An Infamous Army by Georgette Heyer was first published in 1937, but mine is a modern paperback with an introduction by Rosemary Sutcliff and also an author’s note at the beginning in which Heyer says that she had always wanted to write a book about the Battle of Waterloo but the spectre of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair had loomed over her. Thankfully she got over her reticence. Before beginning to read An Infamous Army I had a squint at the back pages to see if there was a bibliography – and indeed there is. Heyer had done her homework, and it shows. I have to say that Highland brigades feature a lot, which I don’t remember from when I ‘did’ the battle at school, but I have no doubt that she was right and the Scottish regiments were thrown in there first. There’s a lot of battle and a fair amount of gore, but before we get there we meet Lady Barbara Childe.
Lady Barbara is a young widow who had married a man much older than herself, for money no doubt. But now she’s footloose and fancy free and spends her time breaking young men’s hearts, even to the stage of one of them destroying himself. So when Charles Audley becomes smitten by her all of his friends and family warn him against Babs. Of course Charles thinks he can tame her, and for a while he almost does before everything falls apart and he apparently becomes yet another of Lady Barbara’s victims. We all know what’s going to happen, after all, it is a Regency romance.
But An Infamous Army is so much more than that – as you would expect from Heyer. Fashion features for the men as much as for the women but it isn’t all fol-de-rols as there’s a lot about the horror of war and the futility. Wellington is appalled at the loss of so many of his friends and generals at Waterloo at a time when the leaders didn’t sit safely in castles miles behind the front as they did in subsequent wars.
I have read Vanity Fair and was quite surprised that so many people went to the battle as tourists, with wives and would be wives following the army and the whole lead up to the battle being more like a grand holiday which ended with a big bang. I suspect that Heyer might have got closer to the atmosphere of the many pre-battle balls than Thackeray did.
This is a great read.