An Infamous Army by Georgette Heyer (1937)

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)

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10 thoughts on “An Infamous Army by Georgette Heyer (1937)

  1. What a wonderfully succinct and informative review! Having listened to Kate’s podcast on Georgette Heyer I can see she is yet another author to be added to the reading list. In a previous life as a library assistant I stamped countless return dates in her novels with a contempt that only the young and stupid are capable of. The irony of it!

  2. I confess that I was put off Heyer by a single attempt at a Regency romance which I thought was just silly. An Infamous Army does not sound silly at all. We should not judge until we have read! But it is okay *not* to like Heyer…!

  3. Interesting! I’ve always been ambivalent about her, owing to the bodice-rippers, and I found the crime novels I tried to be a little lightweight. However, maybe I was too hasty because it does sound like she’s put some research into this book.

  4. Georgette Heyer had a foot in two distinct camps – the historical romance, for which most remember her, and the detective novel. The only other novelist I have encountered with the same diversity is Baroness Orczy. Oddly, both chose a similar period in time for their history. I suspect both made more money from the romances than the detection, which is certainly a pity in the case of Georgette Heyer.

  5. Georgette Heyer’s detective stories are light and enjoyable and of their time – think Margery Allingham and then drop down a bit. It’s tempting to think her lawyer husband provided plots or at least advice. Her historical novels are much better than they are given credit for. Yes, she could and did repeat and was sometimes hasty in plotting or character (usually when she was pursued by the taxman, whom she hated, it’s said) but her novels are well-researched and good comedies of manners in a historical setting. It’s unfair to equate them with bodice-rippers. .

    • Yes, her husband did help her with the crime novels:

      Ronald played his part in the writing: offering suggestions, reading the manuscript and helping with the kind of technical information Georgette needed – mainly to do with guns, cars and boats. He would collaborate on most of her detective novels. (Kloester 127)

      Kloester, Jennifer. Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller. London: Heinemann, 2011.

  6. Having enjoyed ‘An Infamous Army’, I thought I’d try one of her detective stories, so I got hold of ‘The Unfinished Clue’ (1933). A very competent detective puzzle, and written with brio. Once again the most memorable character is a femme fatale, but this time she is Camilla, an outrageously self-obsessed Mexican cabaret dancer (the depiction of whom is way over the top, but very enjoyable). The murder victim is an extremely unpleasant retired general, whom everyone has a motive for eliminating. One by one the character defects of all the suspects are put on display, and the tone is generally tart – though a nice little romance creeps in towards the end. So a very enjoyable read – except that the depiction of a Jewish stereotype puts one’s teeth on edge, rather.

  7. Pingback: Centenaries « Great War Fiction

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