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Napoleonic Days

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Historical fiction has never been more popular, with more people than ever enjoying reading it. Peter writes the kind of novels he likes to read - adventure stories with plenty of historical fact, peopled by believable characters, with a touch of humour and maybe even a little romance! Here are some recommendations, classics and less well known works, for like-minded souls to consider.

DEATH TO THE FRENCH by CS Forester (1933)

Known in the USA as "Rifleman Dodd" this exciting story is set during the Peninsular War, as a lone British soldier fights the French with the aid of the local Portuguese peasants. Renowned for his "Hornblower" series of novels set at sea, Forester skilfully catches the drama of the land-based action which has intrigued writers for two hundred years (Bernard Cornwell has acknowledged the influence of this novel on his Sharpe series and even name-checks Dodd!). It adds to the quality of the writing that the story is also told from the point of view of the French.

TIDES OF WAR by Stella Tillyard (2011)

In part set during the Peninsular War, this intriguing novel also focuses on life back in London. The strictly military matters are well dealt with but Tillyard also investigates such aspects as finance, medicine and scientific innovation. As well as the fictional characters we meet real-life figures such as Kitty Wellington and Nathan Rothschild as the story cleverly balances the two storylines.

THE BLOODING OF JACK ABSOLUTE by CC Humphreys (2006)

From an earlier redcoat era, this is a prequel, but effectively the first of the entertaining Jack Absolute series. There is a lovely stew of espionage, swashbuckling, romance and intrigue. The settings here include London, Bath, Rome and Canada. Interestingly Humphreys involves "Genteman Johnny" Burgoyne, real-life father of Royal Engineer John Fox Burgoyne who features in the Ties of Blood novels.

THE TIME OF TERROR by Seth Hunter (2008)

This is the first of Hunter's series featuring half-American Royal Navy officer Nathan Peake. As suggested by the title we are in 1793 and our hero becomes involved in the complex and bloody goings-on in Paris and elsewhere. A plot involving forged French banknotes, the Parisian catacombs, London politics, romance and some great sea action rattles along enjoyably. Hunter has a real knack for telling a good tale while bringing to the forefront many of the real-life figures of the time.

THE SIEGE by Arturo Perez Reverte (2010)

Reverte is a really interesting writer. A former journalist he produces excellent contemporary thrillers (try "The Seville Communion") but he is also a fine hand as a historical novelist. This title is set during the Napoleonic Wars as Cadiz lies under siege by the French. Within the city a serial killer is at work. The plot involes a dashing corsair captain, a beautiful heiress, a dodgy policeman, a French gunner and, er, a taxidermist.

BIRDSONG by Sebastian Faulks (1993)

This is a wonderful book. The action takes place before and during the First World War. Hero Stephen Wraysford is put through the wringer both in his love-life and through his experiences in the trenches. The writing is both gripping and tender. Ties of Blood hero, Royal Engineer Tom Herryck, would recognise the horrors of mining so brilliantly evoked here. Highly recommended.

THE DEVIL'S OWN LUCK by David Donachie (1991)

Introducing the Ludlow brothers (one an ex-Royal Navy captain turned privateer, the other an artist) this Nelson-era tale is part seafaring adventure, part Georgian whodunnit. The novel paints a persuasive picture of life onboard ship, with plenty of wardroom politics. There are several enjoyable novels in this series and the prolific Donachie has penned other naval sagas including a sreies baed on Nelson himself.

MONTENEGRO by Starling Lawrence (1996)

Lots of pre-WW1 politics in this Balkans-set page-turner, but it features romance, adventure and properly complex relationships. Ostensibly an amateur scientist, the gentleman hero is effectively an amateur spy and gets himself into a number of interesting adventures. Hemingway meets Buchan, anyone?

GOSHAWK SQUADRON by Derek Robinson (1971)

Another novel set in the First World War, this story focuses on the war in the air - fought by the "knights of the sky" as the young pilots were over-romantically known. There is a rich vein of treacle-dark humour as the cynical, 23-year old CO tries to disabuse his junior charges of any notion of finding chivalry or glory in the lethal conflict in the clouds. The action is wonderfully believable and the dialogue is a joy.

FOUR DAYS IN JUNE by Iain Gale (2006)

Gale has written a number of "redcoat" novels but this is my favourite by far. He tackles the Waterloo story through the experiences of five of the more famous real-life characters who were present at the battle, offering a range of viewpoints on the course of the battles. Including the Prussian experience, it is a worthy attempt at telling something of the whole story rather than the experience of just one army or another.

RESTORATION by Rose Tremain (1990)

Set at the court of Charles II, this story chronicles the attempts of medical student Robert Merivel to find favour with the monarch.  Rewared by wealth and a knighthood he makes the mistake of falling in love with the king's mistress. He finds he must sink very low before he can hope for restoration of his own. At the same time dark and amusing, this is  enjoyable not least for the portrait of Charles as a complex, tricky individual removed from the usual "Merry Monarch" image.

THE SIEGE OF KRISHNAPUR by JG Farrell (1973)

That rare breed - a readable Booker Prize winner! Set in a fictitious town (perhaps inspired by Cawnpore and Lucknow) during the Indian Mutiny, the story shows how life changes for the British community as the siege begins to bite. The Europeans are obliged to question their certainties and the results are both amusing and moving. Full of wit, the tale has plenty of solid history and politics, action, romance, sympathetic characters and enjoyable plotting. This is part of a loosely connected imperial trilogy together with "Troubles" and "The Singapore Grip". 

FAIR STOOD THE WIND FOR FRANCE by HE Bates (1944)

Bates is probably best known for the delightful "Darling Buds of May", but this is a little different.  The story follows the fate of the crew of a Wellinton bomber forced to crash-land in France after a raid on enemy territory in Italy. Franklin, the pilot, is injured and is forced to remain, falling in love with the daughter of the farmer who is hiding him. Eventually a plan is formed to try to make the perilous journey through Vichy France to neutral Spain. Excellent detail, finely drawn characters and a nice balance between romance and adventure.

LONESOME DOVE by Larry McMurtry (1985)

This is a big, wonderful western (made into an excellent tv mini series). Set in the 1880s, the 800 hunded-odd page novel features a cattle drive from the Rio Grande to distant Montana. Along the way we get bandits, gambling, gunfights, hangings, horse-stealing, kidnapping, romance, stampedes - all of this with a huge cast of characters. At the heart of the novel is the relationship of former Texas Rangers Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call, one an incurable romantic the other a driven pragmatist.

THE RESCUE MAN by Anthony Quinn (2009)

Moving and beautifully written, this is the story of Tom Baines, working as an architectual historian in Liverpool as the German bombers target the city in 1939. Baines becomes a rescue man, trying to pull wounded and buried people out from wrecked buildings. A second strand to the story involves Baines' interest in the work of a mysterious architect in the city's Victorian heyday. The two weave together satisfyingly against a backdrop of bravery, friendship, passion and betrayal.

PERSUASION by Jane Austen (1818)

Not necessarily an obvious choice for a consumer of adventure fiction, but there is much to love in Austen's last complete novel. Full of the usual wit and sharp observation, the story is very much tied up with the war which had been fought for much of the author's life. Her brothers served in the navy or militia, so she was well aware what went on beyond the drawing room curtains. Sailor's prize money is very much a part of this wonderful Cinderella story!

VANITY FAIR by William Makepeace Thackeray (1848)

Again a story which has the Napoleonic Wars as its background - one of the classic Waterloo novels! Becky Sharp is among the all-time great female leads (wouldn't dream of calling her a heroine). From disreputable beginnings, Becky wages a brilliant campaign to better herself (generally at the expense of others!). Blessed with beauty, wit and enterprise, but no fortune, her single-minded quest for betterment is engagingly bold for a Regency miss in a novel written in Victorian times. Great fun.

SEVEN MEN OF GASCONY by RF Delderfield (1949)

This is the Napoleonic Wars told from the point of view of the French - or particularly the soldiers of the title. There are any number of the great names featured, but the essence of the novel is to give a vivid picture of the lives of ordinary men in the Grande Armee as they experience both victory and defeat, from the Peninsula to Waterloo. It is neatly structured and stands up well for the modern reader.

THE COMPLETE BRIGADIER GERARD by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1894)

Another set of stories from the French perspective - by the author of Sherlock Holmes, no less! In his way, Gerard is just as delightful and memorable a creation as the great detective. There is plenty of good historical background - certainly swashbuckling and romance - but, above all there is a delicious sense of humour. Part Dumas, part Tolstoy, part PG Wodehouse - perhaps the nearest "hero" to Gerard would be Macdonald Fraser's peerless Harry Flashman.

AN ACT OF COURAGE by Allan Mallinson (2005)

Appearing midway through the series of Matthew Hervey post-Napoleonic cavalry novels, this story is set during the little-known British involvement in the Portuguese civil war of the 1820s, with flashbacks to the hero's youthful involvement in the Peninsular Wars. Mallinson, a former senior army officer, really knows his cavalry business and, if his characters sometimes appear a little stiff, the post-1815 settings are interesting and well-researched, while the insights into regimental life are illuminating.

THE SPANISH BRIDE by Georgette Heyer (1940)

Heyer was a hugely popular writer of historical romances. This one is set during and after the horrific siege of Badajoz in Spain and focuses on the true story of the dashing rifleman Harry Smith rescuiing the beautiful young Spanish girl, Juana. The style might be a bit frothy for some tastes but Heyer's grasp of historical fact is very good, to the extent that this and her Waterloo novel were set texts for the cadets at Sandhurst military academy!

GOSSIP FROM THE FOREST by Thomas Keneally (1975)

Kenally later won the Booker Prize for "Schindler's Ark" but this fine and unusual novel concerns the 1918 negotiation to bring about an armistice. The war has ground on for four long years, with millions lost and nations brought to their knees, and a group of old men wrangle over the terms of the inevitable German surrender. Set in a railway carriage parked in a forest north of Paris, the negotiators argue and talk on while the guns fire away and men continue to die.

REGENERATION by Pat Barker (1991)

The first of a trilogy of the same name, the story is based on the real-life events at Craiglockart hospital in Edinburgh where the psychiatrist William Rivers is treating, among others, the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Little was known about shell-shock or its treatment. As well as real-life characters Barker introduces fictional patients, but these are closely based on actual people, often mentioned in Rivers' own notes.

EMPIRE OF SAND by Robert Ryan (2008)

Another First World War novel, but this one is set not in the trenches but in the deserts of Persia, where one Thomas Edward Lawrence dreams of ousting the Turks and creating a free Arabia. But before he can achieve his ambition of fostering an Arab revolt, he must use all his cunning to deal with a counter-plot by a dastardly German spy...

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT by Erich Maria Remarque (1929)

Absolute classic - one of the best novels about the Great War or any other conflict. Written from the German point of view (the ironic title suggests how the soldiers were forgotten at home) the story gives a very believable account of the sufferings of men at war. Significantly the Nazis banned it as "defeatist".

THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS by Erskine Childers (1903)

This remains on of the most enjoyable spy stories ever written. It is fascinating that the tale of a German plot to invade England across the North Sea was written so long before the First World War. Childers had sailed the remote waters he described and the book was intended as a warning to the British naval establishment. Ironically the writer was later shot for his devotion to the cause of Irish independence.

NOW WE SHALL BE ENTIRELY FREE by Andrew Miller (2018)

A new friend! Really good writing. Set in the beloved Peninsular War period, this starts with a broken soldier delivered more dead than alive to his West Country home. Who is he and what terrible thing has he done? Partly recovered he flees the past, going north to the Hebrides. But his history is pursuing him in the form of two men determined to deal with him. Compelling characters and excellent on the period detail and atmosphere.

THE MATHEMATICS OF LOVE by Emma Darwin (2006)

Another fine, unusual novel with a good helping of Peninsular War and Waterloo interest. Set in two times, 1819 and 1976, a bored teenager interests herself in the early 19th century owner of the house where she is staying - a man who proves to have an interesting history...

   


© Peter Youds 2018