Tides of War

  • Stella Tillyard
  • Henry Holt and Co.
  • 368 pp.

A novel of military duty, marital separation and the march of mechanization in Regency England, against a backdrop of the Napoleonic wars.

Reviewed by Gary Knight

Given the cover art and synopsis, I expected Tides of War to be akin to Bernard Cornwall’s exemplary Richard Sharpe series centered on the Peninsula campaigns of the Napoleonic wars. But it wasn’t. Stella Tillyard’s yarn simply uses the backdrop of Wellington’s military efforts against the French on the Iberian Peninsula to paint an exquisite picture of life in Britain’s Regency period, both on the home front and in the field.

The opening chapters concern the nascent relationship between Captain James Raven and Harriet Guest, daughter of a renowned scientist and a woman who seems to be out of place by two centuries. (Her interests are science, technology and experiments, not family and social matters.) Not long after their marriage, he is sent to Spain to join Wellington’s army fighting the French. Both Harriet and the reader are left hanging as the author takes us to war.

After following James’ every thought and whim for almost two chapters, Tillyard abruptly abandons his point of view for that of his manservant, to whom we were introduced a mere few pages before! Perhaps she is sparing us from witnessing our vaunted hero’s engaging in the atrocities of war, showing instead the servant’s bayoneting of a fleeing enemy and his participation in the rape of an apparent virgin.

Tillyard, a British author and historian, is best known for her biography Aristocrats: Caroline, Emily, Louisa and Sarah Lennox, 1740-1832, which was made into a BBC miniseries in 1999.  After writing half a dozen history treatises about England, Tillyard comments on the difficulties of writing historical fiction: “No writer (including the professional historian) can ever really get beyond the envelope of self. ... Are historians providing the master narratives of our times and historical novelists merely tinkering around the edges?”

In her present work, Tillyard interweaves the lives of James and Harriet Raven; Capt. David McBride, friend of James and company surgeon who is a pioneer in the use of blood transfusions on the battlefield; Lord and Lady Wellington; Major George and Dorothy Yallop, also of James’ unit; Nathan Rothschild of the family banking and financial organization of that name that essentially funded the British military activities on the continent; John Herries, the head of the army’s commissary department; and Frederick Windsor, late of Germany, who developed municipal gas-lighting that transformed the urban environment of Regency England, and with whom Harriet has a brief affair. Especially interesting is Tillyard’s description of the daily life of Lady Wellington, unusual in that attention is typically focused on the brilliance of her famous and formidable husband, a serial philanderer.

The author clearly depicts class differences and the chauvinistic and seemingly condescending attitude of men toward the ladies in the Victorian era. Her story skillfully melds the imperatives of the military lifestyle (with its attendant marital separations) with the ongoing march of an increasingly mechanized society, wherein soldiers home from the battlefront must work in industrial sweatshops because home-based craft shops have become obsolescent. For example, Capt. Raven’s manservant, a skilled weaver, is forced to work in a large and inhuman spinning mill upon his return from war.

Tides of War pictures two women — Lady Wellington and Harriet Raven — who chafe at the bit their society imposes. Each finds her own way out of this yoke. Lady Wellington invests her “pin money,” becomes independently wealthy and takes a young lover. Harriet Raven has an affair with a technical genius. She marries her husband’s best friend after her husband is killed at Waterloo.

Tillyard pens an interesting and compelling novel, but a wartime-adventure read it is not!

Gary Knight has been a writer/tutor for 12 years, following a 25-year career in lobbying and politics. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy with a graduate degree from American University, he served three terms on the Falls Church City Council while raising two talented daughters. He now lives on the Chesapeake Bay with his wife, Brenda, and their two orange tabbies.

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