The period 1800 to 1815 has served as fodder for the best historical fiction ever written, maybe even the most — good and bad — set in any one era. The years, often thought of as the end of the “long eighteenth century,” take in, most momentously, the Napoleonic Wars; and the works, to mention only those I have read, include War and Peace, The Charterhouse of Parma, The Count of Monte Cristo, Vanity Fair, a number of Frederick Marryat’s witty seafaring adventures — the Captain, himself, having fought against both Napoleon’s navy and our own (in the War of 1812). Further, there is Thomas Hardy’s uncharacteristically untragic The Trumpet Major, Conan Doyle’s stories of the fearless Brigadier Girard, Annemarie Selinko’s block-busting Désirée, an armload of C. S. Forester’s novels starring Horatio Hornblower, and Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, the first 12 volumes of which constitute a masterpiece.
Now here is Stella Tillyard’s Tides of War, a novel set, from 1811 to 1815, chiefly in London and on the Iberian Peninsula. At its center is Harriet Raven, a type familiar to the readers of recent historical fiction. Not quite beautiful — too slender for her time, though possessed of an ample bosom — she has a quick tongue and sharp intelligence and is somehow untamable: her hair unruly and her dress often mussed because of her disregard for convention and love of scientific experiment. More particularly, she is married to James Raven, an officer in the British army who finds her elusiveness maddening. On the other hand, his experience of war has shown him that he has a real taste for killing and so, when ordered to join the British army on the Peninsula, he gladly leaves, accompanied by his servant, Thomas Orde, a hand-loom weaver thrown into destitution by the Industrial Revolution. Also in the picture is David McBride, a Scottish doctor whose bizarre obsession (as it’s seen by his contemporaries) is to fathom the mysteries of blood transfusion. He nourishes a secret passion for Harriet, but heads off for the Peninsula too. The main fictional characters are rounded out by a blackmailing courtesan, a gentleman volunteer, and a down-to-earth military couple.
Actual historical figures abound in these pages, chief among them Lord Wellington: capable, vain, impatient, controlling, and a tireless philanderer at home and abroad. Present, too, is the wife he despises, Kitty, who, we are pleased to discover, is making shrewd investments with her housekeeping money, hoping to accumulate the wherewithal to live independently of her faithless husband. She has invested in Frederick Winsor’s scheme to light London with piped coal gas. (Winsor, too, plays a significant role.) Kitty has also secured the services of Nathan Mayer Rothschild, and he, in turn, has prevailed upon her to introduce him to John Charles Herries, the British army’s chief commissary. Herries needs cash for the Peninsular campaign and needs it now. Thus, we are made witness to some of the founding maneuvers of the House of Rothschild.
In addition to military action and the evolution of government finance, other momentous developments of the time play a part, chief among them the eruption of the Luddite movement and, as mentioned, the introduction of coal gas to light London’s streets and dwellings. The last — perhaps strangely given the great doings around it — is really the most interesting part of the book. Harriet ponders the enormous change which gas lighting will bring: Not only will it reveal the dirt, blemishes, and ravages of age once forgiven by candlelight, but
[e]ven taste would be made to accommodate the new luminous air. The fine damask wallpapers and long silk curtains of the last century, which caught and held candlelight in folds and stitches would come to seem vulgar and harsh. Bright colours, white plaster ceilings that deepened and became beautiful in shadow, golden brocades, glinting buckles and embroidered sprigs of particoloured flowers; all had candlelight to thank for their popularity and feel of luxury. All would be swept away in new colours and designs that gathered light in instead of throwing it out.
Tillyard, whose three previous books were lively, well-researched historical biographies, seems to revel in a novel’s freedom from nonfiction’s schoolmarmish insistence on evidence when presenting the thoughts of actual people. Thus released, she appears reluctant to drag the narrative out of people’s heads — sites, it turns out, of heavy weather: fronts of emotion advancing to replace others, amorphous clouds of uncertainty building and dispersing. History aside, the novel’s plot comes down to the characters sorting out their feelings.
What is more, with so much of the narrative filtered through people’s minds, the characters are forced into the role of dutiful docents. Here is one of history’s renowned figures musing to himself on events:
So it happens, the restoration of our beloved monarchy, and I, Goya, painter to the court for twenty-six years — as loyal a subject as any office holder, you can say — am here to see it. A few months ago the British hopped over the border after the French. Lord Wellington led his armies like a piper, over the Pyrenees and out of Spain.
The great painter continues on in this instructive vein: Paris has surrendered; Napoleon is exiled to Elba; the Bourbons are back, and with them the Inquisition. It is impossible to imagine Goya or anyone delivering himself of such a mental news round-up. Faced with it, one longs for the austerities of nonfiction.