‘What is it that you read now?’
Mrs. Cobbold gestured to the volume on Harriet’s lap.
‘Another stupid book.’ Harriet put it down. ‘First Impressions is its title; and by A Lady, as usual.’
‘It does not divert you?’
‘Divert me, Aunt! I have no wish to be diverted, though it is witty and charming. The lady authoress believes that girls think only of marriage and a husband.’
So begins a tongue-in-cheek discussion on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a book the heroine of Stella Tillyard’s historical novel Tides of War dislikes because of its seeming lack of social context. It is fitting, then, that Harriet Raven should be the heroine of a story drastically different from those written by Austen. Tillyard’s novel weaves together science and medicine, politics and war, economics and industry, religion and atheism through the interconnected lives of a large cast of characters scattered across Europe, twenty-two of which are based on real people.
Readers meet Harriet during Britain’s war with Napoleon. She is a young bride, eager to learn, but inexperienced and socially clumsy. Her husband goes off to fight under the direction of the future Duke of Wellington, and while he is away, Harriet is left to be charmed by another man. Her relationship with the inventor, Mr. Winsor, is just one of the many examples of the story’s thematic examination of sexuality and marital commitment.
Another even more moving example of this theme, is the subplot belonging to the character Thomas Orde, a British soldier fighting in Spain. Like many of the other soldiers, Orde has been schooled in the idea that “Women [are] the spoils of war,” (204). Caught up in the jubilation of victory and still reeling with the savage energy of battle, Thomas participates in the rape of a young Spanish woman. Tillyard writes, “Coming around again, Thomas saw that his left hand, loose against the stones, was closed tightly around something. He opened it out finger by finger. Flat on his palm lay a twist of black hair; more than a twist, a whole handful of hair, pliable and young. Silk-soft. He had pulled it from her scalp, and blood and flesh clung to it,” (79). Thomas attempts to rationalize what he has done, as if war gives special license for cruelty and immorality, but he is ultimately unable to suppress his conscience. Tillyard masterfully describes Thomas’s struggle to return to his old life in England under the shadow of his crime.
Rape is only one of the disastrous effects of war on women and children discussed in the novel; sickness, hunger, poverty, and loss of one’s home and family, if not death, create a situation of desperation, leaving children, the elderly, and women vulnerable while making a handful of people powerful. Reflecting on this situation, an officer named David Heaton is led to muse “War never finishes…and never will. It simply moves about the world like the ocean current that touches now one country, now another. Why? Because in the same way that a rash upon the skin is merely a symptom of a fever that rages in the body underneath, war is only the visible shape of all the forces that nature has planted in us,” (349). War’s corrupting and degrading influence on individuals and society, and the subsequent attempts to recover from it, either through confession or deception, are subjects that make this novel a fascinating commentary on the wars of any age.
Tillyard’s ability to balance so many storylines, thereby creating a sense of the grand scope of things, is impressive. This is her first sojourn into fiction after the highly successful historical biographies: Aristocrats: Caroline, Emily, Louisa, and Sarah Lennox, 1740-1832 (1994) and Royal Affair: George III and His Scandalous Siblings (2006). Unfortunately, I found her heroine unappealing. Harriet’s perspectives and values seemed more those of a twenty-first century American than of a woman of Britain’s Georgian Era, particularly her torpid religiosity and her blasé attitude about adultery. Unlike the Austen heroines whom she professes to be bored by, Harriet lacked sparkle, wit, faith, insight, creativity, and an interesting plot. She was just a privileged young lady playing at adult life.
Despite the heroine’s shortcomings, I confess Tillyard’s novel held my interest from beginning to end. The imagery—like in the scene of a Spanish bull fight—is elegant and vivid, and I loved how she incorporated unexpected historical points of interest in the story, such as the development of blood transfusions, the economic maneuverings of the famous Rothschild family, and the art of celebrated Spanish painter Goya. Her writing style is clear and even, and the scenes related to death and new beginnings are poignant. In short, Tides of War was believable and pleasurable, with the literary feel of a national saga.
4 out of 5 Stars
Tides of War, by Stella Tillyard
Henry Holt and Co. (2011)
Hardcover (368) pages
Cover image courtesy of Henry Holt and Co. © 2011; text Br. Paul Byrd, OP © 2011, Austenprose.com