05 July, 2012

The Spanish Bride, by Georgette Heyer. Book review

First published 1940. Edition reviewed: Arrow, 2005, ISBN 978-0-09-947445-6. 422 pages.

Set in 1812-1815 in Spain, Portugal, France, England and Belgium, The Spanish Bride tells the true story of Harry Smith, officer in the 95th Rifles, and his Spanish bride Juana de los Dolores de Leon. All the main characters are historical figures.

Harry Smith is an able and energetic young officer in the Rifles, serving with Wellington’s army in the war against Napoleon in Spain and Portugal and already a veteran at 25. After the horrors of the assault on the Spanish city of Badajos and the atrocities committed by British troops in the subsequent sack, a Spanish noblewoman comes to the British camp seeking protection for her young sister Juana. Impetuous as ever, Harry falls in love with Juana on the spot and marries her two days later. Juana refuses to be sent to Harry’s home in England or to travel with the baggage train. Instead, she insists on riding alongside the soldiers, sharing the hardships and dangers of campaigning as Wellington’s army hounds Napoleon’s troops all over the Iberian Peninsula to the final clash at Waterloo.

The Spanish Bride is mainly based on the autobiography of Harry Smith (available online here, and well worth a read). Many of the incidents and anecdotes, and even some of the lines of dialogue, are taken directly from the original. This produces a powerful sense of authenticity, almost as though the reader has stepped into an army camp and joined in the conversation. The book is full of memorable little episodes of the ‘stranger-than-fiction’ type, such as the soldier rescuing Juana’s pet dog from a battlefield and keeping it in his knapsack all day until he can return it to Juana in the evening, Wellington’s ingenious solution to the problem of using Spanish money in France, and the astonished delight of the French civilian population when they realise that this invading army actually pays for what it requisitions, in marked contrast to their own troops.

The romance in The Spanish Bride is unusual, as Harry and Juana fall in love and marry instantly, so there is almost none of the ‘will they get together in the end?’ suspense that classically drives a romance plot. Instead, the suspense comes more from the question ‘will they both survive?’ Harry is of course exposed to the dangers of battle, and his oft-repeated assurances to Juana that he is indestructible sit in uneasy contrast with the death or serious injury of one friend after another. Juana herself comes under fire on occasion, and there are all the hazards of travel in wild country, such as fording rivers in spate or climbing unstable mountain paths.

The progress of the war is at least as much a focus as the relationship between Harry and Juana. Troop movements, dispositions and major battles are described in meticulous detail, giving a clear overview of the last two years of the Peninsular War from Badajos to Napoleon’s first abdication in 1814. There is no map in the edition I read, so it is well worth having a modern atlas to hand in order to identify the places and follow the campaign. Although Harry is involved in many of the major battles, The Spanish Bride does not go in for lengthy blood-and-guts battle scenes. (For those, Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series of Peninsular War adventure novels are hard to beat). It’s perhaps best described as a vivid portrayal of domestic life for army officers on active service – bivouacs and billets, food shortages when the baggage train has taken the wrong road through the mountains, dealings with the local civilian population, the transient social life of regimental dinners and impromptu balls held in barns with half the roof missing, and of the frequent alarms and unexpected attacks that mean Juana can be quietly ironing her husband’s shirts one minute and fleeing for her life the next.

As well as Harry and Juana, many of the secondary characters are also based on real historical figures, particularly their friends among the other officers of Harry’s brigade. The friendships, antagonisms and rivalries among colleagues, and their opinions (by no means always favourable!) of their superiors, are well portrayed. The relationship between Harry and the apparently foppish Daniel Cadoux is particularly well drawn. Lord Wellington also makes an appearance, a consummate professional who has an irascible temper and no interest in being popular but commands immense respect from the top of the army to the bottom.

A useful author’s note at the beginning outlines the main sources for the story, in addition to Harry’s autobiography. Unfortunately there’s no map, which would have been useful, but the omission can be remedied by finding a modern atlas.

Part love story and part account of the Peninsular War from Badajos in 1812 to Bayonne in 1814, with a coda at Waterloo, this is a dramatised retelling of the story of Harry and Juana Smith based on Harry Smith’s autobiography.


Rick said...

bivouacs and billets, food shortages when the baggage train has taken the wrong road through the mountains, dealings with the local civilian population

'Amateurs study tactics; professionals study logistics.'

I knew that Heyer was immersed in this period, of course, but had no idea that she'd written anything on these lines.

Carla said...

The Spanish Bride is certainly very different from the Regency romances she's famous for, more different than the title suggests. I have the impression that it's not as widely known as her other novels, perhaps because people looking for a classic romance are disappointed and people who would like a straight HF story of the war assume it's a romance and don't pick it up. I only came across it fairly recently. It corresponds very closely to Harry Smith's Autobiography, (almost a dramatised version in places), so that no doubt shaped the narrative.

Annis said...

Sir Harry's memoirs, as you say, are well worth a read. Far from being stodgy and formal, they are lively and vigorous, conveying a clear impression of the restless, energetc man he must have been - you have a image of Sir Harry impatiently dashing off a sentence here and there before racing off to hounds :)

Heyer took a similar approach in her novel "An Infamous Army", where the romance only thinly veils what is a dramatic and meticulously detailed account of the Battle of Waterloo.

Carla said...

Annis - Yes, that's exactly the impression the memoirs give! An Infamous Army is on my list, though I haven't got to it yet.

Annis said...

I often wonder how Juana Smith coped with a return to what must have seemed a stiflingly conventional and boring life when she later settled in England, and how Sir Harry's family coped with his Spanish bride! By all accounts Juana was widely admired as a gracious and charming lady both on and off the campaign trail.

Carla said...

In The Spanish Bride, Harry's family all love Juana. If I had a niggle about the book it's that everybody loves Juana immediately, which seems a little unlikely - though that comes straight from the memoirs, so perhaps everybody really did. Universal popularity may well have been a help in adjusting to life in England! In the novel, Juana seems absolutely devoted to Harry (nowadays it might be called emotional dependence), so perhaps she was happy in any circumstances as long as she was with him. Didn't they later go on to more adventures in South Africa and India?

Annis said...

Yes, and Juana is commemorated in several place names- Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa and Ladismith, Western Cape, South Africa, as well as Ladysmith, British Columbia, Canada, so presumably she made a good impression wherever she went :)

Juana was only 14 and pretty much straight out of a convent and left without home or family when she met and married Sir Harry- maybe not too surprising that she became emotionally dependent on him. Sir Harry appears to have treated her as something like a cross between wife and raw recruit in need of military training!

Carla said...

Hadn't thought of that analogy, but I see what you mean! It seems to have worked for them, at any rate.