Friday, August 29, 2008
An Infamous Army is the story of General Wellington's successful routing of Napoleon Bonaparte in the battle of Waterloo. As Napoleon's troops make their way towards Brussels, General Wellington is having trouble obtaining solid and trained soldiers and enough ammunition and artillery to fight the battle successfully. Beloved by his forces, Wellington must direct and marshal the tactical forces over the countryside in order to overtake the French forces. In addition to those problems, he is working with various other military leaders and troops not under his command, and the effort to create a unified front is one of the major problems in this battle. The mood in Brussels, however, is one of excitement and merriment, as many of the English gentry are visiting Brussels, and fete's and dinners are the order of the day. Of the party going set, the most illustrious is the Lady Barbara Childe. Barbara, a young widow, is flamboyantly fashionable and out to take the city by storm. Both glamorous and ostentatious, Lady Barbara has her pick of men among the crowd, and is never without an admirer. Her bold behavior and extravagant flirting keep her name constantly on the lips of those around her. But Lady Barbara is not prepared for her unexpected feelings for Colonel Charles Audley, whom she meets at a party. Audley too is quite smitten with Barbara, and instantly proposes marriage, a situation which shocks and stuns their social set. Can Barabara put away her coquettish ways for Audley and make herself a true and devoted wife? As these questions loom, Napoleon advances, and the battle begins in all it's bloody glory. When all is said and done, many will be lost and injured, and all must look to the future in their newly changed circumstances, including Audley and Lady Barbara.
Normally, I love historical fiction. I enjoy the enlightenment of discovering little known details surrounding historical events, and the glimpse into the lives of characters who have changed the course of history, even when they are slightly embellished. However, this book was not very enjoyable. The amount of detail, while impressive, was overwhelming. Some of the military tactical information and battle scenes seemed to go on forever, and the jump back to the events surrounding Barbara and Audley seemed too few and far between. I also disliked the minutia of the details. For example, there was a lot of information on the various colors and styles of the uniforms of the soldiers, which divisions had been deployed, and who was leading them. It was almost like reading a roster of names... very dry and lackluster. While I appreciate the amount of research that went into this account of Waterloo, it was very uninteresting and leaden. Perhaps if one were reading this as a history book, it would have been different, but I believe that the inclusion of the story of Barbara and Audley failed at the attempt to elevate this book into the realms of historical fiction. They seemed an afterthought, something pushed in to give the story some flavor to a rather dull military procedural. The book's tone was one of instruction, and rather than being interesting, it was instead informative.
I also disliked Lady Barbara. I don't believe that in order to be a complex character you have to be cruel, but that's exactly what Lady Barbara was. She was very spoiled and recalcitrant, always pushing the boundaries of propriety just because she liked to make a spectacle of herself. Many times in the book she admitted to being an intolerable vixen, yet she shrugged it off and claimed that her behavior was something she enjoyed and would continue. If she had not made other's so uncomfortable and ill at ease I could have accepted that. However, she seemed to enjoy playing one man off another and disappointing her friends and family. In one scene she specifically begins to take interest in a man in order to take revenge on his wife for a small social slight. I found this to be repulsive and ill-bred. It was almost unbelievable that Colonel Audley felt so strongly for her, because he was the most gentlemanly and kind person in the book. I found them to be a bad match, and an implausible one as well. Barbara spent the book flitting off from one flirtation to the next, dropping each one as her interest waned. I did not believe that her behavior would change after circumstances were altered. She seemed flighty and her serious emotions were not believable, and I had no patience for her or her antics by the end of the book. I lost a little respect for Audley's character for being so blind to her shenanigans, and felt this portion of the book to be highly vexing.
Although I didn't enjoy this book very much, I can see that it has its importance. Looking at it from a historical perspective, it is quite an accomplishment. The stellar research and the author's ability to keep all the specific information clear and well paced might be more appreciated by some who are fond of military history. Had the story been less focused on the battle and more focused on the periphery I would have enjoyed it more, and been better able to recommend it. As it was, this book was not really to my taste.