History and Historical Fiction – a Different Truth.

As everyone who has an interest in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars knows, there is a wealth of published material to support this interest, to say nothing of the many, as yet, unpublished letters, journals and memoirs held in archives, libraries and private collections. But what about fiction? In this article, I want to consider the significance of the wars to the European consciousness by looking at some of the classic works they inspired.

Lord Byron

When Lord Byron hurriedly left England in 1816, hounded out by the scandal of his rumoured association with his half-sister, he visited the battlefield of Waterloo, which had claimed the life of one of his friends, ‘young gallant Howard.’ Byron had already written two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage some years before, inspired by his travels around Europe and including an evocative impression of the bloody field of Albuera. Now he embarked on the composition of a third canto, which included an extended sequence of verses on Waterloo, culminating in an image which saw ‘Rider and horse, – friend, foe, – in one red burial blent!’

Marie-Henri Beyle, who wrote under the pen name “Stendahl”

Where Byron led, others followed, including two writers who were actually veterans of the wars.  Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle) was a survivor of the Russian misadventure, 1812, while Frederick Marryat was a retired naval officer who had seen service  from 1806, just after the victory at Trafalgar, until 1830. For Stendhal’s characters, Napoleon is an almost mystic inspiration. In Le Rouge et le Noir (1830) the late Emperor is the source of Julien Sorel’s daydreams and the motivation for many of his later actions, while in The Charterhouse of Parma (1839) Fabrice del Dongo risks his life to join Napoleon at Waterloo.

Captain Frederick Marryat, R.N. 

Perhaps in these two novels we see how strongly the legend of Napoleon had taken root in French consciousness, just as across the Channel Nelson had acquired the status of a demi-god and his Navy, the epitome of maritime supremacy. Both Peter Simple (1834) and Mr Midshipman Easy (1836), by Marryat, reinforce the image of an institution that was harsh but ultimately invincible.

The flow of works continued in Britain with Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-1848) and Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859). The former includes the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball and the Waterloo campaign, seen from both a military and a civilian perspective.

 William Makepeace Thackery, author of “Vanity Fair”

Waterloo serves to kill off one of the main characters: ‘Darkness came down on the field and city; and Amelia was praying for George, who was lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart.’ Amelia continues to mourn her dead husband almost to the end of the novel, when she discovers just how little he cared for her.

Dickens’ novel takes the reader back to ‘the best of times: the worst of times’, to events that triggered nearly a quarter-century of war, from the storming of the Bastille to the Reign of Terror. It embraces in the character of Sydney Carton the idea of the rogue who redeems himself with an act of self-sacrifice.

Charles Dickens

In France Alexandre Dumas (père) published The Count of Monte Christo (1844). Although this is less specifically a Napoleonic novel, certainly in the military sense, the narrative commences during the period of The Hundred Days, and Edmond Dantès, subsequently the soi-disant count, is imprisoned as a Bonapartist traitor, the event which determines the rest of the narrative.

Alexandre Dumas, author of “The Count of Monte Christo”

The 1860’s saw the publication of two works which have done much to create an image of Waterloo and of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, both of which survive to this day – a reminder of the power of imaginative fiction on the public consciousness. Victor Hugo was obsessed with Waterloo to the point that a memorial has been erected on the battlefield to his memory.

“L’Aigle Blessé” (the wounded eagle), on the battlefield at Waterloo, a memorial associated with Victor Hugo

Hugo’s Les Miserables appeared in 1862. Like The Count of Monte Christo, it is not explicitly a Napoleonic novel, even though the action begins in 1815, but the 60-page interlude devoted to Waterloo has become, for many, the defining account of the battle against which historians still struggle today.

Tolstoy’s War and Peace is a prodigious work which takes us from the early years of Tsar Alexander I’s reign through to Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. Historical characters, Alexander, Kutusov, Napoleon himself, rub shoulders with fictional beings as everyone is sucked into the maelstrom of war. The scope of the novel is epic and the themes are universal. It is no wonder that for most readers this becomes the defining image of Russian experience during the Napoleonic War.

Leo Tolstoy, author of “War and Peace”

However, there is room for a lighter touch, which was provided by two British writers. The Trumpet Major is one of the most amusing of Hardy’s novels, a love story as Anne Garland tries to choose between the two brothers, Robert Loveday, a flirtatious sailor, and John Loveday, the more serious trumpet-major of the title.  Then there is boastful Festus Derriman of the Yeomanry cavalry. Robert wins the lady, to the disappointment of most readers, while John blows his trumpet for a last time on one of the Spanish battlefields of the Peninsular War. Hardy was told that his heroine had married the wrong man but merely replied that heroines usually did.

Thomas Hardy, author of “The Trumpet Major”

Hardy himself presented a more sober version of history in The Dynasts, An Epic-Drama of the War with Napoleon, in three parts, nineteen Acts and one hundred and Thirty scenes (1904-1908), his final word on a theme that had become increasingly prominent in his work, the working of fate in the affairs of men. Most people, however, prefer The Trumpet-Major to this blank-verse epic.

The other British writer to bring humour to the subject of war was Conan Doyle with his Adventures of Brigadier Gerard, a series of comic short stories, the first of which were published in 1894. Some would argue that war is not a suitable subject for comedy. But one has only to look at many of the contemporary accounts to appreciate that even in the thick of war human beings can still find the ability to laugh.  Read William Wheeler’s account of his experience at Valladolid when forced to ride the battalion mule, Betsy, or his description of the Mongrels (7th Division) awoken by a false alarm and the point becomes clear.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

That brings us to the end of the 19th Century, but the story (or stories!) does not end there.  Next month, I shall take a look at works produced in the 20th Century because, as everyone knows, then there was Sharpe!


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