Jan 312015

Silhouettes of a man and woman in Regency dress against a background of the number 80

Today, romance author, Judith Laik, shares her views on the third of Georgette Heyer’s Regency-set novels, The Spanish Bride. This is a substantive novel for which Heyer did a great deal of research. Laik gives us a peek into the scope of research in which she is engaging in preparation for her upcoming Regency novel and the part which The Spanish Bride plays in that research. In this article, she also compares her feelings about the novel when she read it as a young woman to how she felt when she read it again more recently.

As we will continue to do throughout our celebration of the 80th anniversary of Regency romance, we welcome comments by our visitors.

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Upper half of cover shows a woman in a white gown seated on a couch while the lower half shows a cannon and its crew on a battlefield.

The Spanish Bride is Georgette Heyer’s third novel set in the Regency period, published in 1940, three years after An Infamous Army. I can easily imagine she spent a great deal of the intervening time researching the Peninsular War, the setting for The Spanish Bride. Her meticulous research shows in every line of the book.

The main characters in The Spanish Bride really lived, which is also unusual among Heyer’s novels. Many of her books are sprinkled with actual persons, but in a secondary role to the real action, the romance between the two protagonists.

I volunteered to write on this book to give me a jumpstart into doing Peninsular War research for a book (Fortune’s Favorite) I anticipated starting to write early this year. Now that book keeps getting pushed back in my priorities, and it will probably be late in the year when I start. But I’ve started researching the subject anyway, and rereading The Spanish Bride is a worthwhile part of this research, for many reasons.

Among the research I’ve undertaken is an online class, "The Culture of War," taught by Merien Grey. I was much struck by a point she hammered on at the outset of the class: going to war and especially being responsible for the death of another person are life-changing events. A person (barring a sociopath) is never the same after taking a life, even in war and even when it’s truly a matter of "him vs. me." It’s a fact that, I believe, is generally, instinctively, understood. We certainly see the results in our own culture following long years of war and the return of combat veterans with PTSD or lesser but still debilitating emotional scars. It’s been known and understood as a problem in returning vets at least since World War I (when they called it shell shock), and I’ve read novels with veterans of earlier wars as characters, who suffered symptoms of what was an unacknowledged condition in those times.

Heyer doesn’t bring up PTSD or anything similar. Her characters, although rocked by the loss of good friends and the general carnage, carry on and do their jobs; and still laugh, love, and celebrate life. The cost shows perhaps more in Juana’s fears for Harry when he goes into battle. Even so, the knowledge of how closely death hovers over them all is an awareness that is felt throughout the book.

In my opinion, writers of books set in the Regency, and dedicated readers of the period, who read The Spanish Bride, and An Infamous Army, will find it enriches their understanding of the entire period their characters inhabit.

Many of the published books take place in the glittering ballrooms of London during the Season or the peaceful countryside, far away from any mention of battlefields and death. In actuality, though awareness of the war going on in a distant part of Europe could not have been far from the minds of people of the time. Fears of an invasion by Napoleon’s troops, and for those who had loved ones in the military, fears for their lives would underlie their thoughts.

As writers and readers, being aware of such fears can enrich the experience, whether or not the book touches on the subject. When you send loved ones off to war, you don’t get them back. Even when they survive, the person who comes home is not the same as the person who left.

Sometimes the gain is as significant as the loss. In the midst of war, people find their courage, their faith, their confidence, or the willingness to risk their lives to save the life of a comrade.

As it’s told in The Spanish Bride, the story of Harry Smith and his Spanish bride, Juana, isn’t really a romance. They marry early, and though they have their ups and downs (more challenging than most couples face), the success of their marriage is never in doubt.

I first read this book back in the 80s, when I was charging through all of Heyer’s books, and rereading most of them over and over. I wasn’t impressed with this book back then. Although I had started writing, I hadn’t decided to write books set in the Regency period. I was reading for the romance, and The Spanish Bride dwelled too much on the battle scenes and not enough on the romance for where I was at the time.

What a difference with this reading! I turned the pages compulsively, blown away all throughout by how real she made the battle scenes and life following the drum. The story carries on through the Battle of Waterloo, though she leaves an onscene description of the actual battle to An Infamous Army. (As I recall, Harry Smith was a walk-on character in that book as well, though I haven’t yet reread it for our yearlong celebration.)

Heyer listed a number of her sources for the book in an Author’s Note. They, of course, included Harry Smith’s autobiography, and those of several others who fought in the Peninsular War. (She said, "I have not, to my knowledge, left any of the Diarists of the Light Division unread.") She cited, as well, several others of the many historians’ works covering the war.

Many a competent researcher would do the same thing. Heyer took it all in, digested it, and spilled it back out in a compelling narrative that reads like it’s written by a person who was there for it all.

You can find Judith Laik at:

Web site: http://www.judithlaik.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/judith.laik

Twitter: @JudithLaik

  17 Responses to “Regency Turns 80 — The Spanish Bride

  1. Your article has given me much food for thought. I was particularly struck by your comment about the fact that once someone has to go off to war, they will never be the same when they return, even if they do not suffer any kind of physical or mental injury. I was even more struck by the idea that they could return with greater faith, confidence and courage. Such concepts offer many options to Regency authors who are seeking a way to turn a milquetoast into a hero.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking and informative post!


  2. Thanks, Kat. After reading The Spanish Bride for our Heyer celebration, I do think it is “must” for writers of the period, even if their characters never march off to war. Though I didn’t go into it, it would probably be meaningful for fiction set in any period where there was war going on (which is most periods!)

  3. What in particular about the book makes it noteworthy in your opinion? I’ve read just about everything by Heyer, but I don’t know what the specialness is for this book.

  4. Judith, I feel much the same as you about the Spanish Bride. I first read it when I was 12 and skipped some of the battle descriptions. 20 years later I read it with more attention to detail, and then 10 years after that when I began writing Regencies, I became in awe of GH’s research and emotion that is encapsulated in a short phrase or a look.

  5. Melinda, that’s a really good question. I would say, about several of Heyer’s books, “That’s one of my favorites,” and it would be true. Some of them are frothy confections; several of them deal with more serious matters. Maybe in this case, it was reading it with the knowledge that the characters were real and actually went through the events described, but having been written in novelistic fashion, I became more emotionally invested than I would reading a nonfiction account. That probably sounds strange, that in some way, to me, fiction is more “real” than nonfiction. That’s only my personal response, and I have no idea if anyone else would take it that way.

  6. Renee, I don’t know if originally there was more to your message than what posted.

    • Hi, Judith. That “comment” of Renee’s is a particular type called a “trackback”. They occur when another blog links back to the original post. Click on the post title where you see Renee’s name mentioned to click through to read her post.

  7. Vonnie, I thnk that’s what makes some books “keepers” — the fact that you can read them again a few years later and have a completely different take.

  8. This is another of Heyer’s Regencies I have not read, and since I am also researching the Peninsular Wars, it will be a must-read for me. I agree with you about fiction seeming more “real” than nonfiction. I always feel that historical fiction is a better way to start learning about a period because by necessity we explore the emotional impact of events. Then, the nonfiction accounts and historical disputes make so much more sense.

    I will say that Mark Urban’s nonfiction book, “The Man Who Broke Napoleon’s Codes” does a great job of adding emotional impact to a history of the Peninsular War. Great post, Judith. Looking forward to reading “Fortune’s Favorite”!

    • Alina, I’m one of those rare people who loved history in school, but even I lost interest when they limited it to those dry discussions of what crops were grown or dates of events that didn’t have much meaning to me. Maybe that was why I started reading historical fiction so young — I got the best of both: a dose of history and participation in the lives of those who lived it. I like your idea of starting the study of history with historical novels! (I actually did have a teacher in high school who did that, but it was a double class: English literature and World History. We read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar when we were studying the Roman period, and A Tale of Two Cities during the study of the French Revolution.) Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ve thought The Man Who Broke Napoleon’s Code sounded interesting, but I haven’t read it yet. It will probably be 2016 when Fortune’s Favorite comes out. I hope you won’t have forgotten about it by then!

  9. I really enjoyed reading your post, Judith!

    “Spanish Bride” is the only major Heyer I’ve never read, which is a matter of some embarrassment, as I count Heyer one of my favorite authors of all time. I mean, who reads “Pastel” and “Barren Corn” and “Black Moth” and even the inferior mysteries rather than “Spanish Bride”? (In my defense, I always *meant* to read it. That counts for something, right? Like saying my DVR watched it for me?)

    I’m now (finally) reading “The Spanish Bride,” although I’m only about 1/5 of the way through it. And I’m loving it! The beginning was a little tough going for me — Heyer seems to insist on using all the proper military terminology, and certain words I have only a vague understanding of — and I’m never great at understanding physical description. But once I got to Harry, I was hooked! And working my way through the military actions is proving to be incredibly worth it — after I got Todd (my very useful husband) to explain to me what round shot and picket and glacis and curtain all meant, I could really picture the battles. So I’m very much enjoying my read, and I know that I’ll put the book down in the end with a much better understanding of the Peninsular War.

    • I certainly won’t cry shame on you, Cara! As I said, I didn’t like the book when I first read it. Although I don’t remember, I’m pretty sure I skimmed over large chunks of it. I think it’s a great illustration of how a book can strike its readers differently, and even the same reader differently at various times or moods. You weren’t ready to read it before; now you are. I’m glad you’re enjoying it!

  10. Spanish Bride is my favorite for numerous reason. First is Juana de Leon is a family relation as I am a direct descendant of Ponce de Leon. So when I saw that I had to get it. Second being an Air Force Brat i’ve always had an interest in military history. And third I had actually read Captain Harry Smith’s Biography which Heyer based the book on before picking up this one.

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