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My favourite Georgette Heyer novel is also the one it costs me the most effort to read: her Waterloo epic An Infamous Army. Like Hilary before me, I’m not about to spoil the plot for you (yes, it’s Waterloo, and yes, we all know the outcome, but there’s considerably more to it than that). But if you’d like detail, there is a highly entertaining and spoiler-y review on tor.com here.
There’s a lot about An Infamous Army that plods where other Heyer favourites gallop (The Grand Sophy, The Convenient Marriage, Regency Buck – which I like a great deal, despite the odious Worth). Even re-reading it, I have to force myself through the first couple of chapters or so, with the surfeit of Real Actual People, and the detail – O Lord, the detail. Heyer does not wear her learning lightly, and there are a great many people who crop up in this book for no reason I can discern apart from that they were around at the time, and add colour. Heyer sometimes throws in snatches of their correspondence in italics, which sits oddly with me, a bit like Richard Burton’s Trotsky wandering around his Mexican garden, holding a rabbit and citing his own theories.
The indispensable Real Actual Person and the greatest one, in every sense, is Wellington. It’s extremely hard to portray someone like that better or more vividly than he portrayed himself, and Heyer – for all that she’s very good on the warts – approaches the man with more than a touch of the breathless adoration her characters show towards him at every turn. It might be all very enthralling if you’re in love with the Iron Duke yourself; but I’m not, and I far prefer Heyer’s less reverential portrayals of less worthy characters: Beau Brummell, for example, or the Prince Regent (and now you see why I like Regency Buck).
By this point you might be wondering why I’ve written about the damn book at all. But this big, complicated novel has many strands to it, and there are two I like above all else. One is the Battle of Waterloo itself: Heyer is extremely good at conveying the sheer dread of it all, managing to invest well-worn events with a freshness and a tension I’ve yet to see elsewhere. And the other is the difficult love story between Colonel Charles Audley (the nicest leading man I’ve ever met, and he has my heart) and the Fatal Widow, Barbara Childe (who’s frequently awful, but is at least properly scandalous, rather than merely gormless/contrary/daft).
As I’ve written elsewhere, I love reading romantic fiction, but I don’t always feel invested in the central love story, much less fall for the hero; there’s nothing chillier to my susceptible heart than a man who’s too obviously made to be loved. By the same token – and this applies to some of Heyer’s romances, too – it can be hard to get caught up in a story when there doesn’t seem to be any real risk of it all going wrong, or when everything that does go wrong could have been resolved by a short conversation early on. But the risk factor here feels very real indeed: it’s death that threatens on one front, and dysfunction on the other. And Charles Audley, for all his lovely nature and air of sanity, is clearly hell-bent on dicing with both. (I won’t lie. I wanted to rescue him.)
Is An Infamous Army the most polished, the most cohesive, even the most entertaining of Heyer’s novels? Absolutely not. But at its heart it has a power and an originality all of its own, in love and in war. It is, without a doubt, my very favourite.
Arrow, paperback, 448 pp., ISBN: 978-0099465768