Contemporary historical fiction is not usually my first choice, but I had read some great reviews for this, Stella Tillyard’s first novel, so I thought I’d give it a go. The blurb on the back of the book , which I read in the shop before buying, didn’t encourage me though, as it sounded a bit like a heaving romance…. Harriet and James face hope and heartache in equal measure….
Set during the Peninsular War, it’s a period well covered in our literary heritage, be it Becky Sharpe in Vanity Fair, Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe, or the background presence of the army in Jane Austen’s novels; so to read something with a new angle is interesting. The novel contains a number of narrative strands, involving both fictional and historical characters, this adds to the feeling that this is a portrait of a period rather than a book driven by plot. And it’s a fascinating period, of a turbulent world on the edge of change, both political and technological.
If the book blurb is to be believed, it is the fictional story of the newly married couple Harriet, idiosyncratic, interested in scientific experiment and prone to quoting Shakespeare, and James, brave, blond, filling his officer’s uniform handsomely and under Wellington’s command in Spain, that is the story running through the spine of the book, binding the disparate episodes together.
Unfortunately, for me, this was the least successful aspect of the novel. What I did find fascinating however were the stories of Lady Wellington’s financial dealings with Nathan Rothschild, of how he made money through having superior, quicker information sources of the progress of the war in Europe, so bought short and sold long and cemented his own fortune, while assisting her in achieving financial independence investing her pin money; and with her as his introduction, he went on to be the chief funder of Wellington’s army.
Harriet’s interest in science and Lady Wellington’s in financial investment also provide the rationale for an exploration of the business of introducing gas light to London in the period, showing both the personal enthusiasms that must have been involved, as well as the company ownership intrigues that would follow on from a risky endeavour turning into a huge success.
The tidying up of Harriet’s romantic dilemma in the final chapters felt very rapidly done, almost as a series of notes that needed a bit more amplification, because they suggested a lack of interest in the outcome for the fictional characters.
It is probably Stella Tillyard’s background as a historian that gives so much interest and colour to the facets of the book which are so influenced by real events or historical figures, and it may say more about me than the book that I enjoyed the social and economic scenes more than the romantic, or indeed the battle scenes or espionage intrigue, but if you are interested in those things, then the book has them too.
Have you read this? What did you think?