Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A Soldier's Wife (Book #45)

Here's a story for you: A little over 200 years ago, a beautiful young lady, petite and vivacious, the toast of her society, falls in love with a coltishly handsome young officer, and he with her. They seem well-matched, sharing a love for music and reading in addition to the more basic attractions of youth and good looks. But when our hero asks for permission to marry his love, her family turns him down. Though his family is as noble as hers, they're in dire financial straits and have a bad reputation, and he's a younger son with no prospects of inheriting a fortune and no accomplishments to suggest he's capable of earning one for himself.

Chastened and stung by this rejection, our hero goes off and devotes himself to his military career. He succeeds brilliantly, showing himself possessed of exceptional courage, intelligence, and integrity. He makes a name for himself, wins a fortune, and comes home a find that the sweetheart of his youth is still unwed and hasn't forgotten him. And so they marry.

All of which sounds lovely and romantic--remarkably similar to Persuasion, in fact. Only this is Persuasion done as domestic tragedy. Because by the time our hero and heroine marry, they haven't had any direct contact with each other for a decade (her family having forbidden them to correspond), and ten years changes people. Our hero isn't the cheerful, playful boy he once was--he's driven and hard-driving, devoted to duty and country above personal ties, a meticulous perfectionist who's impatient with the failings of others. Our heroine, in the meantime, has lost much of her youthful confidence, which isn't too surprising--being a single 30-something woman 200 years ago didn't exactly build one's self-esteem. And while she's far from stupid, she can't match her new husband's experience of the world, nor his ruthless, practical intelligence. Their marriage gets off to a bad start and never recovers.

The hero and heroine of this little tragedy are Arthur Wellesley and Kitty Pakenham, the first Duke and Duchess of Wellington, and A Soldier's Wife: Wellington's Marriage (Joan Wilson, 1987) tells their story. Reading it saddened me, which sounds silly--why should I care that two long-dead aristocrats had a bad marriage? But they're so human and sympathetic when you plunge into their lives, reading their letters and her diaries. They were both good people, and it's so easy to imagine them each happily married to someone else. I'm sure it's the author in me, but I wanted to wade into the book and save them from themselves and each other! For what it's worth, I hold him more to blame than her simply because as the man (and, for that matter, as the National Hero), he was the one with power and agency. If he'd been more merciful, more understanding, more forgiving, she would've met him more than halfway. But I came out of this book liking both of them, and that's the problem! I want to give them Happily Ever Afters, dang it! Silly unalterable timeline, messing with my desire to fix the past...

(Which gives a hint of why I'm writing an alternative history. I can't stop wanting to fix the past, and at least in my books I can pretend to. Of course, my WIP is on a grander scale, with the fates of nations at stake--but maybe I can fix/prevent some bad marriages along the way!)

Anyway, I'd recommend this book even to Regency readers and writers who don't share my Wellington mania because there's such a wealth of detail about the everyday life of the British (and especially Anglo-Irish) aristocracy from 1790-1815. There are shopping lists, dinner menus, accounts of parties, details of nursery furnishings for a new baby--"Mahogany Crib-bedstead, pillars to screw out...and enclosed with mahogany sides and best brass socket casters...a set of dimity curtains, two fine blankets, a marella quilt and two mattresses of the best curled hair." (I have no idea what material/design "marella" is. Anyone? And is "best curled hair" human hair? If so, ewww!)

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