Miscellanea and Ephemeron
10/01/2008 Archived Entry: "Book review: The Spanish Bride"
The Spanish Bride
Review by Ida Vega-Landow
This has got to be one of the best stories ever written by the prolific Ms. Heyer. Similar to her earlier novel about love and war, "An Infamous Army", but a lot more satisfying for the romantics among us who prefer fact mixed in with our fiction. While "An Infamous Army" concentrated on the Duke of Wellington's brilliant strategic defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo, with the rocky romance of Lady Barbara Childe and Colonel Charles Audley serving as background. In this novel the love story of Harry and Juana Smith is given equal time with old Hooknose (as Wellington's men fondly called him) and Boney's dispute.
When Harry met Juana in 1812, after the siege of Badajos, it was love at first sight. Badajos was a Spanish town occupied by the French army, which made the mistake of holding out until the end. If they had surrendered quickly, the English army and its Portuguese allies would have been more merciful. But after a long, hard siege, during which many of the allies were killed, when the town finally fell the English and Portuguese soldiers ran wild through the streets. Women were raped in public, stores, taverns and cook shops were broken into and robbed, their owners beaten or killed if they protested, and the triumphant soldiers looted even churches. The conquering heroes stole everything that wasn't nailed down, drank everything that was fermented, and ravished any women they found outside. And quite a few they found inside as well, since even private homes weren't spared from the soldiers' wrath. Sadly, this happens a lot during war. The officers tend to turn a blind eye, knowing that the fate of the fallen town will serve as an example to any other enemy strongholds thinking of holding out.
By dawn the next day, while the town was still recovering from the assault and the soldiers were recovering from their hangovers, two veiled figures emerged from the ruins and headed for the English campsite to throw themselves upon Duke Wellington's mercy. They were noble ladies of the family of Los Dolores de Leon, a matron and her little sister, who had somehow managed to survive the sacking of the town. Without having anything worse happen to them than the plundering of their house around them and the indignity of having their earrings torn from their ears. The older lady knew Wellington from his having bivouacked in her house a few years ago, and was fortunately able to find two English officers who spoke Spanish. One of them was Brigade-Major Harry Smith, a reckless young man already renowned for his courage throughout the Light division, which consisted of the 95th Rifles, the 52nd and 43rd Regiments, and the 1st and 3rd Portuguese Cacadores. He reluctantly allowed his friend Major Kincaid to persuade him to let the ladies sit in his tent while they sent a message to Wellington.
While the senora was pouring her tale of woe into the officers' ears, the senorita, still exhausted and faint from the terrors of the long night of violence she had survived, noticed how young Major Smith kept staring at her curiously, trying to see through her mantilla. He was so good-looking that the young lady was able to forget her fears and lifted up her veil so she could see him more clearly. Once he got a good look at her pretty face, he lost his heart to her. Though she was just fourteen and he was in his twenties, Harry Smith declared his willingness to be the young lady's protector. His shocked friend, thinking he meant to make her his mistress, admonished him thus:
"Harry, what the devil are you about? She can't stay with you. A child—a lady!"
"She's not a child. Oh, in years--!"
"But, you crazy fool, you can't keep her with you! A gently-born girl, reared in a convent, thrown upon your generosity—"
"Yes, I can."
"Harry, will you listen to reason? This won't do! She's of the true hidalgo class! What can you do with such a girl? She's not—"
"Do with her? I'm going to marry her!"
And that's what he did. After a drumhead wedding, performed by a priest attached to the 88th Connaught Rangers, with Lord Wellington giving the bride away, Senorita Juana Maria de los Delores de Leon became Senora Juana Smith. Such weddings were common during the Napoleonic War; the baggage train of the English army was filled with wives and camp-followers, as well as servants--lady's maids for the officers' wives, valets (commonly called batmen) for the officers, grooms, cooks, messengers, scouts and so on. Most gently born ladies preferred to stay at home behind the lines when their husbands went to war. It took a very hardy female to "follow the drum", as the English called it, though blistering heat or freezing cold. Travelling over rough paths and smooth, over the mountains and across the valleys, not just in the baggage train, but right by your husband's side, riding next to him on a thoroughbred army horse. That made all the tame lady's mounts you had ridden before look like a hobbyhorse by comparison. Harry and Juana Smith became known as the most famous pair of lovers since Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, but without the tragic ending.
Not that there weren't plenty of close calls. Every battle that Harry rode off to made Juana cry like a baby, fearing she would never see him again. But she never shed any tears in front of him, only begged him to take care and come back to her safely. He would always promise to come back, while worrying himself sick about her safety and what would become of her if he died. Even though his younger brother Tom, who was serving with him in the same brigade, promised to take Juana to their parents' house in England if Harry fell in battle. The reckless young major soon learned not to take so many risks in battle, knowing that he had someone young and helpless to care for who was depending on him to come back.
Meanwhile, the sheltered Spanish lady learned to be a good housewife who could stretch her husband's meager pay (which was often in arrears) in any foreign marketplace. Or even feed a tentful of hungry soldiers with a pot full of whatever she or her servants could find, usually a skinny chicken and a few vegetables. The English commissariat, or supply wagon, had a bad habit of getting lost, or falling so far behind that it took days to catch up to the troops. So a good woman who had a hot meal and a cup of tea ready for you at the end of the day was a very good thing, whether you were an officer or an enlisted man.
In between the battles, there were parties, balls and banquets thrown by Wellington or whichever English officer felt like celebrating their latest victory. Juana shone at these affairs like any sheltered Regency miss at a proper English dance, and Harry was proud to dance with her, knowing she was the darling of the Light Division. The whole unit was proud of their brigade major's Spanish bride and the hardy way she adapted to the life of a soldier's wife, as well as her courteous behavior toward all. Enlisted men and officers alike were enchanted by her smiles, her lisping Spanish accent, the care she took to see that they were well fed and their clothing darned while they visited her and Harry in their tent. She even treated the lowliest camp follower as if she were a lawful wedded wife, which made her popular among those formidable ladies as well. These tough, shrewish women could be as ruthless as the men could when it came to plundering the dead on a battlefield. They didn't waste time or courtesy on the officers' ladies who looked down their noses at them as they went by on their husbands' arms or perched safely up on a thoroughbred horse. Juana didn't stay up on her high horse; she never hesitated to offer help or comfort wherever it was needed, often soiling her fine clothes helping to bathe and bandaged wounded soldiers after a battle. She didn't faint at the sight of blood or at the sound of the profanities which injured men are wont to utter when they are in pain.
Neither of them was perfect; Harry tended to flirt with any pretty local woman who winked at him during the officers' dances, and Juana would always fly into a jealous rage when he did. Then they would argue, fuss and fight as loudly as any long-married couple, to the discomfort of their friends and whoever had the billet next to them that night. But they never stayed angry with each other for long, and they never forget to tell each other "I love you" before Harry went into battle. All in all, I would say that Major Smith's marriage was the making of him, as would all of his commanding officers.
I did feel some discomfort reading about his exploits in America during the War of 1812, when the British invaded Washington D.C. After all, this was my country he was invading. As much as I sympathized with Juana, left behind in England while she worried about her young husband's safety fighting in a strange land overseas, I couldn't help feeling relieved by the defeat of the British as well as Harry's safe return.
When old Boney escaped from Elba and headed back to France to reclaim his throne, Harry took Juana with him when he was recalled to arms. They were both at the battle of Waterloo, Harry fighting with the rest of the English army while Juana waited and prayed with the rest of the civilians in the town of Antwerp. And when Juana went looking for him after the battle and heard a rumor that he had been killed, nothing could stop her from riding through that war-torn, blood-drenched countryside looking for her husband's body, so she could bury him decently before killing herself. Happily, that wasn't necessary, but be prepared to have your heartstrings tugged mercilessly as you suffer along with Juana, searching for her Enrique among the many bodies left lying in the hot sun after the battle. Their romantic reunion on the final page will remain with you long after you close the book.
The Wapshott Press
Ontology on the go!
"Ontology on the Go!"
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