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.

The Adventurers by Jane Aiken Hodge

I’m enjoying working my way through Jane Aiken Hodge’s novels but, as I suppose is the case with many authors’ work, I’m finding that the quality varies a lot. The Adventurers (first published in 1965) is certainly much better than the last one I read, First Night, but not as enjoyable as Marry in Haste, Watch the Wall, My Darling or Strangers in Company.

The novel is set towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars when, following the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, the defeated French army begin their retreat through Germany. The von Hugel castle lies in their path and seventeen-year-old Sonia von Hugel hides in the hayloft as her family and servants are massacred around her. When the violence is over, Sonia escapes from the castle disguised as a boy, intending to make her way to her aunt’s home across the mountains. Stopping at an inn along the way, she has an encounter with the mysterious Charles Vincent, who makes her an offer which causes her to change her plans and agree to accompany him to France instead.

In England, meanwhile, we meet Lord Denbigh and his nephew Philip Haverton, who are preparing to travel to France on diplomatic business. What will happen when their paths cross with Charles and Sonia’s? What is their connection with Sonia’s friend, Elizabeth Barrymore? And, most importantly, where does Charles keep disappearing to without explanation?

As this novel, like many of Aiken Hodge’s, is set in the Regency period, it’s difficult not to make comparisons with Georgette Heyer. The opening sequence, with the heroine dressing as a boy and meeting the hero at an inn – and the misunderstandings that follow – is exactly the sort of storyline that will be familiar to Heyer readers. After this promising beginning, though, the story becomes much less Heyer-like, with very little humour and lightness and a more serious, sombre feel. The politics of the period also form quite an important part of the novel, with Napoleon facing defeat and a plot to restore the Bourbon monarchy gathering pace.

I have described Charles and Sonia as the hero and heroine – and it did seem that way at first – but I quickly began to lose interest in them, especially as Charles was absent for such long sections of the novel (for reasons I found too easy to predict). It was disappointing that their plan to travel across Europe as ‘adventurers’, making their living from winning money at cards, didn’t really come to much and there was far less adventure in the book than I had hoped for. One character who did interest me was Elizabeth Barrymore; I felt that it was her story rather than Sonia’s that the author really wanted to tell. She is given a romantic interest of her own and although I found the way it develops predictable as well, I thought it was more engaging and more moving than Sonia’s – a story of mistakes, regrets and second chances, a bit like Anne Elliot’s in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Aiken Hodge wrote biographies of both Austen and Heyer, so it’s not surprising that their influence can be seen in her work.

The Adventurers is not a favourite by this author, then, but I did enjoy getting to know Elizabeth and learning a little bit about the political situation in Europe in the aftermath of the Battle of Liepzig.

Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller

It’s 1809 and a wounded man is being carried into his home in Somerset. His name is Captain John Lacroix and he has just returned from Spain, where he has been fighting in the Peninsular War. Injured, exhausted and haunted by his experiences, he seems close to death, but with the help of his housekeeper, Nell, he slowly regains his strength. Unable to contemplate returning to the war, he sets off for Scotland instead – first to Glasgow, then to the Hebrides, in search of some peace and redemption.

Meanwhile, in Spain, a British soldier called Calley is providing evidence to a military inquiry regarding atrocities carried out in the Spanish village of Los Morales during the retreat of the British army. He says he can identify the man responsible for this war crime, the man who was in command of the troops as they raped and murdered. To satisfy the Spanish that justice has been done, Calley is sent to hunt down and punish the perpetrator of the crime, accompanied by a Spanish officer, Medina, who will act as a witness.

Due to the alternating of the two narratives, it very quickly becomes obvious to the reader that the man accused by Calley is John Lacroix…but can it be true? Can the quiet, decent, sensitive man we have been getting to know on his journey to Scotland really have carried out these appalling deeds? Either there is more to the story than meets the eye or we don’t know John Lacroix as well as we think we do. There’s plenty of suspense as we wonder when we will find out exactly what happened that day in Los Morales and what sort of man John Lacroix really is.

As we wait to see whether Calley and Medina will catch up with their target, Lacroix arrives on a remote Hebridean island where he meets Emily Frend and her siblings, Jane and Cornelius. Together with their absent leader, the mysterious Thorpe, they are the last remaining members of a small community who have made the island their home. Intrigued by their lifestyle, Lacroix compliments Emily on her freedom, only for her to explain to him that she does not consider herself to be free at all: “Is it because I take off my stockings to paddle in the sea?” she asks. “That I have let you see me do it? Is that my freedom?”

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is a beautifully written novel and although there were one or two aspects of the plot that I found unconvincing and although I was disappointed in the Hebridean setting, which I would have expected to have a much stronger sense of place, I could overlook these things because there was so much else that I liked. Andrew Miller has a lot to say about so many things: guilt and blame, the atrocities of war, independence, redemption and love. This is only the second book of his that I’ve read – the first was Pure, a dark and fascinating novel about the destruction of a cemetery in Paris. I enjoyed both but preferred this one because the characters are stronger and because it left me with more to think about at the end. I’m sure I’ll be reading more of his books; I like the sound of Ingenious Pain, so maybe I’ll try that one next.

Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Gentian Hill by Elizabeth Goudge

For the last few years Lory of The Emerald City Book Review has been hosting a celebration of Elizabeth Goudge’s work on the author’s birthday and as a result I have read three wonderful novels, one every April since 2015 – The Child from the Sea, The White Witch and Towers in the Mist. This year Lory has taken a break from hosting this event, but I was pleased to find that it has a new home at Howling Frog Books and Jorie Loves a Story. Even before I knew that there would be an Elizabeth Goudge Day 2018, I had already decided to mark the day myself by reading another of her books. I still had plenty of unread Goudge novels to choose from, but Gentian Hill was the one I felt most drawn to this year.

Gentian Hill, first published in 1949, is set in Devon during the Napoleonic Wars. It opens on a peaceful August evening with a Royal Navy fleet arriving at Torbay during a glorious sunset. On board one of the frigates is fifteen-year-old Midshipman Anthony Louis Mary O’Connell, who has been in the Navy for eight weeks and has had all he can take of the seasickness, the brutal treatment, the punishments, and the taunts of the older, more experienced sailors. Escaping from the ship during the night, he deserts and disappears into the countryside where, taking the name of Zachary, he wanders from place to place looking for work until, eventually, fate takes him to Weekaborough Farm near Gentian Hill.

Weekaborough Farm is home to the Spriggs and their ten-year-old adopted daughter Stella. Stella is a gentle, sensitive girl whose time is divided between caring for the animals on the farm and attending lessons with Dr Crane, the village doctor, a man who values the importance of a thorough education for girls as well as boys:

Reading, writing, and elementary arithmetic were all the child needed to learn of the doctor, Mother Sprigg maintained. This, combined with the arts of housewifery that she herself could teach her, was all the education required by a farmer’s daughter. Doctor Crane disagreed; the education required by any individual, he maintained, was just exactly all the knowledge the individual could possibly assimilate.

When Zachary arrives in Stella’s life, an instant connection forms between the two of them which quickly blossoms into love, but soon Zachary must go to sea again…and there is no guarantee that they will be reunited.

I enjoyed Gentian Hill; as with all the other Goudge novels I’ve read, the writing is beautiful and there are some truly lovely descriptions of the Devon countryside. Here are the words she uses to bring Torbay to life:

The last light of the sun was streaming over the rampart of green hills to the west, brimming the leafy valleys with liquid gold, then emptying itself in a sort of abandonment of glory into the vast domed space of sky and sea beyond. There were ripples on the water, and a fragile pattern of cirrus clouds above, and these caught the light in vivid points of fire that were delicate as filigree upon the fine metal of the gold-washed sea and sky.

However, this is probably my least favourite of the four books I’ve read so far. With the hero and heroine being ten and fifteen (and they only age slightly over the course of the novel), I couldn’t really believe in the romance between them – it felt more like the love between a brother and a sister. I also found the characters a little bit too good and too pure, even for a Goudge novel; I feel sure there were characters in her other books who were more complex – unless I was just in the wrong mood this time.

I did find plenty of things to love, though. I particularly liked the way Goudge weaves local legends into the story, such as the legend of St Michael’s Chapel in Torquay, as well as all the customs and traditions that formed part of 18th century rural life: Christmas wassailing, the Ploughing Chant, harvesting, corn dollies, and the ancient instrument known as the bull-roarer. I also enjoyed following the story of the Abbe de Colbert, chaplain of Torre Abbey, who lived and suffered through the recent French Revolution. And although the plot is predictable, what I was hoping would happen is exactly what did happen, so I was happy with that!

Gentian Hill is a lovely story, but if you have never tried one of Elizabeth Goudge’s historical novels before I would recommend starting with either Towers in the Mist or The Witch Witch. She also wrote several contemporary novels including The Scent of Waterdon’t forget to enter my giveaway if you would like to win a copy of that one!