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.