When Brigade-Major Harry Smith met the beautiful Juana María, an instant spark formed between the two fiery, energetic souls. The two fell deeply in love with one another from the first moment and the Spanish bride accompanied him throughout all his campaigns, where she rode freely among the troops. The intensity of their marriage is made all the more gripping as it is played out against the Peninsular War of Napoleon versus Wellington.
The Spanish Bride is both an endearing true love story and a detailed account of Wellington’s battles and strategies, which Heyer studied intensely for this unforgettable novel.
Rating: B+ for narration; B- for content
Although Georgette Heyer is principally known for writing a large number of sparkling Regency Romances and Comedies of Manners, she also wrote a number of mysteries and several books of historical fiction based on real events. One of the best known of these is An Infamous Army which is said to include some of the most well-researched descriptions of the Battle of Waterloo, and which, as a result, is (or was) a set text at Sandhurst! The Spanish Bride is in a similar vein, although whereas in Army the principal characters are fictional, Brigade-Major Harry Smith and his young bride Juana actually existed, as did the other characters in the book. This is one of the few of Georgette Heyer’s novels that I haven’t yet read, so I came to it without really knowing much about the story, other than that it’s very firmly based in fact, and that much of the dialogue and detail about the events within are taken directly from Harry Smith’s autobiography.
The story quickly introduces Harry – brash, young, impetuous but a superb soldier and leader of men, one of those who yells “Come on!” to his men and fights at their side rather than an officer who sits back and lets them get on with it. He’s already acquired a reputation for being indestructible – he’s escaped so many battles relatively unscathed that he’s practically a legend.
Shortly after the siege and fall of Badajoz, he and a fellow officer are approached by a Spanish noblewoman who asks for their protection for her younger sister, Juana, who is just fourteen. Immediately struck by her beauty, Harry is smitten and insists on marrying her as it’s the only way he can keep her safe. Juana only has eyes for Harry, too, and the pair is quickly married, to the astonishment – and against the advice – of many of Harry’s friends and colleagues.
The story then follows Harry and Juana as they advance through Spain and France (and later spend time apart as Harry travels to fight in America) as part of Wellington’s forces, while at the same time adjusting to their new lives as a married couple. Both are stubborn and hot-tempered, so this naturally leads to many loud and passionate disagreements, but there is also real affection and understanding between them. Juana was brought up in a convent, but even so, she shows no fear at the prospect of a challenging life following the drum. In fact, she throws herself into it wholeheartedly, accepting that Harry must always put his duties first, and very quickly becoming part of the regiment, riding along with the men and making herself known and useful to them – whether it’s by tending to ailments and wounds or listening to their tales of home and family.
The listener’s reaction to The Spanish Bride is largely going to depend on what one is expecting to hear. If you’re looking for one of Ms Heyer’s scintillating romantic comedies, then you might be disappointed. But if you’re prepared for a piece of well-written, well-researched biographical fiction, then it’s an enjoyable listen. The author’s descriptions of the day-to-day life of the soldiers on campaign in the Peninsula are detailed and unvarnished. The men gripe about the lack of decent food and supplies and the incompetence of some of their leaders while the interactions between Harry and Juana are by turns poignant, funny, tender and fiery. Their relationship remains strong even under the most difficult of circumstances – whether on lengthy arduous marches or when fleeing the enemy at a moment’s notice.
The scenes in which the couple takes centre stage are the highlights of the story and really bring it to life. I also enjoyed listening to Harry and his comrades as they share their experiences of battle, and, in their downtime, regale each other with stories and much good-natured banter. I will confess, however, that I did glaze over a bit when it came to the intricate details of battle-planning and troop movements.
I can imagine that one stumbling block for the contemporary listener is the fact that Juana is just fourteen when she is married. Although it was much less common for girls that young to marry in the nineteenth century, the practice clearly hadn’t died out and the marriage was legal. And while all we get on the page are a few kisses, it’s clear that Juana is Harry’s wife in all senses of the word. Personally, I didn’t find this to be an issue – partly, perhaps because her age is a matter of historical record; but mostly because the audiobook utilises a male narrator who, while he does portray Juana very well, is obviously not female and doesn’t try to sound like a teenaged girl. This provides some sense of distance, which was sufficient to allow me to forget the fact of Juana’s youth.
David Collins isn’t a narrator with whom I’m familiar, but Naxos AudioBooks has a great track-record in matching books to narrators, so I was fairly confident I’d enjoy listening to him – and I did. There are a large number of male characters in the book, but he differentiates well between Harry and his many comrades – Eeles, Kinkaid, West, Beckwith and the dandyesque Cadoux, whose affected drawl belies a courageous and accomplished soldier. A large number of secondary characters pop in and out throughout the story, and while I can’t say with accuracy that Mr Collins vocalises every single one of them differently, he does differentiate very effectively in scenes which feature groups of officers and men, so the listener is able to discern between characters. I was delighted to discover that Mr Collins is adept at delivering the frequent quick-fire Spanish and French that peppers the text; I couldn’t fault his pronunciation of either. He frequently employs a variety of British regional accents to depict the various rank-and-file soldiers throughout the story, and once again, he is excellent.
He delivers the narrative with a great deal of expression and nuance, and is especially good at injecting a sense of urgency into the battle scenes and at conveying the camaraderie that exists between Harry and his friends.
Awarding a grade for the content for this book proved difficult, because while I can hear that it’s well-researched and beautifully written, with Ms Heyer’s characteristic eye for detail and ability to write engaging characters, I also found there were chunks of the story where I zoned out. That’s in no part due to the performance, which is very good – I’m just not particularly interested in military tactics, and those were the parts I found most difficult to concentrate on. I ended up giving The Spanish Bride a B grade overall; the story and writing are certainly above average, yet my own personal preferences make it difficult to rate the content higher than a B-. The narration, on the other hand, is very strong. I’d love to hear Mr Collins narrate some of Heyer’s more traditional romances – Frederica or The Quiet Gentleman, perhaps – as I’m sure he’d be a perfect fit.