Review by George Simmers (see his Great War Fiction blog here)
‘No one could foretell what the future held; but everyone knew that these weeks might be the last of happiness. Except when news crept through of movement on the frontier, war was not much talked of. Talking of it could not stop its coming; it was better to put the thought of it behind one, and to be merry while the sun still shone.’ (177)
Published in 1937 when most sensed that yet another European war was at best only a few years away, An Infamous Army describes events among an elite group of British officers, their wives and families, in Brussels, as Wellington and his army prepare for the inevitable clash with Napoleon at Waterloo.
One character says: ‘In this little town we are obliged to live in a crowded circle from which there can be no escape. One’s every action is remarked, and discussed.’ (266) Which, as Georgette Heyer clearly realises, makes it an extremely useful setting for a novelist.
The expatriate community is disturbed by the arrival of a femme fatale. Barbara Childe, a beautiful young widow, thoroughly enjoys the role of dangerous woman and outrageous flirt. All the men fall for her, including handsome and experienced Colonel Audley, who in everyone else’s opinion, really should know better.
Barbara’s character is the great success of the novel. She is attracted to Audley because he is different from her, and different from the other men that she manipulates so easily; but when they become engaged, she can’t help pushing him as far as she can, to test him. Some of the other characters are stereotypes, but Barbara is brilliantly done – both attractive and infuriating, wrong-headed but with a perverse kind of integrity, and, as psychological study, believable.
In contrast to her, Audley’s sister, Judith, is sensible, domesticated and conventional (but Heyer manages not to make her merely pious or boring). The book’s crises bring these opposites together, in a growing mutual understanding and respect.
Tension mounts as the battle draws near , and the last third of the book is largely taken up with a clear, detailed and gripping account of the action of Waterloo. Heyer appends a ‘Short Bibliography’ of forty-five historical works that have been useful to her in writing the novel – though her Author’s note takes care to point out that she has not listed works dealing with the purely tactical aspects of the campaign, or minor accounts or ‘a host of biographies, Memoirs, and Periodicals which, though not primarily concerned with any of the personages figuring in this story, contained, here and there, stray items of information about them.’ (vii)
The claim to depth of research definitely seems justified. The account of the military actions is not only detailed and readable, but seems very accurate. Modern historians might note that her account is Anglocentric; we get no sense of the French view of things, and as for our allies, well, foreigners tend to run away under pressure, while the English stand firm, and the Scots stand even firmer. Heyer gives no support at all to the school of historical thinking that claims Wellington was making a hash of the battle until Blucher arrived to sort things out.
The account of the fighting gives full weight to the horrors of war. At the end, some sympathetic characters have been killed, and some seriously maimed. Wellington himself says: ‘I have never fought such a battle, and I trust I shall never fight such another. War is a terrible evil, Lady Worth.’ (414)
Balancing this acknowledgement of war’s dreadfulness, however, are some tropes and patterns often found in war fiction. As well as providing the crisis that defines character, war is shown as bringing out the best in people, and uniting in a common effort people who would otherwise have stayed divided. We finish with a happy ending that might have offered some comfort to those who found resonance and poignancy in the words of a Belgian character: ‘It is true: this poor land of mine has been often the battlefield of Europe, and may be so yet again – perhaps many times: Who knows?’ (126)