Romance in the Napoleonic Wars & Rebecca Has A Coffee DateSunday, November 21, 2010
|The Duke of Wellington by Francisco Goya|
Carolann Rule was one of the most interesting and determined editors I ever dealt with in the early 90s. She was the editor of Western Living and in those days she actually hired me to write a monthly garden column for her magazine. But she had a problem with my garden photographs. One day she told me, “In Western Living we like nice and sharp (from here all the way to there) photographs of gardens. And they are always taken with a 4x5 inch camear. Yours are much too subtle. Our readers want to know exactly what they are looking at. You shoot through holes in bushes or around trees and muddle it all up.” In one of my finest hours of complete disregard to manners and subtlety (yes, subtlety!) I told her, “If you had been Shakespeare’s editor his 50 sonnets would have all been the same, ‘Let’s fuck.’” Her expression of shock was priceless.
Every once in a while I like to re-read two historical novels, The Lively Lady and Captain Caution by American Kenneth Roberts, or such novels by Daphne Du Maurier as The House on the Strand, The Scapegoat and, of late, The King’s General. There is no sex in any of these novels. What passes as sex all happens between the lines. I find that exotic, erotic, titillating and enthralling. I find it romantic and it was never more evident to me than when I went on a binge, four or five years ago, when I read all of Dorothy Dunnett’s two series of novels called the Lymond Chronicles, and The House of Niccolò. There was no sex, and if there was any it was just in the minds or imagination of the protagonists who suffered repeated tribulations of unrequited love.
It is because of the thwarted emotions to be found in these novels that my first love as a young boy was Charles Dickens’ Estella in Great Expectations. I was Pip, and the colder, crueler and more remote Estella was, the more I fell for her.
This sort of love does not happen much in modern novels. Carolann Rule could be their editor!
On Sunday night I finished the first (I have read all the rest, 10 in all) of Allan Mallinson’s historical novels featuring Matthew Hervey (in the first he is a lowly coronet, sort a British Cavalry equivalent of an ensign or the lowest of the low of commissioned officers). Hervey is a junior officer of a fictitious 6th Light Dragoons in His Majesty’s cavalry fighting with the Marquess of Wellington (no yet a duke) in the Peninsular Campaign. The book, A Close Run Thing begins in the last campaign in Toulouse when Napoleon is defeated and sent to exile in Elba and before his return, the 100 Days and his final defeat in Belgium.
Hervey’s unit is sent back to England and they fear that they will be left at best at half-pay or their unit will be disbanded because of the then British Parliament’s frugal ways. Hervey goes home to see his parents in Horningsham (his father is the town vicar) and his sister Elizabeth.
When Hervey arrives Elizabeth tells him that his childhood sweetheart has grown up, that she is beautiful and that she is the ward of an Earl. At this point Hervey suspects he does not have a chance for her affections and more so when he happens to run into maneuvers by a local militia headed by the pompous Mr. Styles, a man with means and a father with a large estate. The woman with him, watching the maneuvers (all ill executed and Hervey would know as he is a consumate soldier and horseman) happens to be Lady Henrietta Lindsay, his childhood ideal. He is left speechless. She makes conversation and asks him:
“And what do you think of our yeomanry’s appearance, Mr Hervey?” she added.
“Very fine, very fine indeed, madam,” he replied. If she had chosen the word “appearance” in order to restore the wretched Syle’s self-esteem (and she had a look that said she might), then he did not wish to risk any discourtesy by a critical remark. In any case, his reply was honest enough if by “appearance” she meant only in their fine uniforms.
“And do you not agree with Miss Austen that there is nothing finer than the volunteers in their regimentals? “
“I do not know Miss Austen, ma’am,” replied Hervey puzzled.
“You do not know of Jane Austen” Her incredulity again had the ring of mock surprise. “Miss Austen is our foremost authoress,” she explained, holding up a small volume. “Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Hervey, published only recently. It tells of how the militia win the hearts of the ladies when they come into the district.”
Hervey confessed that neither had he heard of the title.
“Upon my word, Mr. Hervey! You are not so conceited a regular [ a soldier of a standing army and a veteran] as to disdain the affairs of the volunteers?”she chided.
“No madam,” he stammered back, “not at all. I--”
“Then do permit me to read some,” she interrupted. “Miss Austen is so keen an observer of human nature. Here I have it.” She leafed through several pages until a little smile of triumph overcame her.” “I must first tell you, Mr. Hervey, that the book’s heroines are five sisters of singular intellect and sensibility, but all are enraptured by the presence of the militia officers – just as our own yeomanry steals the hearts of all they meet. Now, here is what she writes: ‘They could talk of nothing but officers; and Mr. Bingley’s large fortune’- Mr. Bingley is a coarse-bred sort, Mr. Hervey, much given to show,” (she smiled but her continuing irony eluded him – how was he to know Bingley’s true character? – and he presumed this to be some sort of rebuke) – “‘Mr. Bingley’s large fortune, which gave animation to their mother, was worthless in their eyes when opposed to the regimentals of an ensign.’”
Hervey felt the deep water into which he had stumbled about to close over him. Here again was the mocking child of the schoolroom, of the fallen tree and the captured hat. The message was clear as it might be” she indeed thought little of his show, and the yeomanry were as close as she chose to come to the profession of soldiering. “Forgive me madam,” he said shaking his head, “but I must be away. It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” Even as he spoke he thought the words absurd, but he was angry that she had enabled Styles, this pompous ass of an ornamental officer, to re-inflate himself. But, more, he had made her reacquaintance in such a manner as to be both brash and artless. As he trotted away he knew they would be laughing, and great was his relief when, out of sight beyond the trees, he could spur into a gallop.
In a later “altercation” with Lady Henrietta she says:
“Matthew,” she said with a smile, taking no apparent offence at his actuarial recommendation, “have you since read Pride and Prejudice?”
“Well go and do so!” she laughed. “At least, read that passage carefully when they are all at Meryton, the one I read aloud that day – Chapter Six or Seven, I think it is!”
Some day’s later, Hervey’s sister, Elizabeth makes a short entry into her journal:
August 28th, St. Augustine’s Day
Today Matthew and his serjeant left for Ireland and the house is once again silent. Matthew is grown to manhood yet somehow there is an innocence about him which, though endearing, is cause enough for concern. His serjeant is a fine man, however, and devoted to him, and I think no ill shall befall him while he has such a man to serve with. Of any expectation the we had of Matthew and Henrietta we must no longer speak, for he showed not a moment’s feeling for her, or, rather, no ability to convey and feeling if feeling there were – though hers for him was plain to see.
In a later chapter Hervey finally secures a copy of Miss Austen’s novel and reads chapter six and seven:
He began Chapter Seven, now yawning and struggling hard to keep his eyes from closing: he had had little enough sleep during the crossing, and Miss Austen’s was not a voice that commanded them to remain open.
And then he saw it. There, at the bottom of the first page, veritably leaping from the page! “They could talk of nothing but officers; and Mr. Bingley’s large fortune, the mention of which gave animation to their mother, was worthless in their eyes when opposed to the regimentals of an ensign.” He cursed himself for not having looked up the passage before. It was no riddle. Why had he not seen beyond the here-and-now when first he had heard those words? If Henrietta Lindsay were not apt to regard Styles as an officer –and indeed, how could she? (it was plain to him now) - then the passage made perfect sense. True the militia were no more or less soldiers than the yeomanry; but if she likened this Bingley and his large fortune to Styles and his large fortune, then the approving reference to an ensign (for she must be wholly sensible of the difference in name only from coronet?) must surely mean…
Mallinson’s series featuring Matthew Hervey follow his career from Waterloo, to India and to Africa and even to Canada. This reader learned all about cavalry, and how horses are trained, fed and ridden. He learned of diseases that inflict horses and the difference between a musket and a Baker rifle.
Mallinson was so enamored with the Captain Aubrey/ Dr. Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian that he wondered why there were no equivalents to those nautical novels on land and with horses. Since Mallinson had commanded the 13th/18th Royal Hussars (Queen Mary’s Own) he decided to give it a try. With advice from Patrick O Brian he wrote the first of the series, A Close Run Thing.
Because of one of those quirks of changing publishers and having small first runs, Mallinson’s first novel became a rare thing and a first edition fetches $900 these days. Until recently I was not able to find A Close Run Thing anywhere in any shape or form or condition. I finally found it the Vancouver Public Library. Their one copy entered the system in June of this year. The book was originally published in 1999. The New York Times has never reviewed any of these magnificent novels. What shame!