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Coolness under fire

The early 19th century was the age of the dandy, and the essence of dandyism was cool self-control.

25 June 2011

12:00 AM

25 June 2011

12:00 AM

Tides of War Stella Tillyard

Chatto, pp.375, 12.99

On His Majesty’s Service Allan Mallinson

Bantam, pp.317, 18.99

The early 19th century was the age of the dandy, and the essence of dandyism was cool self-control. The dandy shunned displays of feeling. There is feeling a-plenty in both these books; yet they may fairly be described as novels which bear the characteristics of dandyism. Though not short of action — something the dandies deprecated — they are cool, elegant and laconic.

Stella Tillyard is known as a historian of 18th- and early 19th-century aristocratic and royal life. Tides of War is her first novel, and a very accomplished one. It moves easily between domestic and political scenes in London and Norfolk, and the Peninsula, where Wellington’s army, with the help of Spanish guerrillas, whom Wellington valued little, is gradually winning the war against the French. For Britain the Peninsula was the main theatre of the war; for Napoleon it was a sideshow, and it was his disastrous 1812 invasion of Russia which enabled Wellington eventually to drive the French back over the Pyrenees and to invade southern France.

Tillyard has done her research thoroughly, drawing first on Napier’s great history of the war, and her battle scenes are convincing. She catches the confusion and horrors of sieges very well. Her portrait of Wellington, himself a dandy, known to his staff as ‘the Beau’, is admirable, and not entirely admiring. She catches his self-sufficiency, determination, irritability and capacity for ingratitude, qualities common to many great commanders.

Wellington is more than a match for the French, but is himself outwitted by his wife, Kitty Pakenham, who, weary of his infidelities, secures her independence by entrusting the management of her financial affairs to Nathan Rothschild. If Tillyard’s war is good, her London scenes are better still. In brief, economical sketches she gives what feels like the authentic flavour of the home front: the anxieties and distractions of wives whose husbands are serving in the Peninsula, the search for credit to finance the war, the role played by the Rothschilds, even the introduction of gas lighting. Pictures of high society alternate with snatches of low life and the awareness of public discontent simmering below the surface. It all feels authentic.

Though one wouldn’t call it a feminist novel, Tillyard is alert to the different standards by which male and female behaviour is judged. An army officer may have an affair with a Spanish-Irish beauty while on a mission to Seville, but cannot forgive his wife for what may have been no more than a flirtation in his absence. A war necessarily separates husbands and wives; some marriages survive, others run into trouble. All this rings true, and is delicately and acutely done. Tillyard gives us the portrait of a particular age, but human nature is much the same in every generation. Only the form in which it may manifest itself changes.

The good historical novelist recognises this and seeks to re-create the way of life and habits of thought and feeling of a past period of history convincingly while at the same time realising, and letting the reader see, that people who lived then were not the abstractions they may be presented as by historians, but made of flesh and blood like us, and with comparable feelings of love and hatred, fear and resolution; doubting like us too, even if what occasioned their doubts was different. It is time we stopped thinking of the historical novel as a genre, and an inferior one at that. If its ostensible subject-matter means that it doesn’t attempt to tell us how we live now, nevertheless a novel set back in time may, if it is good, say as much about what it is to be alive as one set in the next street or another country today. Tides of War is such a novel. It is diverting, but not a diversion.

What is left to be said about Allan Mallinson? Only this perhaps: he has done for the British army what C.S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian did for the royal navy, and his novels are every bit as addictive as theirs — indeed more addictive for those of us who prefer land to sea war, and find the details of military life more compelling than those of life on board ship. On His Majesty’s Service is the tenth of his Matthew Hervey novels. The Napoleonic wars are long over: it is 1828. Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform are in the air. There are riots in the country and talk of reducing the military establishment.

Hervey, however, is sent, with his friend Captain Fairbrother, the illegitimate son of a Jamaican slave-owner, as an observer of the Russian army engaged in war against the Ottoman empire. It is unlikely that he will be long content merely to observe; he will also meet the future Prussian Field-Marshal von Moltke, architect of the wars which led to the recreation of imperial Germany, and at that time advising the Turks. Splendid, irresistible stuff, and not for addicts only.

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