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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
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05/08/2008 Archived Entry: "Novel review: An Infamous Army"

An Infamous Army
A novel of Love, War, Wellington and Waterloo
by Georgette Heyer.
Originally published in the United Kingdom in 1937 by William Heinemann, reissued by Sourcebooks, Inc. 2007.

Review by Ida Vega-Landow

"I have got an infamous army;
Very weak and ill-equipped,
And a very inexperienced staff."
Wellington to Lt. Gen. Lord Stewart, G.C.B., 8th May 1815

So begins this epic novel by Georgette Heyer, with a quote from the Duke of Wellington, a modest man and a brilliant strategist, ultimately responsible for winning the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte's last stand. Ms. Heyer sprinkles quotes from Wellington throughout the novel in an attempt to authenticate this historic romance by letting the general speak for himself. Her attempt was successful, in fact a little too much, as the story tends to drag whenever she writes about the war itself. In my humble opinion, she doesn't write enough about the romance. Speaking of which...

It is the summer of 1815 in the city of Brussels, and Napoleon Bonaparte is marching from the north to retake the throne of France, after escaping from exile on the island of Elba. Brussels is filled with English soldiers and their families, among them the infamous Lady Barbara Childe. Lady Barbara, or Bab to her friends, is a red-haired widow of twenty-five who was married at seventeen to a gentleman three times her age to oblige her family. Fortunately for her the gentleman died within three years after they tied the knot. Now she is free to make up for lost time, which she does with a vengeance. Beautiful, flirtatious, and outrageous in her manner and dress (she wears thin, gauzy gowns over underwear which has been moistened to cling to every curve, which was considered scandalous back then), Bab is accustomed to having men cluster around her like bees around a brilliant blossom.

Dashing young Colonel Charles Audley, a brown-haired hunk who looks gorgeous in hussar uniform, is one of Wellington's aides-de-camp (the poor duke is surrounded by well-born young men in uniform from well-connected families who insist that their sons be given a place on Wellington's staff, no matter how inexperienced they are). When he meets Lady Barbara at a ball on his first night in Brussels, he loses his heart to her. He tells her that he loves her after their first dance, and even proposes to her the following morning while they are riding together on the Allee Verte outside of town. Bab, of course, doesn't take him seriously, being used to young men who swear eternal devotion after being exposed to her charms (that wet underwear beneath those thin dresses does reveal a lot of those endearing young charms). Nevertheless, Charles persists in his suit, elbowing aside the competition, which includes a shady Comte De Lavisse whose fortune is much bigger than his, outwitting and outlasting the most determined suitors until he convinces Bab to accept his proposal. But even a diamond ring on her finger doesn't make the flighty Bab change her ways; she continues to flirt and dance with her court of cavaliers, much to her fiancÚ's dismay and her family's disapproval.

Meanwhile, Bonaparte is getting closer and closer to Brussels, throwing the local citizens into a panic and causing most of the English civilians to evacuate in a mass exodus. Eventually Colonel Audley must ride out with his regiment to the little town of Waterloo where the little emperor has been sighted at the head of his army of thousands. The English army is outnumbered three to one, and even with the aid of their Prussian and Dutch allies, who are terribly disorganized, the odds don't look too good for them. Only after the wounded start pouring into town does Lady Barbara realize where her love and loyalties really lie, as she searches anxiously among the bloodstained, injured soldiers for her Charles, along with all the other women left in town, who leave the relative comfort and safety of their houses to nurse the wounded while war rages only a few miles away.

This book is so chockfull of romance and war, it might as well be an English version of Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With The Wind", another epic novel about a beautiful, headstrong woman and a dashing man who fall in love during a great war. But I'm sure that Ms. Mitchell didn't go into as much detail describing the events of the Civil War as Ms. Heyer does, nor did she bother to include direct quotations from the letters of General Robert E. Lee or other Confederate officers. Even though "An Infamous Army" is much shorter than "Gone With The Wind', I'll swear it took me twice as long to read it, on account of all the boring warfare that Heyer insists upon recounting in as much loving detail as the description of the green spangled gown her heroine wears the first time we see her in print.

It is a handsome book, 493 pages with a portrait of British redcoats on the cover and a provocative profile of a lady in a low-cut gown above them, which I found most unsatisfactory. I would have liked to see an artist's conception of the beautiful Lady Barbara swirling around the dance floor in the arms of her young colonel, wearing that green gown beside his red uniform. All the reissued Georgette Heyer novels got a facelift for the American market (the last one I reviewed, "Black Sheep" had a picture on the cover of a laughing lady in a lovely green silk gown that looked like it came from a classic portrait; I only wish they had mentioned which one!), but the one for "An Infamous Army" doesn't do it justice. This book also reminded me of a classic movie, one of those big-budget Hollywood romances of the 1930's starring Merle Oberon and Douglas Fairbanks, where the acting is over the top and the battle scenes are horrendous, but mercifully brief. I only wish the same could be said of "An Infamous Army". Maybe it's just me being patriotic, but I think Ms. Mitchell did a better job writing about love during our War Between the States than Ms. Heyer did writing about love during the Battle of Waterloo. I think I'm safe in saying that men as well as women might find this particular novel fascinating, since it dwells upon the details of battle as much as it does upon the romance between Lady Barbara and Lord Charles Audley.

If they ever decide to make this book into a TV movie, like the outstanding series of Jane Austin romances that was recently shown on PBS, I do hope they cut the battle scenes as ruthlessly as the French sabers cut through the English and their allies. Yes, Ms. Heyer describes the brutality of war as well as the strategy, making the bloody battle scenes so realistic that I had to look away from the pages quite a few times while I was reading to collect myself. I'm not squeamish, but there's only so much mayhem I can take, even in print. I'm glad I don't have to review books like this every day; I prefer to escape from reality in a pretty romance full of fashion, fun, and folly, rather than the hellish landscape of a countryside devastated by war.

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