Editorial February 2003 The Spanish Bride: Truth & Fiction By Wesley Williamson
I am a devotee of all of the works of Georgette Heyer, particularly her historical and Regency romances, most of which I have read and re-read regularly over the years. I especially enjoy The Spanish Bride, set during that most interesting period, the Peninsular War, when the Duke of Wellington was pitted against Napoleon's forces in Spain. It is a particular favorite of mine because its hero and heroine, Harry Smith and his wife Juana, are more complex and fascinating individuals, and live even more dangerous and adventurous lives than any of the other characters Heyer has invented for her books.
I was aware, of course, that both were real people, who lived and who acted at least in some part as described in the book, since Heyer quotes passages from many of their contemporaries, such as Kincaid and Simmons, who kept and published diaries. And of course the town of Ladysmith in South Africa, scene of the famous siege of the Boer War, is named after Juana. Heyer also quotes from Sir Harry Smith's own autobiography, but I was never able to get sight of a copy of this work until very recently, when my browsing through the Internet turned up The Autobiography of Harry Smith.
I was astonished to find that every incident of The Spanish Bride is not only based in fact, but is solid fact and not fiction at all. Indeed, it is understated rather than exaggerated. Even much of the dialogue is taken almost verbatim from either the autobiography or the diarists. Heyer has done a masterful job in weaving the history of Wellington's campaigns together with the intimate daily lives of his soldiers including particularly of course Harry, Juana, and their friends.
Harry Smith was born in the Parish of Whittlesea in the year 1787, one of eleven children, six sons and five daughters of a country parson.. At sixteen years of age, he joined a troop of Yeomanry Cavalry, and then took part in the ill-fated attacks on Monte Video and Buenos Ayres. He suffered a severe fever and dysentery, and owed his life to the Spanish family in whose house he was billeted.
Returning home, he had barely time to recover before being sent to Sweden with Sir John Moore, and then with him to Portugal, taking part in the disastrous retreat, and the successful battle of Corunna where Sir John Moore died. After two months at home, Harry had recovered enough to join the Duke's army at Lisbon, and to take part in the campaign culminating in the rebuff of Soult's army at the Lines of Torres Vedras, the pursuit into Spain, and then the siege of Badajoz.
There, even after a practicable breach had been made, the French refused to give up, and Wellington's army suffered enormous and unnecessary losses. In accordance with the rules of war, the city could be sacked, and Wellington did not hold back his troops. Harry and Kincaid were waiting at his tent rather impatiently for him to curb the troops' excesses, when two veiled ladies came from Badajoz seeking protection. The elder of the two sisters pointed to where the blood was still trickling down their necks, caused by the wrenching of their earrings through the flesh. Harry then quotes from Kincaid's diary - 'to look at her was to love her; and I did love her, but I never told my love, and in the mean time another and a more impudent fellow stepped in and won her!'
Harry was only twenty-two. Juana was almost fourteen, but she had been in three sieges of her native city: In one, her wounded brother died in her arms. She was educated in a convent, and was a lineal descendent of Ponce de Leon. Her full name was Juana Maria de Los Dolores de Leon. Harry says of her - 'this dear child (for she was little more than a child at this moment), one with a sense of honour no knight ever exceeded in the most romantic days of chivalry, an understanding superior to her years, a masculine mind with a force of character no consideration could turn from her own just sense of rectitude, and all encased in a frame of Nature's fairest and most delicate moulding, the figure of an angel, with an eye of light and an expression which then inspired me with a maddening love which, has not changed from that period to this (now thirty-three years).'
Their marriage was by no means dull; both had violent tempers and very little inclination to submit to restraint. Juana was determined to ride one of Harry's horses, Tiny, and fought him constantly until he agreed. Harry, on the other hand, rather like his commander the Duke of Wellington, could not resist flirting with pretty girls, which caused many pitched battles. One incident is of particular interest.
Harry had a long dream, its purport that 'the enemy had attacked my father's house (the front of which opened to the street, the back into a beautiful garden, by what we children called "The Black Door"). My father had my mother in his arms; I never felt so oppressed in my life, so vividly was depicted to my mind the scene described, and I took out of my pocket a little roster of duties and picquets bound in calf-skin, and noted down the hour and particulars of my dream. In a few days I received a letter from my afflicted father, telling me my mother died on Sunday morning, Dec. 12, at one o'clock, at the very moment I cried out.'
Harry was very much affected, and for a long time could not be comforted, until, quoting from Heyer 'Harry found her crying once, and stopped dead upon the threshold. 'Hija!' She started up, trying to hide her face, stammering: 'The toothache! It is nothing! ' He came across the room, not slowly as though he were worn out, but with his own quick tread. 'My darling! What is it? 'She said: 'Enrique, I have lost father and mother, and my brother died of wounds in my arms. You still have your home and your father left. I - I live alone for you, my all! '
It is interesting how Heyer seizes the essential last paragraph, which is a direct quote from the autobiography, and arranges it in her own descriptive passages which lend it greater emphasis. Heyer's novel continues until the end of the war with Napoleon, and Harry's voyage to the war in America, leaving Juana in London to learn some English, as was her wish before meeting Harry's family. He returns safely, and both, having decided never to be separated again, travel together to Belgium and the battle of Waterloo - which is by the way the setting of another of Heyer's historicals, An Infamous Army.
Harry Smith was writing in an earlier age with a different culture and different attitudes from ours, so parts of his writing are somewhat turgid. However with a little judicious skimming, The Autobiography of Harry Smith is a most interesting read, particularly in conjunction with The Spanish Bride. It opened new doors for me, and I heartily recommend both books to all lovers of history, romance, and adventure, to strengthen their well-based belief that ... Truth can indeed be stranger than Fiction.
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