Chatto & Windus, £12.99, 375pp £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Tides of War by Stella Tillyard
Adventures in a real Regency
Friday 03 June 2011
For her fictional debut, acclaimed historian Stella Tillyard has chosen to focus on a three-year period from early 1812 to the summer of 1815 – the final third of the Peninsula War and its aftermath. It is a brave act. For while there are few widely-read accounts of the Regency – its politics, economics, social and cultural developments – it is a period that readers and television viewers believe they know well. Jane Austen-meets-Sharpe with a dollop of Vanity Fair. Hovering over everything is the lengthy shadow of Georgette Heyer, whose historical romances bring the period to life through page-turner plots and an encyclopaedic knowledge of changing fashions in gloves.
Tillyard is no Heyer. Nor in fairness is Heyer-style romance her aim. Tides of War, subtitled "a novel of the Peninsula War", is as much portrait as novel. Its enthusiasms are those of the historian not the historical novelist. The plot's many offshoots embrace experiments in blood transfusion, the early history of domestic gas lighting and the origins of the Rothschild banking empire. Unlike Heyer's dexterity with the cut of a pelisse or the springs of a phaeton, these areas of inquiry are more than period colour added to bestow a gloss of authenticity: they contribute to the very fabric of the novel.
Tides of War is a panoramic snapshot of a troubled and troubling instant. It depicts a world on the brink of change, malleable to the determination of inventors and financiers, emerging from the cauldron of a Europe-wide war. As it must have appeared to its contemporaries, this is a much more unsettling vision than that served up in Heyer's novels or a glut of Austen adaptations.
That Tillyard has researched deeply and uses her material with relish is, in her first novel, simultaneously both her strength and her weakness. For the prominence of such incursions of "real" history, and the vividness of its presentation, cast into shadow the novel's central fictional goings-on: the story of newlyweds Harriet Raven and her soldier husband James.
Harriet is a free spirit – a young woman of appealingly unorthodox appearance, with an interest in chemistry and a facility for Shakespearean quotations. James is a broad back destined to wear regimentals. So far, so Heyer. But whereas Heyer's unconventional heroines leap from the page, Harriet is oddly uninvolving. As Tillyard herself comments, "Why did she seem to disappear... just when he needed her most; why was there no seabed within her, no plateau on which he could rest?" Both Harriet and James are too insubstantial to carry a narrative as wide-ranging as Tillyard's, and the laurels of Tides of War fall to fictionalisations of real people – Kitty, Lady Wellington, and Nathan Rothschild.
Ultimately this may be unimportant. Tides of War is elegantly written, with passages of verve and, on occasion, poignancy. It is not on a par with Tillyard's works of biography, but it is only a beginning. Another historical novel is on its way.
Matthew Dennison's 'Empress of Rome: the life of Livia' is published by Quercus
Game of Thrones
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Huawei Mate S and Huawei Watch: new products take on iPhone 6 Plus and Apple Watch
- 2 More than 11,000 Icelanders offer to house Syrian refugees to help European crisis
- 3 If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
- 4 Senior British politicians tell David Cameron: When dead children are being washed up on beaches – it's time to act
- 5 Make your voice heard: Sign The Independent's petition to welcome refugees
The real reason Eddie Redmayne was cast as a trans woman in The Danish Girl
Idris Elba is ‘too street’ to play 007, says James Bond author
This little boy loves books so much that he cries when his mother stops reading to him
Akram Khan: Choreographer says dance is 'as important as maths and being a doctor'
Idris Elba responds to comments he's 'too street' to play James Bond as 007 author apologises for controversial comment
Climate change: 2015 will be the hottest year on record 'by a mile', experts say
Senior British politicians tell David Cameron: When dead children are being washed up on beaches – it's time to act
Jeremy Corbyn calls Osama bin Laden's killing a 'tragedy' - but was it taken out of context?
If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
If you're not already angry about the refugee crisis, here's a history lesson to remind you why you really should be
Theresa May says migrants should be banned from entering the UK unless they have jobs lined up