a highly romantic one, at that – with a lengthy and accurate portrayal of the siege and fall of Badajos, one of the most difficult battles of the arduous Peninsular campaign, where Wellington made his mark.

But Georgette Heyer was never the typical Romance writer. And this book, which is called a novel and marketed as a romance, is far closer to biography than fiction. The characters were real. Their own words, transposed into a coherent whole, tell the almost fantastic story of the 14 year old young woman of high birth, Juana Los Dolores de Leon, whose family home had been destroyed by the looters, and whose sister, the only one left of the family, turned to her acquaintances in the British Army, Lord Wellington and several of his aides, for her protection. As it turned out, when they came to the British camp, she met young Captain Harry Smith, a Brigade-Major in Wellington’s army. They married two days later, with Wellington in attendance, and within two more days, were on the march.

The Spanish Bride takes us through the rest of the war in Spain and into France, when Napoleon resigned and was sent to Elba. It continues with Harry Smith’s trip to America where he took part in the War of 1812 – showing clearly its place as a part of the Napoleonic Wars – and then, as the finale, some of the skirmishes of the Battle of Waterloo. The book ends there, but the Smiths lived a long and interesting life, in South Africa and India. Harry ended his career as a Major-General, and was knighted for his actions in India. Juana went with him wherever he was, and made friends everywhere; Ladysmith, in South Africa, is named in her honor. Georgette Heyer came across Harry’s autobiography while she was researching another book and was fascinated with the romantic story of the couple’s meeting, marriage, and life together. Her telling of their story in The Spanish Bride has not been one of her more popular books; in truth it is more a military campaign than a romance. But the love story of Harry and Juana Smith is fascinating.

We see Harry and his fellow officers through their own words. Juana is very much seen through their eyes. Convent-reared and frighteningly young, she tumbled into the life of the Army and carried herself as a brave soldier:

If Harry had doubted Juana’s ability to keep up with the division or to bear with equanimity the fatigue of long marches, and the discomfort of primitive lodgings, his doubts were very soon put to rest. She was a born campaigner. She rode her Portuguese horse in the rear of the column…when Harry went ahead, and never a murmur of complaint was heard to pass her lips. Unused to riding, she was, during those first days, so stiff and cramped when she was lifted down from her saddle that sometimes her legs would not bear her, and she would have fallen had no arm been there to support her. But there was always an arm…She had a genius for making friends and this quality in her, coupled with the romantic circumstances of her marriage (the story of which was, in a very short time, known to everyone in the division), made her an interesting figure. The men’s imaginations were fired before ever they saw her; when they became familiar with her friendly smile, and saw how her gallant, erect little figure never sagged in the saddle, they took her to their hearts and were even pleased when she rode with the column, a thing not generally popular with infantry regiments.

This is not to say that they did not quarrel – both had fiery tempers – but they were also soul mates. As long as Harry told her, or rather, ordered her, she would do it. She feared for his life in any of the battles, and for good reason, but she recognized – convent upbringing was to her advantage here – that his duties and responsibilities came first.

After Toulouse, Captain Smith was recommended for duty in America, and for the only time in their marriage, he left her behind. Juana’s sojourn in London was lonely, but as she did not speak English, she did not wish to go to his family until she and they could converse. When Harry brought dispatches for the Prince Regent from the war in America, his promotion to Major came through, and he took her to his home, where all of the Smiths were enchanted with her. She stayed with his family when he returned to America; Smith was at the Battle of New Orleans, indeed, carried the surrender papers to Jackson and was mentioned in dispatches for his outstanding work, before returning to England, just in time to hurry to Belgium. They arrived there as the epic final battle was beginning; the final scene is of Juana desperately searching for her husband through the grisly fields of that bloody battle.

Heyer’s easy prose makes the sometimes confusing military campaigns interesting. The casual interspersing of comments from the diarists keep the pace quick and interest high. She is well known for her interest in the Peninsular campaign – indeed, she made all of her most interesting fictional heroes veterans of the war. She had a well-documented desire to be more than a romance writer, and this is one of the books where she sought to expand her scope.

But most readers of the romance novel are more interested in drawing room intrigue than military tactics, no matter how interestingly depicted, and will not share her interest in the extended battles and the privations of camp life. And that is too bad. The extended Napoleonic wars brought about considerable change in the fashions and mores of the western world, and Heyer shows this throughout her books. Nowhere else and at no other time could a gently-reared high-born woman follow the drum and stay with her husband, the only person is the world she had. Janeites will catch a glimpse of their favorite Anne Elliott Wentworth, accompanying her husband on his ship in this story. And those who wish a more extensive look at the English staying in Brussels and the famous victory will want to read Heyer’s book on that subject, An Infamous Army. There’s more Heyer romance in that book, but the battle is so well drawn that students of military history study it. It was Heyer’s personal tragedy that she was not able to leave the romance novel behind, but it was an advantage for the rest of us to be able to read her sparkling prose on what can be a very dry topic.

This is Georgette Heyer with more meat than froth. I give it four and a half Regency fans.
Georgette Heyer's sketch of Regency uniforms from one of her notebooks.

More links about the topic:
Images: Book cover, Juana Maria Smith, 1815 (from Wikimedia Commons), and Lieut. General Sir Harry Smith, from The Private World of Georgette Heyer by Jane Aiken Hodge

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