The Spanish Bride by Georgette Heyer – #1940Club

My final read for this week’s 1940 Club, hosted by Simon and Karen, is by an author you can nearly always count on to have had at least one book published in the relevant year! Two Georgette Heyer novels appeared in 1940 – The Corinthian, which I read a few years ago and loved – and this one, The Spanish Bride. I did try to read The Spanish Bride once before and couldn’t get into it, but I thought this would be a good opportunity to attempt it again.

The first thing to say is that this is not a typical Heyer novel at all, which I think is partly why I struggled with it the first time; being very new to Heyer then and enchanted by her witty dialogue, entertaining plots and portrayal of fashionable Regency society, I had expected more of the same and been disappointed to find that this book was so different. This time I was prepared and managed to finish it, but it certainly hasn’t become a favourite.

The Spanish Bride is set during the Peninsular War, the conflict fought on the Iberian Peninsula by the British, Spanish and Portuguese armies against the French, forming part of the Napoleonic Wars. The novel begins with the siege of Badajoz which ended in a French surrender in April 1812. With the victorious troops on the rampage, drinking, looting and raping, fourteen-year-old orphan Juana and her sister seek refuge outside the city at the camp of the 95th Rifles. It is here that Juana meets Brigade-Major Harry Smith, who falls in love with her instantly, and the two are married within days.

Refusing to be parted from her new husband, Juana remains with Harry for the rest of the campaign, riding with him from camp to camp, from battlefield to battlefield. She finds life in the Duke of Wellington’s army challenging – the terrain can be difficult, particularly under the blazing summer sun or in the depths of a freezing winter – but she’s determined not to complain and in the process she wins the hearts of not just Harry but the rest of the regiment as well.

Harry Smith and Juana María de los Dolores de León Smith were both real historical figures. Harry’s life and career is well documented, including in his own autobiography published posthumously in 1901, while Juana is commemorated in the name of Ladysmith, the city in South Africa where Harry later served as the governor of Cape Colony. However, this book doesn’t cover any of that period, concentrating mainly on the Peninsular campaign (with a brief interlude in England where Juana is sent while Harry takes part in the War of 1812 in America) and ending at Waterloo in 1815. In her Author’s Note, Heyer describes her research for the novel, which involved reading the diaries and writings of various members of the Light Division, as well as officers of other regiments and even the Duke of Wellington himself.

The age difference between the two main characters could be a problem for some readers – Harry is twenty-five when he marries Juana, who is eleven years younger – but that’s how old they were in real life and it must have been considered acceptable in nineteenth century Spain even if not today. The ‘romance’ aspect of the book is quite understated compared to the military aspect (and as they get together so early in the story, it’s more of a portrait of an unconventional marriage than a traditional romance in any case). Juana does feel very young and often immature, but at other times she displays wisdom, compassion and courage beyond her years and it’s easy to see why she was so well liked and respected.

No, Harry thought, remembering long marches under molten skies, bivouacs in streaming woods, the fording of swirling rivers, mattresses spread in filthy, flea-ridden hovels, the washing of gangrenous wounds which would have made an English miss swoon with horror: she was not like the girls at home.

This book is as well written as you would expect from Heyer and, as I’ve said, amazingly well researched; my problem with it is entirely down to personal taste and no reflection on the quality of the book itself. I’m just not very interested in military history and while I can cope with a few battle scenes and some brief discussion of tactics and strategies, there was so much of that in this book that I struggled to stay interested at times. But books like this one and An Infamous Army show that Heyer was a much more versatile author than she is often given credit for and I think anyone who has avoided her because they don’t like romantic fiction would be surprised if they tried one of these. And don’t forget she also wrote several mystery novels – although I haven’t read all of them, the three I have read were very enjoyable.

This is book 12/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

24 thoughts on “The Spanish Bride by Georgette Heyer – #1940Club

  1. Pam Thomas says:

    As I’ve said before, my late mother was a passionate Heyer fan, and The Spanish Bride one of her favourites – so much so that as an engagement gift for her, my father sought out Harry Smith’s autobiography, no mean feat in 1950! (I have it now, it was one of the books I inherited from her). I’ve read and enjoyed it too, and it’s given me an interest in the Peninsular War and the various accounts written by the participants, including the splendid Johnny Kincaid, whose writing reveals a keen sense of humour, as well as wistful resignation that his friend Harry saw and married Juana first! And, as you say, Heyer’s account is very well researched. Having read a biography of her fairly recently, I can say I admire her hugely for her professionalism, while suspecting that I wouldn’t have liked her very much as a person!

      • Pam Thomas says:

        According to the biography by Jennifer Kloester, she was disdainful of those she considered beneath her, and guilty of anti-semitism and racism. To an extent she was a prisoner of her time and class, and I recognised many of the characteristics of my snobbish, prejudiced aunts, most of whom I loathed!

        • Rachel Bailey says:

          Oh, no! I had no idea! Well, I still read a few authors whose personal lives were, shall we say, less than pristine; though I won’t watch Polanski films at all. I suppose everyone has to choose where to draw the line.

    • Helen says:

      I remember trying to track down rare books before the internet and it did give you a feeling of accomplishment when you managed to get hold of them! I’m pleased to hear that Harry and Kincaid’s accounts are so enjoyable, even though I’m not sure I would have enough interest to read them myself.

  2. Janette says:

    I love both The Spanish Bride and Infamous Army and they sparked an interest in the Peninsula wars generally but I can see how people would be put off by the military details.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you loved them more than I did. I could still appreciate the quality of the writing and research despite struggling with the amount of military detail.

  3. Calmgrove says:

    Well, this is fascinating, Helen, both for your informative review – thank you! – and for the literary echoes resonating in my memory. Joan Aiken was well aware of Heyer and may even have read this title because her Felix Brooke Trilogy (I recently reposted my reviews of all three titles) is set in the aftermath of the Peninsular Wars, indeed even includes a protagonist called Juana – a proactive and feisty character with a name closely related to Aiken’s own forename via the English form Joanna.

    The action mostly takes place in Galicia, with an episode in one novel in England and a reference to a novel by Jane Austen, whom Heyer of course was heavily indebted to. You can see why your review intrigued me!

    • Helen says:

      That’s interesting, Chris! I knew both Joan Aiken and her sister Jane Aiken Hodge were influenced by Heyer, but not having read the Felix Brooke trilogy I wasn’t aware of those possible connections with The Spanish Bride.

  4. Rachel Bailey says:

    I’d agree that it certainly is not typical Heyer, which tends to be enchanting. I wonder whether she chose to do this one differently simply because she WAS writing about actual, historical, persons. I found Juana quite admirable, even if a trifle young at times–she WAS young, as you say! Also, being in the middle of a war, knowing too well what her likely fate was, of COURSE she’d choose a kind, loving protector! I daresay she thought herself lucky not to have to settle for becoming a camp follower to a single man, which would still have been better than becoming common property and passed from hand to hand. I think perhaps we, in an age of decent contraception and having our own jobs, sometimes forget just how much marriage was likely to be a family and/or economic matter in earlier times. In any case, I am pleased that you read this book and posted about it!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, Juana was lucky to have found a husband who was as kind and caring as Harry. She could easily have ended up in a much worse situation, as you say. I did like her, and I think the fact that she could command the respect and admiration of the regiment at such a young age shows how special she was.

  5. whatmeread says:

    I think that when Heyer was writing about real people, she was almost too careful to take liberties. i experienced the same thing with My Lord John and others of her more serious historical fiction,

  6. bookish17 says:

    I’ve never read the Spanish Bride. I’ve read other Heyer’s but I was put off by the military aspect of this novel. Great that you perservered and ticked it off the list. The Napoleonic Wars are integral to the Regency so it’s interesting in that aspect.

    • Helen says:

      I struggled with the military aspect, but I did like the characters and was glad I kept going and reached the end. It was good to learn more about the Peninsular War, even if it didn’t particularly interest me!

  7. FictionFan says:

    I love her romances too, but I’ve never got around to reading any of her other stuff. I don’t think this one appeals for the same reasons as you give – military history really isn’t my thing – but I must try one of her mystery novels one of these days.

    • Helen says:

      This is much more of a military history than a romance, so I wouldn’t really recommend it to you, but the mysteries are definitely worth reading!

  8. Nish says:

    I love Heyer’s romances, and even these military history books were quite interesting. Her mysteries are pretty average though. I like them, but they seem like a pale Christie imitation.

  9. CLM (@ConMartin) says:

    I am with you on this one – there are parts that are fun but it is the sparkle and repartee that make Heyer appealing to me, not her love of military history. However, if she felt her research was undervalued in her regency novels and she craved recognition for her work, then I suppose thought she could get it from the critics if her books were more historical than romantic.

    I think I’d rather reread a book of Pam’s than read this one again but perhaps there is time for both…

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I can understand why Heyer wanted to write books like this one as well as the romances, even if they aren’t as appealing to me personally. Pam’s Heron and Wintercombe books are wonderful – I still have two left to read, I think.

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