Allan Massie

Coolness under fire

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

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.

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