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Don't Know Much About History? Read A Romance

Napoleon Bonaparte flees the field of Waterloo, June 18, 1815.
Alfredo Dagli Orti
The Art Archive
Napoleon Bonaparte flees the field of Waterloo, June 18, 1815.

Pick up a romance novel and you'll often get more than just a pleasant read – many fans of historical romance say their favorite books have given them a new grounding in history and geography by bringing long-lost people and places to life.

So I'd hazard a guess that few Americans under the age of 30 know much about Napoleon Bonaparte, beyond the fact that he was short and had a complex, unless they study history — or read romance.

But Napoleon was possibly the single most influential person in Europe during the early years of the 19th century, a man who came close to subjugating the entire continent — until he met his final defeat at the battle of Waterloo, exactly 200 years ago today.

And of course, the Battle of Waterloo forms a powerful backdrop to many Regency romances — so I thought I'd check in with some fabulous Regency authors and see how they felt this pivotal historical event affected the romance genre.

Loretta Chase

Like a great many other writers who started in the traditional Regency genre, I was acutely conscious of the Napoleonic Wars in general (inspiration for all manner of spy stories) and Waterloo in particular. I've read about the battle, in detail, many times, and I always end up crying, as I do usually when studying any battle anywhere, for all that's lost, on both the winning and the losing sides.

Waterloo is probably the one single historical event that gave me a visceral understanding of heroism — the men forming their squares and filling in the gaps as their fellows were cut down; the men defending Hougoumont. Images form in my mind's eye of men falling in battle, and of the ugly aftermath which has been described time and again, and of the Duke of Wellington's grief. I think these images are at work, somewhere in the back of my mind, whenever I'm thinking about bravery and heroic behavior (of men and women), and that remarkable British sang-froid.

This notion of courage has fed into my characters, whether Waterloo is relevant to the story or not. But I did use Waterloo directly at least once, creating a hero suffering from PTSD, in Miss Wonderful. I think any writer who's spent time learning about Wellington, or who's studied the battle in any way must absorb and be inspired by a deep understanding of the bravery and desperation and hellishness of that long day.

Sabrina Jeffries

Everything I know about the personal cost of Waterloo, I learned from Regency-set historical romances. Tales of wounded heroes finding love in the bleak aftermath of that battle were always more compelling to me than a dry history book describing the strategies of the campaign. And in reality, there were lots of wounded to go around — 10,000 from that battle alone.

Regency historicals are filled with heroes disabled both physically and psychologically by the horrors of that battle, of heroines who lost brothers, husbands, fathers, and cousins, coping with a very different landscape than the one they were taught to navigate in.

One of my favorite romances, Amanda Quick's Surrender, has a hero who lay for hours on the battlefield, wounded and unable to move, while human vultures looted the bodies of the dead. Regency historicals often make powerful statements about the cost of war, but in the end it's the stories of love triumphing over the horrors that stay with me.

Katharine Ashe

War veterans are a staple of romance, and in historical romance no other battle figures more prominently than Waterloo. The great battle hardens some heroes, honing their strengths and preparing them for the challenges that civilian life might throw at them (including the love of a feisty heroine). Vanessa Kelly's How to Plan a Wedding for a Royal Spy, which features a military intelligence officer, begins on the battlefield just after the French are routed, setting him up him to rout other villains back home.

Waterloo damages other fictional heroes, leaving them with emotional and physical scars that they carry into new sorts of combat at home (with the help of a feisty heroine). The hero in Caroline Linden's It Takes a Scandal heads off to war for glory and adventure but is wounded at Waterloo and returns home to face the devastation of his family and estate.

But Waterloo isn't always relegated to backstory. Romance novelists don't often throw heroes and heroines onto the fields of actual battles, but some of the genre's greatest writers have done so with Waterloo, to spectacular effect. Mary Jo Putney's Shattered Rainbows reveals the brittle glitter of the weeks before the battle, as officers and their wives in Brussels danced at balls up to the very eve of the fight, and also includes a thrilling description of the actual battle. The mother of the Regency sub-genre, Georgette Heyer, wrote such a fine treatment of the battle in An Infamous Army that it ended up on a reading list for students at Sandhurst, the British military academy.

In a snippet of dialogue between two officers in the midst of the fighting, Heyer sums up the glory, the horror, and the human reality of Waterloo:

Honor, sacrifice, heroism, love that triumphs despite all: This is the stuff of wonderful historical romance. Epically huge and dramatic, Waterloo is the fiery inferno out of which great romance heroes stride, changed profoundly, but ultimately for the best.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bobbi Dumas
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